Tabloids were originally pint-sized newspapers specializing in the sensational. Once confined to so-called "scandal sheets," or magazine-style newspapers that many people saw only in grocery store checkout lines, during the last years of the twentieth century their subject matters of sex and scandal seeped into the mainstream press and virtually all other media, including magazines, radio, television, and the Internet. Nearly all of American journalism seemed affected by the spread of tabloid news, as coverage of the personal foibles and problems of celebrities and presidents became commonplace. The line between the splashy press and the serious journal became blurred.
Once a proprietary name for a pill or tablet, the word "tabloid" came to be almost exclusively associated with sensational journalism. Later, "tabloid" described a newspaper about half the size of most broadsheets. Tabloids popularized the news by featuring bold pictorial coverage of sex escapades, murder and gore, sports, and scandals of all sorts, but especially those relating to the lives of the rich and famous. The word tabloid also sprouted offshoot words, such as "tabloidese" for the breezy writing style of many tabloids, "tabloidesque" to connote tabloid-type publications, and "tabloidization" to mean compression of stories or literature, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
To understand the incursion of tabloids and the tabloid style into the mainstream media, it is helpful to consider three eras of journalism: the early days of the media barons, the era of young, free-spirited reporters in the anything-goes years around the "Roaring Twenties," and the electronic age when new forms of media mushroomed. Although Vanity Fair in its late twentieth century incarnation dubbed the 1990s the "Tabloid Decade," the last several decades of the century could be called a tabloid age when stories of murders, sex, scandal, and the once-private lives of public officials spread into every home through newspapers or the electronic media.
In the early years of U.S. journalism, power belonged to those who owned a printing press. There was no competition from radio, television, or other media in news coverage, advertising, or audience appeal. In the 1800s and early 1900s, the pulse of American journalism ticked away in New York City, where publishers found gold in what was called the "penny press," a new form of American papers that produced eye-opening stories that were long on scandal and mayhem but short on analysis or depth. Publisher Benjamin Day launched the early penny press trend with his New York Sun in 1833. Another New York publisher, James Gordon Bennett, followed with The Herald in 1835. Six years later the famed Horace Greeley edited the Tribune as a penny press.
But the best known promoters of mass-appeal newspapers were mogul William Randolph Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer. Hearst created an empire in New York and a dozen other cities of big-circulation newspapers, successful magazines, and a wire service (International News Service). His power extended to American foreign policy. When his headline-shouting newspapers published reports about Cuba's demands for independence from Spain, the articles helped bring on the 1898 Spanish-American War.
Hearst was in fierce combat for newspaper circulation dominance with Pulitzer, a Hungarian-born newspaperman who bought and created newspapers, including the St. Louis Dispatch and the St. Louis Post, which he formed into the Post-Dispatch. Later, Pulitzer entered the New York journalism wars, buying the World in 1883 and four years later the Evening World. Pulitzer and Hearst battled furiously for readers through hyped-up news accounts that gave rise to the derogatory "yellow journalism" brand. After his death, however, Pulitzer's name became associated with high journalistic standards. Through his will, he endowed Columbia University's School of Journalism and started the distinguished Pulitzer prize for news excellence. Hearst too left a legacy of newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets.
If Pulitzer and Hearst drove the popular press wagons, the workhorses and talent pulling them were the reporters. In the early days, they were often a rough-and-tumble bunch who had little education but shared a knack for digging up stories and dirt and spinning a good yarn. Although they were poorly paid for their efforts, some of the nation's biggest literary figures of the twentieth century, such as Ernest Hemingway, got their start in newspapering.
What they lacked in college education, many of these young reporters of the 1920s made up on the streets and in the police stations of the nation. H. L. Mencken, the great Baltimore newspaperman, writer, and all-around curmudgeon, belonged to this breed. He wrote in 1942 of his early newspaper days:
At a time when the respectable bourgeois youngsters of my generation were college freshmen, oppressed by simian sophomores and affronted with balderdash daily and hourly by chalky pedagogues, I was at large in a wicked seaport of half a million people with a front seat at every public show, as free of the night as of the day, and getting earfuls and eyefuls of instruction in a hundred giddy arcana, none of them taught in schools. I was laying in all the worldly wisdom of a police lieutenant, a bartender, a shyster lawyer, or a midwife. And it certainly would be idiotic to say that I was not happy.… Life was arduous but it was gay and carefree. The days chased one another like kittens chasing their tails.
