A real period piece from the late 1990s, in which I took stock of that decade’s full-on embrace of the tabloid sensibility, from Pee-wee Herman’s porn-house arrest through the Menendezes, Tonya Harding, O.J., Monica Lewinsky, and so on. You couldn’t say that the Internet was in its infancy in February 1999, the time of this essay’s publication, but reading this piece, you can tell how relatively primitive the Net still was, with no viral videos or instantly circulated photos of celebrity upskirts.
I take no I-told-you-so pleasure in pointing this out, but I have to point it out: In this essay’s final paragraph, I wrote, “And as the Tabloid Decade draws, at least numerically, to a close, you can’t help but wonder what’s been lurking the whole time in that ignored parallel universe known as reality. You wonder if whatever’s lurking there... is going to rear up and demand our penance for ignoring it.” I had no idea that Osama and co. were already plotting their wicked plan–in fact, I misguidedly suggested that Russia was due to implode with disastrous international consequences–but it creeps me out to read that sentence now. Especially considering that even after 9/11, even with war, we’re still doing our best to ignore that parallel universe known as reality.
The Sarasota police had no idea what they had on their hands—no idea that they’d arrested a celebrity, and no idea that they’d supplied this decade with its little Archduke Ferdinand moment, a flash point from which all manner of Sturm and Drang would ensue. They were just doing their job: a vice-squad sweep of the triple-X South Trail Cinema, where, had you bought a ticket and walked in on July 26, 1991, you would have taken in a bill of Nurse Nancy, Turn Up the Heat, and Catalina Five-O Tiger Shark. The cops apprehended four suspects that day, all on the usual charge: indecent exposure, i.e., masturbating in public. Among those arrested was a 38-year-old male with long, lank hair and a goatee. He identified himself as Paul Reubens. As he sat in the back of a squad car, one of his cop captors turned the name over in his mind. Paul Reubens. Damned if it didn’t sound…familiar.
OH, PEE-WEE! —New York Post, front page, July 30, 1991
And so the fun began. Pee-wee Herman’s offense, if he was even guilty of it, was not so much newsworthy as irresistibly reportable: freak kiddie-TV star in porn-wank shocker. It was a victimless crime, a misdemeanor, not even close to Fatty Arbuckle territory, and it was hardly the first big tabloid story of the 1990s—the year before, Marion Barry had been busted for smoking crack, and Donald and Ivana had split over Marla. But something about the Pee-wee situation was new: the immediate Topic A–ness of his arrest, the countrywide mirth at his humiliation, the play the story got in proportion to its significance, the phony undercurrent of parental concern, the veritable carnival the whole thing mushroomed into. With Saddam Hussein vanquished, Pee-wee was the story of mid-1991. For the balance of the summer, there was no getting away from him—no getting away from those baleful mug shots, which made Reubens look like a John Cazale greaseball in an old Sydney Lumet caper, and no end to the jokes, headlines, updates, and dewy child psychologists who’d been enlisted by news organizations to counsel parents on how to help their kids cope with the “crisis.” It was, in retrospect, the beginning.
It was also an ending, in that Reubens, unlike later disgraced celebrities of the 90s such as Hugh Grant, Marv Albert, George Michael, and President Clinton, never attempted a rapid-response, stage-managed display of contrition. Instead, he withdrew from the public eye and refused to talk about what had happened to him. His publicist released a statement that read, in part, “Paul, who is emotionally devastated by the embarrassment of the situation, is currently in seclusion with friends.” He was embarrassed by the situation; he secluded himself. To this day, Reubens maintains an extremely low profile and has never directly commented on the matter. [DK Note: A year or so after this piece ran, he finally did talk about his arrest, to Vanity Fair’s Bruce Handy.] He was the last celebrity to be shamed into exile.
After Pee-wee, things snowballed. The Clarence Thomas hearings took place that autumn, presaging the Starr Report in their public airing of humiliating sexual details about a high-ranking government official (Long Dong Silver, “Who has put public hair on my Coke?”). Then, in December, came the William Kennedy Smith trial, memorable for its pantsless-Teddy allegations and the big blue dot over Patricia Bowman’s face. The following three years, 1992 through 1994, were particularly fertile, offering up the Mondo Trasho trilogy of low-life extravaganzas—Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt, Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly—along with Gennifer Flowers, the Menendez trials, Heidi Fleiss, Rodney King, Woody versus Mia, Michael Jackson’s child accuser, the Branch Davidian inferno, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Finally, mid-decade, came the culmination, the story that these stories were building up to: the O.J. Simpson epic, whose protractedness, unseemliness, and sheer heft posited it as a grand finale to a particularly lurid chapter in American history.
