Tabloids: Elvis is Dead

One depends upon a tabloid like The National Enquirer, whether surreptitiously in the supermarket checkout line, or luxuriantly and unapologetically over a nice bowl of soup, to be sleazy in its journalistic style, juicy in its revelations, skewering in its attitudes toward celebrities' privileges, and worshipful toward their diets, addictions, recoveries, charitable activities, and alien visitations. It is therefore disappointing to find that The National Enquirer: Thirty Years of Unforgettable Images, the photograph collection recently published by Disney-owned Talk Miramax books, has been considerably sanitized for its appearance on coffee tables.

Aside from the book's inside covers, the screaming, lovable headlines of the Enquirer ("Miss America in Weird Cult -- Brainwashed Members Even 'Baa' Like Sheep," "Dolly's Breasts are Killing Her," "Madonna Stole My Lesbian Lover") have been banished, replaced by straightforward, fact-riddled captions and congratulatory, curatorial prose by former editor in chief Steve Coz ("The Enquirer fills the needy psyche of an American society caught in a tortured love affair with celebrity") and Jonathan Mahler, a founding editor of the recently deceased Talk (the Enquirer is "a creature of a disillusioned nation"). Instead of the demotion of smudgy newsprint, the subjects of these photos are given a glossy promotion. The resulting book is, sadly, quite beautiful.

Historically, the tabloids' role has been to topple public figures from the pedestals built by PR machines, to humanize stars by showing their flaws and everyday habits, and to suggest that celebrities are a kooky, spoiled class. There is some of that good stuff in this book. We see TV star Kelsey Grammar after a DUI conviction, a drunken Rock Hudson, Margaux Hemingway's exposed breast, Julia Roberts's unshaven armpit, Liza Minnelli without her false eyelashes and dyed hair, and Mel Gibson with a piece of lettuce on his teeth. We get famous people's police-station mug shots. We get sarcastic juxtapositions of images: on one page, Prince Charles and Princess Di and children, and next to it JonBenet Ramsey and family in a Christmas photo; Michelle Phillips holding a gruesome mummy from a monster flick, and on the opposite page a leukemia patient held by a post-plastic-surgery Michael Jackson. These are the Enquirer at its meanest and best.

But what's really striking about the book is how much clean laundry it airs. More than anything else, it is a lavish, bland, Disney?ed tribute to American celebrity. Most of the shots are indistinguishable from publicity photos; many simply are publicity photos. Thin Oprah runs a marathon, Tammy Faye Bakker wipes her eyes, Rosie O'Donnell waves from a crowd of kids, Tina Turner plays rugby, Tiny Tim plays the ukulele. Brad Pitt poses in a tank top, Jane Seymour in a ball gown, Liberace in an endless fur coat, and George Clooney with a potbellied pig. There are famous moments memorialized: Geraldo Rivera with a broken nose after a fight with neo-Nazis, Elvis in his coffin, Ted Danson in blackface. There are celebrities as kids, celebrities in wedding gowns, dead celebrities. It's all very People.

With pride, the Enquirer book points out that the non-tabloid press has come to look and act more like the tabloids over the past thirty years. And indeed, the establishment media have become yellower, running after the same crime, celebrity, and scandal stories, and often being scooped by the Enquirer, which, after all, is willing to pay its sources. The publication had the photo of Donna Rice on Gary Hart's lap and of O.J. Simpson wearing Bruno Magli shoes he'd denied owning. It broke the Jesse Jackson "love child" scandal and the story of Hugh Rodham's pay-for-pardon attempts on behalf of a wealthy businessman. The famous picture of Bill Clinton with a beret-wearing Monica Lewinsky, the book's editors remind us several times, ran on the covers of both Time and the Enquirer.

Not surprisingly, establishment publications are not entirely comfortable with their own profit-driven moves toward the tabloid, a trend that raises conflicts with many long-held journalistic traditions, puts them in competition with even more media organizations, and threatens the claim that their product is a superior and more legitimate one. Their reviewers -- perhaps eager to remind readers how their publications differ from the tabloids -- are cranky about the Enquirer book. "Brain candy," scolded The New York Times. "Even truly important people and significant events become reduced to fleeting icons of sentiment. . . . The pictures are no more than prurient voyeurism." And according to the Los Angeles Times, the book demonstrates "the undeniable coarsening of American culture" and "thoroughly collapses fame and infamy with nihilistic glee."

Given how disconcertingly deodorized the book is, though, those complaints seem a bit misplaced. What's remarkable about this volume is not the coarseness and voyeurism of American culture that's still visible within it, nor even the reminders about the tabloidization of establishment media. What's interesting is how vividly it illustrates quite the reverse: the deliberate mainstreaming of tabloid media. Most American tabloids -- The National Enquirer, The Globe, the Star, the National Examiner, and Weekly World News -- are published by American Media, Inc. (owned by Evercore Capital Partners), which in recent years has made a systematic effort to make itself more respectable.

As Steve Coz, now American Media's editorial director, puts it in his introduction to the book: "When chasing a news event that is truly larger than life, the Enquirer is at its best. There is a cleanness to the Enquirer then." Evercore has put considerable cash behind this effort. "I work in front of a turbo-powered computer, in a sparkling new office building that houses ten different magazines," Coz brags. And while these words were written before American Media was mailed an anthrax-laden letter last fall and had to abandon its new building and Coz's walls "adorned with awards and photos," his point remains clear: American Media is a news conglomerate like any other. And so the new Enquirer offers you this book with a cleanness to it, its memorable-celebrity-moments photos sparkling and inoffensive. It signals a quiet change in tabloids, a pulling back from what is in fact an important role in American culture: as dishonorable debunkers of the publicist-painted image, as cheerful seekers of the unseemly.