If there was one work of literature that encapsulated this wild and woolly journalism, it was the highly celebrated play The Front Page about newspapering in Chicago written by two former Chicago newsmen, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Hecht, who later gained fame as a screenwriter and author, recalled his early days as a newspaperman fondly, much as Mencken did, in his 1963 book about reporting days, Gaily Gaily. Hecht wrote: "I came to Chicago at the age of sixteen and a half and went to work immediately as a newspaper reporter on the Chicago Journal. I write of the five merry years that followed. As sang Bliss Carman: Oh, but life went gaily, gaily.…"
The essential trait among the memorable early newsmen, whether it was Damon Runyon, who wrote humorously of the guys and dolls of the underside of life, or sports writer and columnist Ring Lardner, it was the ability to spin a good yarn. Gene Fowler, called "the last of the troubadours," was one of the best on Park Row (the Fleet Street of New York, where many newspaper offices were located) during the early era of the 1920s. A talented writer and gifted reporter, Fowler portrayed the news scene in his 1961 book of reminiscences of the 1920s:
I still can see the incredibly fast flutter of bandit Gerald Chapman's small feet as he dies on the hangman's rope. I again can hear Queen Marie of Romania tell her lady-in-waiting 'get rid of that damned thing!' after the Dakota Indians have given Her Majesty a war bonnet. Once again I am present at Carnegie Hall as the addled Mayor Hylan makes his ghostwritten address of welcome to President Woodrow Wilson; but unthinkingly keeps his back turned to Mr. Wilson during the ceremony. I remember also the lean Irish statesman Eamon de Valera, clad in his long underwear and huge boxing gloves on his hands, as he spars with his bull-necked secretary in a sitting room at the old Waldorf.
Even as I write, there unaccountably springs to mind an occasion when I asked Henry Ford about the sleep habits of his good friend [Thomas] Edison. Was it true, as legend had it, that Mr. Edison, like Napoleon, slept but four hours? Yes, said Mr. Ford, but Mr. Edison slept twice and sometimes three times a day… ! Little things about big men. Or, if you will, big things about little men.… The stories of my day are no longer big in the public attention, or else have been chewed upon until the taste is gone.
There were scores of sensational and landmark stories in those days that were covered by the serious papers as well as tabloids, although more colorfully in the latter. There was the manslaughter trial of top comic film actor Fatty Arbuckle, who was acquitted of brutally assaulting a young actress while he was at the peak of his career, his fame second only to that of Charlie Chaplin. There was Charles Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight and the later trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnap-murder of the Lindbergh baby. There were riveting accounts of murders and prohibition, the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, elections, the Depression, and World Wars I and II.
After World War II, journalism started maturing and opening up its pages to previously untouched stories as competition grew from radio and the new medium of television. In the prewar days, for example, few Americans knew that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was crippled from infantile paralysis, or polio. An unwritten rule in the press was to protect Roosevelt from being shown, described, or referred to as confined to a wheelchair or wearing braces to stand briefly, assisted by crutches. It was not until after Roosevelt's death in 1945 that his true condition became universally known.
During the postwar era, most of the misdeeds of celebrities were still confined to gossipmongers and a magazine called Confidential, which exploited the private lives of movie stars. Few newspapers followed up with front-page stories on material Confidential dug up. Major exceptions included the sensational trial and subsequent acquittal of dashing Hollywood actor Errol Flynn on a charge of rape on a yacht.
Stories of large public scope, rather than scandal, dominated traditional newspapers and television news. There were the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Senator Robert Kennedy; space travel; the Civil Rights Movement; the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal; the resignation of President Richard Nixon. But then came scandals that forced themselves onto front pages by their very dramatic nature and the public stature of those involved, such as the accidental drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne, a young aide of Senator Edward Kennedy, after a car driven by Kennedy went off a small wooden bridge following a party on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts in 1969.