But even O.J. turned out to be just another stop along the way; the decade kept topping itself. If it wasn’t enough to witness the vertiginous convergence of two separate thriller narratives—the murder of Gianni Versace and the joyride of “gay serial killer” Andrew Cunanan—then how about the car-crash death of Princess Diana, the world’s most famous woman, or the intimate details of the extramarital sex life of the president of the United States? To say nothing of Susan Smith, Louise Woodward, JonBenét Ramsey, Colin Ferguson, Dick Morris, Richard Jewell, Anna Nicole Smith, Mike Tyson’s ear-biting incident, Joe Kennedy’s ex-wife’s tell-all, Michael Kennedy’s alleged affair with his kids’ under-age babysitter, Michael Kennedy’s abrupt ski-football death, the Heaven’s Gate cult, the non-Monica Clinton scandals (Paula Jones, Vince Foster, Webb Hubbell, the McDougals), and anything to do with Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Plus all the genuine news stories that had sensationalist dimensions to them, such as the L.A. riots, the Unabomber case, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the impeachment-eve blitz of Iraq.
The tabloidification of American life—of the news, of the culture, yea, of human behavior—is such a sweeping phenomenon that it can’t be dismissed as merely a jokey footnote to the history of the 1990s. Rather, it’s the very hallmark of our times; if the decade must have a name—and it must, since decade-naming has become a required public exercise in the second half of the 20th century—it might as well be the Tabloid Decade. Each of the four decades preceding the 90s has found its identity in some crystallizing event or upheaval, some moment that gave the times their meaning. For the conformist 50s, it was the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings; for the revolutionary/countercultural 60s, it was John F. Kennedy’s assassination; for the jaded, cynical 70s (also known as the Me Decade), it was Richard Nixon’s resignation; for the go-go 80s, it was the economic boom that followed the ’83 recession; and for the 90s, God help us, it was the O.J. saga, a prolonged Hollywood Babylon spectacle that confirmed the prevailing national interest in sex, death, celebrity, and televised car chases.
Hence, the Tabloid Decade: the years when America reveled, as Matt Drudge likes to say, in “going where the stink is.” Virtually nothing and no one has been left unaffected by tabloid’s sweep, whether it’s The New York Times running the word “fuck” in its pages for the first time (last September 12, as part of the Tripp-tapes transcripts) or Bob Dole, the decent, four-square man who’d be running this country right now if people still cared about moral values, goddamnit, appearing on Larry King Live to extol the restorative powers of Viagra. It’s as if the Fates chose to wind down the century with one of those frenetic John Waters–movie endings where everyone emerges more trashy and libertine—grandmas frugging, golf-shirted dads embracing rough trade, scowly diesel dykes finding their smiles—only without the warmth and uplift.
“I see the parallels,” says Waters, whose first feature was actually called Mondo Trasho, “but ultimately I don’t think anyone describes tabloid as joyous or hopeful, as my movies are.” Waters knows whereof he speaks, being a longtime subscriber to the big three of the supermarkets, the National Enquirer, the Star, and the Globe, whose editorial policies he characterizes, respectively, as “We hate you because you’re famous,” “We hate you because you’re on TV,” and “We hate you because you’re famous and have sex.” One thing he notices is that these papers seem, for the first time, outflanked. “My sense,” he says, “is that they hate the Monica story, because they’ve been robbed of it. They feel gypped. It should be theirs, and it’s everyone’s.” Indeed, Newsweek reported in October that over the first six months of 1998—the first half of Year Monica—all three tabloids suffered precipitous declines in circulation: 18.8 percent for the Enquirer, 14.4 percent for the Star, and 18.9 percent for the Globe. Meanwhile, two-and-a-half-year-old 24-hour news channel MSNBC, now know colloquially as the “Monica network,” discovered its editorial identity.
At this point there’s no knowing whether the Tabloid Decade has reached its conclusion—if, much as people argue that the 60s began with J.F.K.’s assassination and ended with, say, the Tate-LaBianca murders, we can argue that the “true” 90s are bracketed by Pee-wee’s arrest and Ken Starr’s great document dump. Certainly it would make for a nice symmetry: from tremulous newspaper reportage of a comic’s masturbating in a movie house to lawyerly, federally funded reportage of the president’s masturbating in the office of Nancy Hernreich, his appointments secretary. But who can be sure? On one hand, the revulsion with which the public greeted the Clinton-Lewinsky-Tripp files suggests that the jig may be up, that maybe we’re all Drudged out and wish a return to the quiet refuge of Jim Lehrer. On the other hand, virtually no one would be surprised, given this decade’s track record, if one or two more mega-shock narratives unfolded before the year 2000: a suicide in the Oval Office, perhaps, or a murder involving stars huger than O.J. Simpson (Demi shoots Bruce, Letterman garrotes Leno, Warren offs Jack). If the 90s have taught us anything, it’s that nothing is beyond imagination anymore.
