Rabbi's war on tabloids unlikely to end in victory


September 07, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

GOD BLESS Rabbi Martin Siegel. The Columbia clergyman's heart was in the right place last week when he asked supermarket chains to remove tabloids from their checkout counters.

Rabbi Siegel argues, as many do, that tabloid exploitation of celebrities was responsible for Princess Diana's tragic death. He wants to remove these scandal sheets from the public's consciousness by convincing stores to hide them.

Shoppers who delight in celebrity gossip would have to search the aisles for their weekly fix, if the rabbi has his way.

Rabbi Siegel, who led the Columbia Jewish Congregation for 25 years, says Princess Diana's death brings a "window of opportunity" for change, and he intends to take advantage.

But he would have to do more than persuade stores to relocate the tabloids to make a significant impact on this phenomenon. Like the drug business, the tabloid industry is driven by consumer demand.

Moving the publications from highly visible shelves in the checkout line to Aisle 7 would have as little effect on these publications as placing blank covers on Playboy and Penthouse had on sales of the adult magazines at 7-Elevens.

The tabloid business is driven by the public's insatiable appetite for the most personal details of celebrity lives.

It is difficult to point fingers in Princess Diana's death without using millions of hands.

That's because the distribution chain for tabloid gossip extends from foolhardy free-lancers all the way to consumers.

To be sure, the tactics of the paparazzi are detestable. These gung-ho characters make fame and fortune pay in a bizarre way, as they force their quarry to take cover like ambushed soldiers ducking sniper fire.

Despite these outrageous hunting expeditions, the paparazzi can't be singled out for blame in the death of the princess, her companion and his driver. Sure, they were pursuing her Mercedes Benz on a dangerous chase through Paris in a hell-bent effort to snap pictures of the ex-royal with her companion, Dodi Al Fayed. But the buck doesn't start there.

Belonging to the paparazzi is free-lance work, not a hobby. It is doubtful that photographers would be so eager to hunt celebrities so tenaciously without the possibility of a large paycheck. Tabloids pay handsome sums for photographs of celebrities in their most intimate, embarrassing, shocking, emotional, shutter-speed moments.

So, can we lay blame for the death of Princess Diana and the

shameless exploitation of celebrities at the feet of these publications because they reward this work?

That would be difficult to do without also faulting the stores that sell these publications.

This is the link in the distribution chain where the good rabbi wants to make a difference. Rabbi Siegel, who runs the three-year-old National Institute on Behavioral Health and Spirituality, believes he can stop the excesses of the tabloid business, if the stores take this business out of the checkout line.

'A public health issue'

"This is not censorship, it is simply recognition that the tabloid press has gone too far," he says. "It's a public health issue. They have managed in their extremism to kill a very decent person and make her life miserable before their killed her."

Sensational cover photos and screaming headlines certainly seem irresistible on the shelves at checkout lines. Who can avoid looking?

Although I never was particularly interested in whom Princess Diana dated or what Michael Jackson's face looks like this month, I scan headlines in the National Enquirer or the Globe while waiting in line.

Moving these trashy papers would only deprive people who don't buy them of the pleasure of ridiculing the silly headlines and the doctored photos of space aliens posing with Newt Gingrich.

This area's biggest supermarket chain does not intend to move tabloids from the checkout line.

Barry Scher, vice president for public affairs at Giant Food, says the chain has removed "offensive" publications, including two published before Princess Diana's death that have headlines that now would be in poor taste but does not intend to hide the hot-selling publications.

Perhaps the person most blameworthy is the driver of the Mercedes Benz, whose blood level was reported as four times over France's legal limit at the time of the accident.

Ultimately, however, we could blame tabloid buyers for the Princess Diana tragedy and celebrity exploitation. The public's demand for the pictures and gossip starts the dollar chase and stores, tabloids and the paparazzi all profit from the race. The public's fascination with celebrities is not likely to stop with the death of perhaps the biggest international celebrity of them all.

Though full of good intentions, Rabbi Siegel's idea would not stop this race. Buyers would go the extra aisle to read the latest about Demi, Liz and soon, unfortunately, Prince William.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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