Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tabloid Valley: Supermarket News and American Culture.

By Paula E. Morton.

Gainesville: University Press of Florida, June 2009. Cloth: ISBN 0813033640, $24.95. 224 pages.

Review by Amarnath Amarasingam, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

In Boca Raton, Florida, stands the main office of American Media Incorporated (AMI), the owner of the six major supermarket tabloids in the United States. The mention of supermarket tabloids produces mixed reaction from many individuals: they are thought to be run by sleazy, invasive, aggressive, liars producing stories that ought to float to the seabed of low culture. Paula Morton, however, is not concerned with how these tabloids are viewed. Rather, her book is a fascinating romp through the world of supermarket tabloids, providing a mixture of history, sociology, and gossip. Chapter 1 provides a short, and fairly sloppy, introduction to the world of tabloids. Tabloids do not pretend to compete with the more respected producers of news like The New York Times or The Washington Post. Instead, they aim to tell a story that cannot be found elsewhere, focusing on who did what, rather than why they did it. They appeal to emotions, seek to provide a provocative photograph, and write headlines that invite curiosity. Chapter 2 tells the story of Generoso Pope Jr. who, in 1952, purchased the New York Enquirer and promised that it would not “become a tabloid.” Pope, however, was “an underdog in the crowded urban newspaper market,” and many of his editorial choices had been unsuccessful (24).

While driving by a car accident one day, Pope realized that the sight of blood tended to transfix onlookers. This insight would lead the tabloid into what became known as its “gore years.” Pope began publishing stories of gory murders and accidents, and by the mid-1950s had enough financial leverage to expand distribution, and rebrand the tabloid as the National Enquirer. The Enquirer, famous for its gore, began to change in the 1960s. As the supermarket began to replace the corner grocer and the newsstand, Pope decided to transform the Enquirer from “a gory tabloid into a uniquely American one suitable for suburban supermarkets and the women who shopped at them” containing “rags-to-riches stories, hero awards, animal rescues” and medical breakthroughs (35). By 1970, the Enquirer was selling around two million copies per week. Even though the magazine was selling well, it was only after moving the entire operation to South Florida that the Enquirer truly prospered.

Chapter 3 explores Pope’s relocation of the Enquirer to South Florida. As Paulson states, Pope’s phenomenal success in South Florida made it a “mecca for tabloid journalism” (44). With success grew Pope’s jealous guarding of every aspect of his tabloid: “Pope demanded competence, productivity, and allegiance as he aimed for his dream goal of making twenty million circulation sales in a week” (45). Pope had a sharp business sense, did not mind paying good money to good writers and reporters, and kept workplace competition at a high to spur productivity. Pope also did not spare any expense when looking for a story: reporters travelled first class to far-flung parts of the world and “the funds available for confidential information and exclusive contracts were seemingly inexhaustible” (54). A reporter named Bob Temmey, for example, scaled the Himalayas to find evidence of the Abominable Snowman, while other reporters situated behind the Iron Curtain investigated the Soviet Union’s studies of the paranormal.

Such “checkbook journalism” was considered to be unethical by most mainstream journalists, but it easily “ties up an exclusive interview and builds the critical list of confidential contacts that is hoarded by each reporter and editor” (66). The National Enquirer held a virtual monopoly on tabloids until 1974, when Rupert Murdoch introduced National Star. The main battle between the two tabloids had to do with the death of Elvis Presley in 1977. The National Enquirer and the National Star dispatched dozens of reporters to Memphis, Tennessee with tens of thousands of dollars which were to be used to buy exclusives. The Enquirer eventually won the battle with an exclusive photo: a picture of Presley in his casket. The Enquirer never revealed its source for the photograph, only admitting that it was a distant relative of Elvis. The issue, published on September 6, 1977, sold a record breaking 6.5 million copies.

From June 1994 until October 1995, the mainstream media and the tabloids in the United States were transfixed with the O.J. Simpson trial. As David Perel, the lead editor on the story for the National Enqurier, says, “Within a few hours it became clear O.J. Simpson himself was a suspect. I immediately put eight reporters on the story and we were at O.J.’s house before the coroner arrived” (115). The Enquirer, at least when it came to the Simpson case, was putting traditional news media to shame. As Morton states, “The Enquirer was by far the leading news-gathering team among both mainstream and tabloid media covering the Simpson case. Frequently, the mainstream media looked to the Enquirer for accurate inside information” (118). Even after September 11, 2001, some tabloid reporters travelled to Afghanistan and interviewed ex-members of al-Qaeda.

The subtitle of Tabloid Valley is Supermarket News and American Culture. However, the book contains more supermarket news than reflections or insights on American culture. As this review should make clear, much of the content of the book is filled with gossip, some history, and some information about behind-the-scenes bureaucracy. While telling a compelling story from when the tabloids dealt with the death of Elvis to the trial of O.J. Simpson, with a slew of minor stories in between, Morton never gets around to adequately answering the “so what?” question. Why, if indeed they are important, should we care about tabloids? What do they contribute to American culture? Or, more importantly, what do they say about American culture? None of these questions, aside from cursory mentions of certain stories having a “national impact” and a short discussion in chapter 7, are explored in any great depth. However, the book could serve as a very basic introduction to some aspects of American culture in undergraduate courses, but only if it is supplemented with more scholarly material.

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