The most astounding facet of the Tabloid Decade is how wholly unanticipated it was. At the close of the previous decade there was a loose consensus that the 1990s were going to be a “reaction” to the 1980s, which is to say a reaction against materialism, mergermania, and crassness—a sort of new, sanitized 1960s where one-worldism and spirituality would reign, minus the hard drugs and free love. “There’s a lot of pent-up idealism around,” said Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1989. “I believe the nineteen-nineties will be much like the nineteen-thirties and the nineteen-sixties.” The professional trend spotter Faith Popcorn hawked a similar line, describing a coming “cleanup decade” when “the sins of the ’80s” would be redeemed by a “consciousness that changes from me to thee.” And Peggy Noonan, channeling her ideas through George Bush, spoke of a “kinder, gentler nation” in which “a new breeze [was] blowing.” For a brief moment, these forecasts seemed to be accurate: the Eastern Bloc crumbled, kids started growing their hair long again, tie-dye and Day-Glo were the prevalent fashion motifs, Václav Havel had Frank Zappa to tea, Nelson Mandela was a free man, and Ivan Boesky and Mike Milken were in lockup. It was a fortunate time to be alive, “right here, right now,” as the 1991 hit by the pop group Jesus Jones went, “watching the world wake up from history.”
But while the 1990s would see significant strides in tastes and values in America’s private life—the rediscovery of the nuclear-family ideal, the moral worth of volunteerism, the muted palettes of Prada and latter-day Banana Republic—America’s public life was something else altogether. In a nutshell: Oh, Pee-wee!
“From a thousand adjectives which fairly clamor for a chance to describe the Great American Mentality, there immediately stands forth one adjective in which our epoch finds its perfect portrait…in which the U.S.A. shimmers in all the unmitigated splendor of its great-and-only-ness. This adjective is: infantile. By no circumstance the least important, and certainly the most obvious, example of the strictly infantile essence of America’s all-conquering mentality greets our eyes daily…in the guise of the tabloid newspaper.” The words are E.E. Cummings’s, and they appeared in this very magazine—in 1926.
Any discussion of tabloid America inevitably summons assuaging arguments that it has always been thus, that a century ago Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were tripping over each other to get the scoop on headless-body stomach turners such as the gruesome Guldensuppe murder of 1897, compared with which Amy ’n’ Joey looks like an NBC white paper. And there’s no denying that the 1950s scandal rag Confidential, a precursor to today’s supermarket tabs, was far nastier than anything on the newsstands or airwaves now. To cite just one example, here’s an excerpt from a 1955 Confidential piece that not only outed the weepy pop crooner Johnny Ray as a pervy swish, but also recounted an incident in which Ray, nude, drunk, and wandering the corridors of London’s Dorchester hotel, knocked on the door or a neighboring guest’s room and propositioned the guest, who turned out to be the movie star Paul Douglas:
He’d been in the big-time show business long enough to know that Douglas was strictly for girls. But Ray was determined to be convinced the hard way. Lunging inside the room he made a determined grab for Douglas. An instant thereafter, the guy who made crying a business had the best reason in years for weeping. There were a couple of resounding smacks, as a strong hand met bare flesh and Ray came flying out of 417 to land in a heap in the corridor… All over London there were hundreds of thousands of sleeping bobby-soxers who wouldn’t have believed their eyes had they witnessed the incident. For two weeks they’d mobbed The Weeper during his record-breaking engagement at the Palladium. Their idol…the tenor with a million tears…making a pass at a man? Never!...
But this story needs to be seen in context. Confidential, in its heyday, had a circulation of three million, more than that of the Enquirer today, but its content was almost never amplified elsewhere. You didn’t get mainstream-media overlap unless a story was unignorably huge, such as the Lana Turner–Johnny Stompanato case in which Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, confessed to killing Stompanato, her mother’s boyfriend. Similarly, the city tabloids and broadsheets led a segregated coexistence, the latter doing whatever they could to avoid entering the turf of the former.
The novelist James Ellroy says that when he was researching his seventh book, The Black Dahlia, about the notorious 1947 Los Angeles murder case of that name, he discovered that “the story was never on the front page of the L.A. Times. It was all inside, in the ‘Metro’ section. They kept it in there for three weeks, and they would’ve shitcanned it sooner were it not for the [tabloid] Herald, which was all over the case and selling papers like crazy.”
Ellroy’s most recent novel happens to be called American Tabloid. He says he chose this title, “because the book is about the most outré, scandalous, scabrous aspects of the time it’s set in,” the late 1950s and early 1960s. The aspects he’s talking about are precisely the kind of juicy stuff that was respectfully ignored by the upscale media: the inner workings of the Kennedy-C.I.A.-Mob triangle—the boozing, doping, whacking, whoring, and quid pro quo that went on. “Jack Kennedy had the benefit of coming along in the pre-public-accountability America,” Ellroy says. “The time of the well-heeled press—as in ‘Heel, dog!’”