The Chappaquiddick story was the first of a series of news reports about the exploits of Washington figures. The most powerful congressman at the time, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills, splashed his way onto front pages after his girlfriend, a striptease artist nicknamed "The Argentine Firecracker," jumped unexplainably into the Tidal Basin in the wee hours after the married and very private Mills and the woman had spent an argumentative evening together. Another powerful congressman, Wayne Hays, made news when it became known he had hired a woman with whom he had an intimate relationship to work in his office as a secretary, although she later admitted she couldn't take shorthand or type. The presidential ambitions of Senator Gary Hart ended after reporters learned the married candidate was socializing with a young woman. Especially damaging to Hart was a widely circulated photograph of him and the woman together on a Miami boat called "Monkey Business."
The scope of news coverage was revolutionized again when cable television began filling 24 hours a day with nonstop news, talk, and gossip. "Television tabloid" programs such as Hard Copy and Inside Edition delivered exposés and inside scoops on celebrities. The mainstream press started paying attention. The Washington Post, for example, promoted a new gossip column. The mainstay New York Times even started running short pieces on celebrities.
In the 1990s, scandals reported in mainstream media included Washington Mayor Marion Barry's conviction and sentencing on a drug possession charge after being caught on videotape smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room with a woman who was not his wife during a police raid. Tales of sex and other titillating topics started cascading. The Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas, a black jurist, as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, but not before a former aide, Anita Hill, testified she was sexually harassed by him. There was John Wayne Bobbitt, whose penis was cut off by his wife, Lorena Bobbitt, and who later became a pornographic film curiosity after his organ was surgically replaced. There was the rape trial and acquittal of Senator Edward Kennedy's nephew William Kennedy Smith. But no story to date had captured the public interest as did the nationally televised "trial of the century" in 1995 of O.J. Simpson, who was accused of stabbing his wife, Nicole, and a young man, Ron Goldman, to death. The acquittal of the former professional football hero produced emotions across the nation ranging from outrage to joy. For worldwide coverage, few stories could match the 1997 death of Britain's Princess Diana, who, along with her boyfriend and driver, was killed in an automobile crash after a high-speed chase by photographers through the streets of Paris.
The proportions of the news coverage of the O.J. Simpson case and the death of "Princess Di" were surpassed in the United States when a young woman named Monica Lewinsky arrived in Washington, D.C., and nearly brought down the President of the United States. Her story of sexual intimacy with President William Jefferson Clinton in the Oval Office while she was a White House intern and President Clinton's persistent denials resulted in the House of Representatives' impeachment of Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. After much agonizing, the Senate, in only the second impeachment trial of a president in U.S. history, acquitted Clinton of the charges, thus keeping him in office.
The story of the Clinton presidency involved scandal even before he was elected. Voters elected him despite stories he had had an affair while Arkansas governor with a night club singer named Gennifer Flowers. That story, picked up by the mainstream media, was broken by a grocery store tabloid, the Star, with the bold headline "My 12-Year Affair with Bill Clinton." By coincidence, it was the same publication that brought down Dick Morris, one of Clinton's top political advisers, during the 1996 Democratic convention by breaking the story that Morris had been conducting an extramarital affair with a Washington prostitute at a hotel near the White House.
Media revelations about President Clinton's extramarital affair brought out defenders who pointed out that other presidents, going back to Thomas Jefferson and including Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, had also had affairs. Pundits said future presidential candidates would routinely be queried on their sexual pasts. Where journalists once left the private lives of politicians alone, it appeared the personal problems of politicians would no longer be off the record. There appeared to be no limits to the public's appetite—already stimulated by stories of sex on daytime TV soap operas and in movies and now fed by newspapers, cable TV, and the Internet—for salaciousness and sensation. The last years of the twentieth century saw the way paved for universal coverage of the foibles of the famous, profoundly changing the tone of American politics, largely because of the irresistible dynamics of tabloid journalism.
—Michael L. Posner
Fowler, Gene. A Reporter's Reminiscence of the '20s. New York, Viking Press, 1961.
Greenberg, Gerald S. Tabloid Journalism: An Annotated Bibliography of English-Language Sources. Westport, Connecticut, Green-wood, 1996.
Kamp, David. "The Tabloid Decade." Vanity Fair. Number 462.February 1999, 62-82.
Mencken H. L. The Vintage Mencken. Gathered by Alistair Cooke.New York, Vintage Books, 1955.