Albion Monitor /Commentary

Who's To Blame For The Tabloidization Of The News?

by Randolph T. Holhut

The one-hour documentary is now extinct on network television, replaced by newsmagazine shows like "Dateline" and "48 Hours"
(AR) If you think sensationalism in the press began with the supermarket tabloids, People magazine and TV shows like "A Current Affair" or "Hard Copy," let me submit for your approval a memo written for the staff of one of the Hearst newspapers back in the 1920s that was obtained by my late friend, George Seldes:

"We must consider that the composite newspaper reader does not care a hang about tax rates, budgets, insurance, disarmament, naval appropriations, public utilities policies, municipal improvements, or scores of other subjects which may appear to be important.

"Newspaper readers are most interested in stories which contain the elements most dominant in the primitive emotions of themselves, namely:

"(1) Self-preservation...Under this heading come stories of murder, suicide, rescues, accidents, fights, facts as to health, food, liquor, etc.

"(2) Love, or reproduction...This element is contained in stories of marriage, scandal, divorce, human triangles, romances, unusual acts done with love motive, jealousy, sex attraction, etc.

"(3) Ambition...The ambition element is contained in articles tending to stimulate the reader to emulate the activity of a character in the story. Sports come under this classification.

"Stories containing one of these elements are good; those which contain two of the elements are better; those which contain all three elements form first-class newspaper material..."

Seven decades later, this formula still applies. After all the tears have been shed for Princess Diana, after all the outrage and anger directed toward the paparazzi and the tabloids they shoot for dies down, after the shock of a stupid and senseless death dies down, people will still be hungry for celebrity gossip and frothy feature stories.

Why do the news magazines no longer feature political or international news stories on their covers? Because a cover hyping a pop star, a new movie or some lifestyle trend sells more magazines. Why have the network news programs cut back on hard news? Because in a media universe with hundreds of channels of entertainment, you have to keep the viewers tuned in and political coverage or international news makes people reach for the remote.

The one-hour documentary is now extinct on network television, replaced by newsmagazine shows like "Dateline" and "48 Hours" that are long on sizzle and short on steak. Unless forced to out of professional obligation, there's scarcely a person under the age of 40 that regularly reads a newspaper or watches the evening news. The supermarket tabs and magazines like People and US and Vanity Fair still do a booming business, though.

The news media aren't bringing the people the real facts anymore
Are editors and producers giving the people what they want? Absolutely. In the eyes of many of those in the news business, the average news consumer is considered to be a moron who dotes on blood, battle and sex and thus gets the news he deserves.

The former head of the media watchdog group Project Censored, Carl Jensen, has called this type of news, "Junk Food News."

According to Jensen, Junk Food News comes in six flavors: name-brand news (which celebrity or media star is doing what to whom), sex news (no explanation necessary), yo-yo news (the stock market/unemployment rate/crime rate is up or down), crazed news (fads and fashion crazes), play-it-again news (fires, accidents, drug busts and the like) and seasonal news (blizzards, droughts, floods, hurricanes and elections).

While you hear editors cry that they don't have enough space in their newspapers or time on their news broadcasts to tell all the important stories of the day, it seems that there's a higher premium placed on titillation rather than information. "We're suffering from news inflation," wrote Jensen in the 1994 edition of the Project Censored Yearbook. "There seems to be more of it than ever before and it isn't worth as much as it used to be."

It may be unrealistic to expect people to now start reading The Economist or the Financial Times rather than People and the National Enquirer, but if folks really are disgusted by the tabloidization of the news media, here's a prescription from Jensen for kicking the Junk Food News habit.

"The corporate media owners should start to earn their unique First Amendment privileges. Editors should rethink their news judgment. Journalists should persevere in going after the tough stories. Journalism professors should emphasize ethics and critical analysis and turn out more muckrakers and fewer buckrakers. The judicial system should defend the freedom-of-the-press provision of the First Amendment with far more vigor. And the public show the media that it is more concerned with the high crimes and misdemeanors of its political and corporate leaders than it is with dinosaurs, sluts and adulterers."

Abraham Lincoln once said that "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."

The news media aren't bringing the people the real facts anymore. Until the owners and editors hear otherwise, you are going to get the same sensational crap at the expense of the truth that we need to face our many national and international crises.

Randolph T. Holhut is a freelance journalist and editor of "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books)

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Albion Monitor September 15, 1997 (

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