Cut to the present, and American tabloid has outpaced American Tabloid; so, for that matter, has American broadsheet. Ellroy says he couldn’t pull off a similar takeout on our current epoch, because everything’s already on the table: the backroom deals, the blow jobs, the sleazoid flunkies who do the big shots’ bidding.
“I would argue that at this point I would eliminate ‘tabloid’ from our vocabulary—it doesn’t mean anything anymore,” says John Terenzio, who was executive producer of the pioneering tabloid-TV program A Current Affair in the early 90s. “I was the one who put Gennifer Flowers on TV to tell her story. Now I turn on Good Morning America and the Today show, and there she is—Gennifer Flowers!”
What set the 1990s apart from any previous yellow-tinged epoch are two factors: advanced technology and increased vulgarity. It’s the dance between these factors, the downloadable and the down-and-dirty, that has led to the Tabloid Decade’s particularly explicit brand of tabloidism. That has enabled us to learn not only that the president was a philanderer but also that he inserted a cigar into the vagina of a young lady named Monica S. Lewinsky; not only to discover that Prince Charles had an affair with Camilla Parker Bowles but also to hear a recording of him stating his wish to be her tampon; not only to read reports that John Wayne Bobbitt had his penis sliced off but also to click here to see the reattached member.
As the Tabloid Decade dawned, the telecommunications was in the throes of an androstenedione growth spurt: from 8 cable-TV channels in 1978 to 78 in 1988. (By April 1998 there would be 171 such channels.) On the horizon were the Internet, with its tendrils that would extend all over the world, and satellite-subscription services such as EchoStar and DirecTV, which would allow viewers to receive as many as 500 channels in their homes. At the same time, the vulgarization of the United States was accelerating. A general coarsening trend had been afoot since the 1960s, the era of the sexual revolution and the rise to predominance of the youth culture, but it wasn’t until the late 80s that the process went into overdrive and got scary. Much of this was attributable to the sudden vogue for reactionary inflammateurs such as Morton Downey Jr., Andrew Dice Clay, and Rush Limbaugh. But the decidedly unconservative Geraldo Rivera was as guilty as anyone; his chaos-TV scrums, like Downey’s, alerted television producers to the commercial possibilities of rage, paranoia, and confrontation. In the same period, that inveterate Australian tabloidist Rupert Murdoch, lord of the Sydney Daily Mirror and the London Sun, decided to become a television mogul. He launched the Fox Network in 1986, and staked out its territory by aiming lower than the Big Three networks ever had, with flatulent sitcoms such as Married…with Children and ass-kicking “reality” shows such as Cops and America’s Most Wanted.
This combination—more media outlets and more vulgarity—created a harsh, logorrheic early-1990s landscape where the competition for television viewers, not to mention newspaper readers and radio listeners, was unprecedentedly fierce. Even the old-line outfits lowered themselves, resorting to gimmickry, increased entertainment coverage, and cheap tricks to hold on to their audience. New Yorkers got an early jolt of this phenomenon in 1990, when the veteran WNBC-TV anchorman Chuck Scarborough, long revered in the city as an institution and pillar of probity, teased the 11-o’clock news during a broadcast of L.A. Law by stating that a “star” of that program was dead by his own hand. Scarborough didn’t name the star, and viewers were left to watch the remainder of L.A. Law wondering which of the actors before them—Susan Dey? Harry Hamlin? Jimmy Smits?—was no longer alive. WNBC continued to tease the dead-actor report right through to the end of its newscast, only to reveal in the final minutes that the deceased was not a “star” of the program but David Rappaport, a midget actor who had appeared in a few episodes as an attorney who defends a tavern’s right to hold dwarf-tossing competitions.
Here began the “blurring of distinctions” that would be much lamented by whither-civilization moralists such as Frank Rich for years to come: distinctions between news and entertainment, between gossip and reporting, between tabloid news and “straight” news. The New York Times, Rich’s employer, was as caught up in the mess as any other organization. Shortly after the William Kennedy Smith story broke in the spring of 1991, the Times ran an article that named Kennedy’s alleged rape victim, Patricia Bowman, and quoted a former acquaintance of hers as saying Bowman “had a little wild streak.” The NBC Nightly News had already identified Bowman on the air, but the Times was the first major print organ to do so, astonishing and appalling the rest of the journalistic firmament, which did not follow the paper’s lead. The Bowman episode was all the more eyebrow-raising in that it came just two weeks after another Times controversy: the paper’s publication, and executive editor Max Frankel’s subsequent repudiation, of Maureen Dowd’s front-page preview of Kitty Kelley’s new Nancy Reagan biography, which breezily aired Kelley’s assertions that the First Lady had carried on a long-term affair with Frank Sinatra. But these experiences proved to be mere growing pains in the Tabloid Decade’s development. In a matter of months Pee-wee would come along, Jerry Springer would be on the air, and the lamenters would be outnumbered by the hooked and inured.
