In the Time of the Tabs

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, June 2, 1997 | Go to article overview

In the Time of the Tabs


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


No wars? No news? No problem! Let's just entertain ourselves into a celebrity stupor.

DURING WORLD WAll II, GEN. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a married man, fraternized with Kay Summersby, his army driver. As the rumors spread widely, Ike, who had a few other things on his mind, stonewalled, leaving even his friends to wonder about the particulars. Today they would have their fill of the story and then some, courtesy of "Extra," or perhaps The New York Times. He lied! Book Mamie! All that camera equipment would sink the D-Day landing crafts. A half century later, with Ike cashiered, the good people of Minot, N.D., could be gossiping about Kelly Flinn in German.

No wars? No news? No problem. We still have invasions today. Of media hordes, tracking Tiger Woods endorsements. We still have a military. Its primary purpose in the 1990s seems to he to serve as a theater of war between the sexes. Strategy is what gets executed in court and on TV. Espionage is the Globe supermarket tabloid setting up Frank Gifford at a New York hotel. The front is a Mary Albert press conference.

"People know that it is a small time," writes George W.S. Trow in "Within the Context of No Context," a short 1980 book republished this year. "They assume that the small things they hear discussed are gossip because they feel, correctly, that the things they hear and want to hear and insist on hearing are beneath history."

Are we all beneath history, entertaining ourselves into a stupor? Scandal-mongering is ancient. Men (and increasingly women) have always thought too often with a part of their anatomy that is not their brain. And the people around them have always loved to gossip about human frailty, no matter how important the other events of the day. It makes life tim.

But the gulf between what intrigues us and what directly affeets us is widening. Last week, for instance, the country had a choice: chatter about what Mary Albert and some woman might have done to each other in a Virginia hotel room--or about what President Clinton and Trent Lott did do to millions of uninsured American children across the river in Washington, D.C. It was no contest. For now, anyway, Americans are fat, sassy and always hungry for more cheese.

Juicy stories can have fiber. Kelly Flinn's saga is a lot more significant than--blast from the past-Joey Buttafuoco's. But we do have an Importance Gap, and it's worsened by the communication revolution. The "data smog," as author David Shenk calls our wired lives, wafts in on the same cable, modem, screen. Media blur: Eddie Murphy transvestite Russialoosenukes. When news oozes 24 hours a day it's not really news anymore. …

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