A Treasure Trove of Tabloid Tales

By Stepp, Carl Sessions | American Journalism Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

A Treasure Trove of Tabloid Tales


Stepp, Carl Sessions, American Journalism Review


"I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby!"--A Colorful History of Tabloids and Their Cultural Impact

Almost as fast as you can say O.J. or JonBenet, the supermarket tabloids are tanking, finding themselves out-tabloided and outsleazed, at least as they see it, by the mainstream press they once sneered at.

When oral sex can dominate the national news for a year and cable channels can go all-celebrity all-the-time, what's left to lure us at the checkout counter? The tabloids' only consolation, as they are backlashed by a sensationalistic media culture they helped breed, may be a morbid pride in what a great headline it makes: TABS REEL, HUMBLED BY THEIR OWN LOVE CHILDREN.

A former tabloid editor and mainstream reporter, Bill Sloan traces the rise, crest and current slump of the tabs in this part-serious, part-comic book that is both useful history and tall-tale treasury.

To be honest, Sloan delivers more successfully on the tabs' "colorful history," as his subtitle promises, than on their "cultural impact."

On the latter point, he flings some bold top-of-the-head assertions, such as labeling the "Age of the Supermarket Tabs" as "the strongest influence of the past hundred years on the overall direction and philosophy of America's mass media."

Maybe, maybe not, but Sloan doesn't slow down for evidence and he doesn't cite a lot of sources. You will have to pardon numerous phases such as "many observers agree," "according to disgruntled industry veterans" or "insiders."

Still, Sloan creditably sets up the tabs as a prominent cultural force, runs through their glory years, and ends with their consolidation under one media giant and their struggle to regain market share in an infotainment-saturated age (see "Taming the Tabloids," September).

It's a good story, dotted with eccentric characters, shadowy mob tie-ins, ruthless competition, a rich sense of the absurd and, naturally, those incomparable headlines:

SEVEN-HOUR ENEMA TURNS BLACK GIRL WHITE!

SHE'LL MARRY THE MAN WHO CUT HER THROAT

NECROPHILIAC PLAYS BASKETBALL WITH DEAD GIRL'S HEAD

BE A B.O. SNIFFER -- FOR $1,000 A WEEK!

MOM CLEANS KIDS BY PUTTING THEM INTO CLOTHES WASHER

PEE WEE HERMAN'S FACE FOUND ON PLANET MARS

The tabloids began as such marginal operations that, Sloan says, nobody even knows when the first issue of the National Enquirer appeared. What is known is that "the father of the modern supermarket tabloid" was Generoso Paul Pope Jr., an MIT grad and ex-CIA operative with "glaringly obvious ties to the underworld."

Pope bought the little-known New York Enquirer for some $75,000 in 1952. Subsidized by Frank Costello, "the most notorious mobster of the era," the paper broke though to profitability with 250,000 circulation by 1958, and then went national. The precise date of the first national edition isn't known and few if any copies exist, Sloan says. …

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