“I remember vividly the stupid ice-skater story,” says Oliver Stone. “I’d been away in Thailand making Heaven & Earth, and I came back, watched some TV news, and was shocked by the volume and aggression. Buttafuoco and the penis lady had already happened, but they were still around, too. Natural Born Killers was a response to that.”
Stone’s Natural Born Killers is to the 1990s what his Wall Street is to the 1980s: a heavy-handed but nevertheless astute encapsulation of the era in which it was made. It’s a bloody, hallucinogenic road movie about young white-trash lovers (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) who embark on a murderous cross-country rampage and in the process become electronic-age folk heroes—Bonnie and Clyde through a Fox-network filter. The jump cuts and stylized violence make for queasy viewing, but then, so did much of what was on television in 1994, the year of the film’s release. That year was probably the peak of the tabloid-TV era, with the Mondo Trasho trilogy still going strong, the Menendezes unavoidable, and the O.J. saga just under way. In many broadcast markets, the prized “access” slots between the evening news and prime time were given over to syndicated tab shows such as A Current Affair, Hard Copy, and Inside Edition. Harrelson and Lewis’s most ardent tabloid-TV suitor, played by Robert Downey, Jr., was modeled on A Current Affair’s star reporter, the barmy Australian Steve Dunleavy.
Tabloid TV had been invented in 1986 by a man named Peter Brennan, like Dunleavy an Australian and longtime lieutenant of Rupert Murdoch’s. (Together, the three men had started up the Star in the early 1970s.) For his fledgling Fox network, Murdoch wanted a saucier brand of newsmagazine that the old-line networks were offering with 20/20 and 60 Minutes. Brennan obliged with A Current Affair, which was tabloid rethought audiovisually: Hollywood exposés, gratuitous T&A stories, and raw true-crime tales, all enhanced by re-enactments, jumpy camera work, and incriminating mood music (a synthesizer apparently fixed permanently on the “ominous didgeridoo” setting). The format was a nearly instant success, delivering decent ratings at low costs—virtues especially valued in the fragmented new world of multichannel America. Soon enough, A Current Affair had imitators (including Hard Copy, another Brennan start-up), and not long after that, the networks and local-news shows began to pay unsubtle tribute, duplicating the tab shows’ subject matter and borrowing their methodology, as when ABC’s 20/20 used a handheld camera to re-create Lorena Bobbitt’s feverish flight from her home.
The tabloid sensibility’s infiltration of television had a profound impact. For most of this century, tabloid had been exclusively the preserve of print, and mostly an urban phenomenon, tailored for the rough-and-tumble working class of the cities. It had also been an active choice: you went down to the newsstand and decided if you wanted to read the salty Mirror or the staid Times. But suddenly tabloid was suburbanized, ubiquitous, and passively received—not a smudgy read on the subway ride home, but something that “more or less comes with the house, like running water or electricity,” as the novelist Thomas Mallon wrote in GQ.
The consequences of this change were particularly palpable in the first half of the Tabloid Decade, when the common goal of the media seemed to be to demonstrate how far they could take a story of negligible news import (whereas the goal of the decade’s second half has been to see how low they can take a story of genuine news import, namely, the independent counsel’s investigation). In a not-much-earlier time, the sagas of Amy Fisher and Lorena Bobbitt would have been evanescent little news blips, minor stories. Even the O.J. case, though undeniably sensational, was, stripped to its news core, relatively small-time: has-been celebrity involved in domestic homicide. (Fatty Arbuckle, by contrast, was at the peak of his fame when he allegedly sexually assaulted a woman with a Coke bottle, and Lana Turner had just come off her Oscar-nominated performance in Peyton Place when her daughter stabbed Johnny Stompanato to death.) But with the aid of tabloid TV and its parade of paid interviewees, each of these stories became its own cottage industry, with a near-eternal shelf life. “Amy Fisher, to me, was huge, second only to O.J.,” says John Terenzio, who became executive producer of A Current Affair in 1991. “When a story has that kind of legs—inspiring not one but three TV movies—it’s something special. You have to stay with it. To use a trite expression, it had all the elements.”
(It must be said that the allure of the Mondo Trasho stories was further enhanced by a kind of onomatopoeic serendipity: it was helpful that the lecherous auto mechanic was named Buttafuoco, the eunuched ex-Marine was named John Wayne Bobbitt, and the idiot ex-husband was named Gillooly, just as it had been helpful in the 50s that Turner’s murdered playboy-hoodlum boyfriend was named, of all things, Johnny Stompanato.)
The constant presence of cameras and reporters and checkbooks produced another effect: the media-savviness and theatricality of each new story’s participants, who correctly sensed that they were now entertainers, not merely figures in the news. Whereas Pee-wee Herman, a bona fide celebrity, had been shamed into seclusion by scandal, the new scandals were notable for creating celebrities—Joey Buttafuoco moved to L.A. to take up acting, Bobbitt became a porn-movie curiosity, and Harding attempted a career as a singer.
