Jerome Shea       February 22, 2009      Weekend Wonk

So there I was in the checkout the other day and a cover story and headline assailed my eye. The picture was of our new First Couple (dancing, I think). The President’s back is to us and the First Lady is looking over his shoulder with an ominous scowl. The headline? “MICHELLE TO OPRAH: BACK OFF! HE’S MINE!’”

Welcome to the world of the checkout line tabloids, familiar to us all. A wonk on tabloids seemed just too easy, but I couldn’t get that caption out of my head, so I thought I’d have a go.

(First let me lament the passing of my favorite, the News of the World, which provided me my very favorite headline some years ago: “SIAMESE TWINS TO FACE FIRING SQUAD.” Seems that one of the conjoined twins had been convicted of a capital crime. His innocent brother acknowledged that justice had to be done. Still, he was understandably glum about it. The News of the World went defunct in this country some years ago, but—hurrah!—you can catch the British version on the internet.)

The ones in my supermarket were the Globe, the National Enquirer—which I think has been around almost as long as I have—and the National Examiner, clearly a titular rip-off. They are, of course, interchangeable. Every issue has to have an Obama story, an Oprah story, and a Bush story (you know, I’m sure, that Laura is finally fed up with George’s philandering with Condi Rice: splitsville for the former First Couple). And some stories will be “news” for months. The sudden death of Jett Travolta—a genuine tragedy—they will be gnawing like a bone for many more weeks, I’m sure. (Hard to pass up the extortion angle, the Scientology angle, and whatever else is garnish.) Ditto with the Caylee Anthony murder and Patrick Swayze’s and Ted Kennedy’s cancers (look for last ditch treatments, maybe trips to Lourdes). This is where the world comes to gossip.

It’s also where the world comes to gawk, although I was surprised to find not a single Bigfoot story in these three editions. That certainly used to be a staple (“BIGFOOT’S BABY BORN TO GIRL, 9”), as was Nessie and other critters that we want desperately to believe in. Physical oddities abound: five-legged calves, hermaphrodites, throw-backs, world’s tallest or shortest or fattest or skinniest. One rag got a lot of mileage out of “batboy.” No, not like in baseball: this was a boy who was half bat (fangs, pointed leathery ears), with hideous—and hokey—pictures happily supplied. The Roswell UFO story is a perennial favorite, and one rag had its own in-house alien. For this they always used the same silly disguise, a lanky guy in a body suit with slitted eyes and very long, slender fingers. They posed him early on with the newly elected Bill Clinton, who was given a complimentary ride in the fellow’s spaceship. And when George Bush succeeded Clinton, darned if the space alien didn’t show up again, with the free galactic tour! It’s the geek tent, folks, and you needn’t leave the comfort of your recliner.

Pictures are half of it, this being the age of the paparazzi. For all I know, the celebrity pictures may be genuine, since you can always catch someone unawares. Thus Michelle Obama’s scowl, Whitney Houston’s glare, this one looking haggard, that one looking drunk. The choicest are aging celebrities at the beach, looking six years older than God. Did you know that Laura Bush got a face-lift? Hey, pictures don’t lie. You are either stunning or ghastly. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.

It’s easy to make fun of the tabloids, but one must beware on a couple of counts. When I was buying my “research” at the grocery store, I made a big deal out of the fact that I was simply a columnist who needed something to write about—heaven forbid that I should take this stuff seriously! Then I shared my Michelle/Oprah headline with the cashier, a cheery, grandmotherly type. But rather than think it an outrageous hoot, she said, with something amounting to concern, “You know, I did hear that they were on the outs.” Then she added, diplomatically, “Of course, one hears all sorts of things these days.” A lot of people do believe this stuff, so to make fun of the tabloids is, in a sense, to make fun of those gullible readers. And such mean-spiritedness leaves a bad taste in the mouth, or should.

And there is another reason why the tabloids aren’t just for chuckles, as we’ll see next week.

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