Suzanne Fields
What would a world without tabloids look like? Not as much fun, for sure, if the tattletales and snoopers and others of irreverent ilk lost their voices on the printed page. Who would supply headlines such as, "Headless Body Found in Topless Bar" (New York Post), "Ford to City: Drop Dead" (New York Daily News), or perhaps the pithiest of them all, the show biz tab Variety on the stock-market crash that announced the Depression, "Wall Street Lays an Egg." Who among us doesn't get a touch of schadenfreude watching feet of clay crumble in shoes?

This is not high art, but it's the stuff that's sold in the penny press (as it was called in less inflationary times) ever since Johannes Gutenberg and his famous press shortened the time between illumination and publication. Most of us don't lust after the lurid details of the grotesque, but we don't mind a little titillation.

The line between what's pubic and what's private in the prints is something like pornography -- you know it when you see it. We've come a long way from days when high society was off limits because good taste demanded it. The tabloids have always known what you can get away with, just, and the tabs have been the arbiters of what passes and what's over-the-line. Vulgarity drives the mainstream press now, and the new social media are as much about exhibitionism as communication, so the boundaries have been blurred in a lasting way.

In a defense of tabloid exposure, Ryan Linkof, a history instructor at the University of Southern California, makes a good case in The New York Times for the way the tabloids persist in breaking down the wall between the social elites and ordinary people. This, he says, benefits democracy in the pursuit of truth. Newspapers are content with the less noble pursuit of mere facts, which is usually very different from truth.

Citing the excessively protective treatment of the royal visit of the newly married Prince William and Kate Middleton, he observes how we long to get beneath the banal shields of the rich and famous. Exposure mitigates tension between social groups.

The appetite for the follies of royals as well as Hollywood celebrities reduces envy, giving lower-rung watchers a less obstructed view and sometimes even that precious schadenfreude, the taking of delight in the troubles of others. It's the price the privileged pay for their luxurious toys and celebrated distinctions and the price we pay for allowing the press to satisfy popular curiosity. The passion of the tabloid press for a story come hell or high water -- within legal limits, of course -- occasionally breaks a significant story that the prim and proper press misses.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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