In this kind of environment, it became grimly inevitable that Natural Born Killers, intended by Stone as satire—“a Swiftian/Voltarian caricature of our worst nightmare,” as he wrote in the film’s production notes—would instead be mistaken for a Tabloid Decade how-to manual. The film, a bigger hit on video that in theaters, was name-checked by several youthful suspects picked up on murder charges in the mid-90s.
Though the consequences were seldom this extreme, the celebrity dividend undoubtedly added new timber to the Tabloid Decade bonfire, in that it legitimized and rewarded atrocious behavior, which in turn encouraged average Americans to act more like the tabloid characters they saw on TV. By the mid-90s, any minimum-wager with exhibitionistic tendencies could be a tabloid curiosity for a day, if not on Geraldo, then certainly on one of the other human-cockfight talk shows that were proliferating at the time: Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Richard Bey, Charles Perez, Ricki Lake, Carnie, Leeza, Rolanda, Real Personal, The Gordon Elliott Show, The Maury Povich Show, The Montel Williams Show, The Jane Whitney Show. It was a mass recapitulation of Roseanne Barr Pentland Arnold Thomas’s dream gone sour: one moment you’re the exhilarating voice of the too-long-voiceless hoi polloi, the next you’re a mortifying freak show, hooked on attention and compulsively revealing too much about yourself. (Roseanne, a key Tabloid Decade figure, has a keen self-awareness of her tabloidiness. Promoting her new daytime program last fall, she told Harper’s Bazaar, “I am the person most qualified to host a talk show: I have five kids from three different marriages; I come from a trailer park; my sister and brother are both gay; I have multiple personalities; and the National Enquirer reunited me with my daughter, who I had given up for adoption.” That she and Geraldo are both trying to reinvent themselves as classier, more contemplative TV personalities is another sign that the Tabloid Decade’s days may be numbered.)
It wasn’t just white-trash schemers who were hoping for the celebrity dividend, either. If anything, the attorneys and advisers and assorted opportunists who attached themselves to the Tabloid Decade’s major figures were, collectively, a far more toxic presence. Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Kato Kaelin, Paula Barbieri, Leslie Abramson, William Ginsburg, Susan Carpenter-McMillan—no one would shed a tear if the ocean rose up and claimed them. Even Fred Goldman seemed an ignoble figure, trying to parlay his newfound gift for public speaking into a talk-radio job, a far less honorable response to tragedy than Representative Carolyn McCarthy’s in similar circumstances.
Compounding the press and the citizenry’s rush into depravity was the rise of a generation that, rather than getting angry at or repulsed by what was transpiring before it, merely became amused. To America’s Watergate babies—those irony-armored folks in their 20s and 30s, people who have never had to endure a generational hardship like a depression or a major war—the Tabloid Decade has been little more than a colossal joke, a series of occasions to slum inuredly through the muck of humanity. (An entire television program, the E! channel’s Talk Soup, has thrived on this premise.) There has indeed been a death of outrage, and though that phrase’s author, William Bennett, uses his coinage to his usual biased, blowhard ends, he makes a good point when he argues, “Defenders of both Richard Nixon and of Bill Clinton forget that the cost of raising the threshold of moral outrage is paid out over generations—and with compound interest. How much of the political cynicism that today says ‘they all do it’ can be laid at the feet of actions committed twenty-five years ago during the Watergate scandal?”
While tabloid TV’s heyday was relatively short-lived—A Current Affair is now off the air and Hard Copy and Inside Edition are buried in obscure time slots—its influence lives on in every local newscast, every network newscast, every breakfast program, all five Datelines, all three 20/20s, and both 60 Minuteses. Likewise, every broadsheet in America is palpably more tabloidlike in content than it used to be. The “blurring of distinctions” has really been more of an engulfment, since the influence has gone in just one direction: not only have the major news organizations appropriated tabloid techniques, but they’ve also placed a greater emphasis on tabloid material at the expense of genuine hard news; a new JonBenét development trumps a Hague war-crimes tribunal every time. (Or, to use a nonhypothetical example, a sex scandal trumps a Papal visit to Cuba every time.)
These changes have as much to do with financial pressures as they do with a shift in sensibility. “It goes back to Larry Tisch making the news division for-profit when he owned CBS,” says Oliver Stone. “And when The New York Times had Tonya Harding on the front page for, like, five or six days in a row. Obviously they were chasing money, too—going after the story to keep up with everyone else.” (This would appear to be dicey territory for Stone, since he himself has been accused of being a headline-hunting sensationalist—first with films such as JFK and The Doors, and more recently with Oliver Stone’s Declassified, a spiked ABC special that was to have credulously entertained the theory that land-launched missiles cause the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800. Stone argues simply that he’s not a journalist but a filmmaker, who uses his craft to raise questions—to “do the onion skin, to peel it away to examine what is really reality.”)
