“I WATCHED A WILD HOG EAT MY BABY!” - A COLORFUL HISTORY OF TABLOIDS AND THEIR CULTURAL IMPACT. By Bill Sloan. Prometheus Books. 251 pages. $25.
The title of this one alone should be enough to grab the attention of anyone who has ever chuckled over the headlines on the tabloid racks at the supermarket checkout line.
But Bill Sloan's book is more than a collection of zany anecdotes - though there are some of those, too. It's an insider's look at the growth of the tabloid newspaper business, from its beginnings in sleazy, gore-filled sensationalism and soft-core smut through its evolution into the “semi-respectable” publications they aspire to be today.
Sloan, a former investigative reporter and feature writer for the Dallas Times Herald, has held editorial positions at several of those publications, including the National Tattler, the Globe, and the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, the National Enquirer.
Outrageous as the tabs might seem today, most are pretty tame compared to their predecessors. Murder, mayhem, and sexual perversions of all sorts were common ingredients in the early days of tabloids in the 1950s. The National Informer, for example, bragged that its overriding tone was one of “jovial depravity.”
And as for the veracity of the preposterous stories that fill most tabloids, John Vader, one-time editor of Midnight, explains: “We make a deal with our readers: We won't tell you what's true or not true - and you won't ask.”
The content of the tabs was toned down in the '60s as big-city newsstands began closing down, eliminating the tabloids' primary mode of circulation. Publishers wanted desperately to get onto supermarket racks, and the only way to do that was to clean up their acts, positioning themselves as “family” publications filled with science, education, and human interest stories.
To many observers, celebrity scandals and tabloids go hand-in-hand, but it hasn't always been that way. For a few years after the tabs infiltrated the chain stores, celebrity coverage was a fairly small part of the mix. Much more space was devoted to stories about space aliens, UFOs, and psychics, as well as unsung heroes, wacky inventions, medical breakthroughs, and self-help articles.
Then came Jackie O. From the time in 1968 when JFK's widow married Aristotle Onassis, a billionaire Greek playboy nearly twice her age, the tabs moved into a new era of celebrity coverage - both positive and negative - that continues to this day.
Members of the Kennedy clan have long been favorite targets of the tabs. Some juicy Kennedy headlines over the years: “Marilyn Monroe Was Murdered Because She Had JFK's Baby,” “Rose Kennedy, 71, to Wed Waiter, 23; Teddy Is Furious,” and maybe the best, “Drunken Joan Goes on Rampage With Power Mower, Cuts Down Neighbor's Hedge & Scalps Pet Dog!”
In the early years, “mainstream” journalists looked down their noses at the tabs. This forced tabloid publishers to recruit much of their staffs from among a ready pool of less squeamish journalists in Great Britain, which had its own raunchy tabloid tradition. Since then, though, it has become much easier for the tabs to hire American journalists, mainly by paying them up to three times what they were making at “real” newspapers.
Today, the focus of the major tabloids - especially the Enquirer - remains less on space-alien stories and more on legitimate investigative reporting. In recent years, the Enquirer broke the story of Jesse Jackson's illegitimate daughter, and uncovered evidence that helped incriminate O.J. Simpson in his famous murder trial. (And these days the tabloids themselves are in the news, as anthrax has been found in a Florida building housing some of them.)
America's tabloids hit the peak of their popularity in the '80s, when they reached a combined weekly circulation of 12 million. Since then circulation as fallen dramatically as they've been “out-sensationalized” by TV news magazines and mainstream publications. The tabs' winning formula led directly to the creation of publications like People magazine, a tabloid in slick magazine disguise, and to TV shows such as Hard Copy, Inside Edition, and Entertainment Tonight.
This book probably isn't for those who regularly read the tabloids and may expect something more frivolous. But it's a solid insider's history of America's tabloid newspaper business, including just about everything that enquiring minds might want to know.