John Terenzio, though a tenured Murdochian who now runs Fox’s Sports News division, doesn’t totally disagree with Stone’s point about for-profit news. He got his professional start working for ABC News in what he calls “the Roone Arledge golden years, ’79 to ’89,” and characterizes that operation as having been “almost philanthropic” in its mission. “Network news divisions could take losses, and it was O.K.,” he says. “I grant you, it is sad that there have been cutbacks in CBS’s documentary unit, and there is a need for more of that kind of reportage, but maybe ABC and CBS simply aren’t the place for it anymore. Maybe the place is somewhere else, like this wonderful new world of cable TV.”
In other words, if it’s serious new you’re in the mood for, you should tune in to the Serious News Channel—you know, right up there in the 120s on your dial, between the Outlet Mall Network and the Lottery Channel (both of which really exist). Much has been made of the liberating effects of the media glut, how the 24-hour news cycle and the vast new assortment of channels and Web sites have enabled us to assemble our own newscasts and thereby be better informed than ever. The problem is, so far this hasn’t been true. The proliferation of media outlets has instead led to mind-muddle, an infotainment surplus, and ridiculously excessive Beltway Kremlinology—for 10 months, MSNBC had a program called The White House in Crisis, on nightly at 11, just like Seinfeld reruns. All the while, the average consumer is drawn still further away from Cronkite-ian hard news.
The distractions are many. Calvin Trillin has expounded at length on the plague of “Sabbath gasbags,” the public-affairs-show pundits who have invested themselves so heavily in the Lewinsky story that they are compelled to perpetuate it beyond its natural dimensions. Trillin is wrong in just one respect: the “Sabbath” part is irrelevant. Thanks to CNBC, MSNBC, CNNfn, and all the other consonant clusters with which our broadcasting conglomerates have sought to spread their influence, the gasbag biz is a 24-7 operation; the notion of a punditocracy that restricts its work to the Sabbath became anachronistic around 1995, the year of the O.J. Simpson trial.
Even nontabloid media outlets contribute to the morass. Court TV, whose July 1991 launch coincided rather suspiciously with the spiritual beginning of the Tabloid Decade, is a good example. Its founder, Steven Brill, now the media-kvetch editor of Brill’s Content, argues that the channel has been an oasis of solemnity in a cacophonous environment, and that televising trials has generally had a de-sensationalizing effect. “Without the cameras,” he says, “the William Kennedy Smith trial would’ve been the story of how a rich guy bought justice. But the cameras showed he won the case legitimately.” A fair point, but by the same token, the national televising of the Menendez trials is what boosted a routine Hollywood potboiler into a national obsession, and turned Lyle, Erik, and Leslie Abramson into vivid, three-dimensional characters who would one day be played by bad actors in a TV movie. Similarly, it’s doubtful, had cameras not been present, that Marcia Clark would have gotten her Allure-style makeover, and transformed herself into a TV gasbag, filling in for Geraldo on his CNBC program. To which Brill says, raising another pertinent Tabloid Decade point, “Don’t blame Court TV. Blame the news standards that put Marcia Clark on TV. She’s on TV because she lost the case that most people on the planet would say was the easiest case to win in history. She’s on TV simply because she’s famous, and this is a decade that worships fame itself, regardless of what you’re famous for.”
The Internet, meanwhile, has this far functioned less as the ultimate informational tool that as a clearinghouse for gossip: the coup de grace of the Tabloid Decade. Rumor and innuendo are no longer spread orally but electronically—meaning, in effect, that every shaky, spurious half-truth put forth by some troublemaker somewhere can now gain instant credence by being circulated worldwide, in writing. The Internet has created the possibility for every citizen with a computer to become a one-man tabloid; Matt Drudge is only the most dogged and famous example.
The Net has further contributed to the decade’s tabloid tenor by fanning paranoia and conspiracy fever. To visit its various news sites is to enter a free-for-all of relativism where there is no truth, only the “so-called-truth.” When Drudge was profiled by Brill’s Content, he explained that he includes links to the A.P. and U.P.I. in his Web site so that “the average Joe can get the fill picture—see what newspaper and broadcast editors are leaving out. That’s going to change everything because we don’t have to wait for Dan Rather to get his makeup on and read to us.” While there is undeniably a bit of politics and fairy dust to the way the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather determines its lineup, or to the way The Washington Post chooses what will run on its front page, few people ever ascribed anything sinister to these processes until relatively recently. This signals another undercurrent of the Tabloid Decade—if not a mainstreaming of paranoia, then at least an amplification of paranoia, a means through which paranoiacs can link up and make one another even more paranoid. Who ever worried that Walter Cronkite had an agenda?
The MTV folks made no bones about why they were seating Laetitia Thompson front and center in the studio audience: she was young, blonde, attractive, and female. It was April 19, 1994, and Thompson, a 17-year-old junior at Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, was one of the lucky kids who’d been selected to spend the day at the Kalorama Studios in Washington, D.C., at which Bill Clinton was fulfilling his 1992 campaign promise to reappear on MTV as president. There had been a run-through of the program the night before with the producers “trying to figure out the theatricality of the whole thing,” Thompson, now a senior at Princeton University, recalls.
The premise of Clinton’s appearance was a youth forum on crime entitled Enough Is Enough, and the audience members, mostly high-school and college students, were supposed to ask worthy questions about school violence, gangs, drugs, and gun control. But MTV wanted to end the program with a lightning round of short, sharp questions intended to elicit quickie answers from the president and leaven the mood a bit. So when Thompson’s turn came at the run-through, where Clinton was not present, she tossed off the silliest inquiry she could think of: “Mr. President, the world’s dying to know: Is it boxers or briefs?” The line got a big laugh. It was given clearance to be redeployed.
Amazingly, Clinton answered the question the next day. He blushed, but he answered: “Usually briefs. [Audience laughter.] I can’t believe she did that.” It was one of the defining Tabloid Decade moments: a teenager (a) feeling that it was perfectly appropriate and not at all disrespectful to ask the president of the United States about his underwear preference, and (b) getting a response. Today, however, Thompson feels that, in light of 1998’s events, “probably it was not such a good idea for American society for him to answer the question.”
Time magazine’s Lance Morrow has suggested that Clinton should have replied, “Well, I have been accused of not having a sufficiently dignified approach, so maybe I’d better not answer that.” But, of course, Bill Clinton had to answer. It’s in his nature three times over, a function of his eagerness to please, his boomer aversion to seeming square, and his Astroturf-in-the-back-of-the-El-Camino swinginess. Which brings up an important point: for all the ways in which Clinton has been genuinely victimized by an unprecedentedly large and tabloidified American press corps, he happens to have been a tabloid character to begin with. He’s lived his life by his rogue mama’s credo, articulated so memorably in her brilliant autobiography, Leading with My Heart: “Too many people seem to think life is the tablecloth, instead of the messy feast that’s spread out on it…. That’s not life. Done right, life leaves stains.”
In all likelihood, the occupant of the White House from 1993 to 1997 would have been the most raked-over president ever no matter who he was; the media beast, engorged and inflamed, was ready to tee off. It’s not inconceivable that even Bush, had he won a second term, would have endured a new wave of zealous press and Internet inquiries into his alleged infidelities. (Dirt digging is not solely a right-wing pursuit: the San Francisco–based online magazine Salon has lately forged a rather more Australian path, dredging up Henry Hyde’s long-ago extramarital affair.) But it was providential that the person who did end up president of the 90s was the most hittable piñata possible, overstuffed with scandal stories and moral conflicts and undiscovered half-siblings and risible P.C. turns of phrase. Bill Clinton was fate’s gift to the Tabloid Decade: the Karmic convergence of individual and Zeitgeist.
“Tabloid” is not an inherently pejorative word, and in some respects the Tabloid Decade has been a great ride; you’d have to be a humorless prig not to enjoy the goofier revelations of the Starr Report, or the gossip columns of the revivified New York Post, which revels in its villainy with the wicked élan of Joan Crawford in The Women. But cumulatively the Tabloid Decade has been a downer: a meal of potato chips, a guilty pleasure that’s been overindulged in and now leaves the stomach sour. It’s not just the sheer pervasiveness of the tabloid sensibility, but also what the 1990s have done to it. James Ellroy, writing about his Chandleresque 1950s parents in My Dark Places, refers to them as “a great-looking cheap couple.” Alas, there’s no such thing today—your cheap couples are overfed, surly, and sweat-suited. The gabardines have been replaced by polyesters, the fedoras by ball caps, the saloons by “gentlemen’s clubs,” the Jilly Rizzos by Bobby Kardashians, the Judy Campbells by Monica Lewinskys, the Louis Primas by Michael Boltons, the long Weegee shadows by the klieg-light glare of Jerry Springer’s studio. The Tabloid Decade has sucked the noir romance right out of tabloid. “You had a sense of living in a morally constrained time—‘you want it but you can’t have it.’ It was tremendously seductive,” says Ellroy. “But it’s all explicit today, not implicit. Everything has a name now.”
And as the Tabloid Decade draws, at least numerically, to a close, you can’t help but wonder what’s been lurking the whole time in that ignored parallel universe known as reality. You wonder if whatever’s lurking there (perhaps the situation in Russia, currently doing its best imitation of the Weimar Republic) is going to rear up and demand our penance for ignoring it. Let’s just hope the ending isn’t too heavy. Lively as the Tabloid Decade has been, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if it uncharacteristically just dribbled out, bereft of new material.