The Enquirer’s ghoulish Whitney cash-in

The tabloid publishes a photograph of her corpse -- and proves, again, just how low it will go

Topics: Whitney Houston,

The Enquirer's ghoulish Whitney cash-in Whitney Houston (Credit: Reuters)

What would you call a photograph of a dead celebrity, peddled out to a bottom-feeding rag? How would you describe an image running with the exclamation-pointed words “The last photo!” and details of how much money the jewelry on her corpse was worth? Creepy? Morbid? Gross? Speaking to news on Thursday, ghoulish Enquirer publisher Mary Beth Wright thought her “world exclusive” purported photo of Whitney Houston laid out in her coffin “was beautiful.”

(The Enquirer isn’t yet running the image on its website, but it does offer an “exclusive” from a woman who claims, “I did crack with Whitney!” Oh, National Enquirer, you’re so predictable.)

Death voyeurism is nothing new for the Enquirer. In 1977, the tabloid famously splashed the image of Elvis Presley in his coffin on the front page. In 1980, it managed to go even grislier, devoting the front page to a murdered John Lennon in the morgue. Four years ago, it ran a “chilling final image” of what appeared to be the corpse of Anna Nicole Smith in a body bag, whose authenticity it then refused to verify.

Public viewing of the dead, both in person and via photographs, is not an uncommon occurrence. It’s part of how we process loss — and it’s also a grim way of peering into the abyss we all eventually face. It’s why, after all, we have open caskets in the first place. Consider the body of Lenin, which has been reposing in state for all the world to see for the last eight decades. And when James Brown died, images of his fabulously decked out body, on view at the legendary Apollo Theater, were ubiquitous.

But there’s a pretty obvious line of taste to be drawn between public memorial or a family wake and plain old crass corpse-ogling. The National Enquirer was not disseminating an image that was ever intended to be shared. If it were, there might be a photo credit on it, or at least the Enquirer would own up to how it obtained it. Instead, it’s doing what the Enquirer does, loathsomely reveling in “all the details” of what the paper itself describes as her “private” viewing. A representative of the Newark funeral home where the photo was taken told E! Thursday that she was “very angry, very upset” about the image, adding, “We would not do that.” Someone, however, clearly did, and is no doubt right now waiting for a substantial check to clear. (Fox estimates the payout for the picture could have been as high as six figures.)

What’s almost as sickening as the tawdry exploitation of a woman’s untimely death is the weary acceptance of it. Writing in the LA Times Thursday afternoon, Rene Lynch pointed out that “This is the National Enquirer, people.” In a CBS poll, 28 percent of respondents said it was OK for the Enquirer to publish the image. You don’t go looking for class from the tabs. But being consistently horrible should never make you less accountable.

Whitney herself does indeed look “beautiful” in that picture. Bedecked in jewels, her hair and makeup flawless, she appears more elegant and peaceful than the sadly familiar gaunt, troubled figure of more recent years. But even for a woman who was endlessly scrutinized and photographed, who lived under the flashbulb lights most of her relatively short life, this “last photo!” is a violation. The dead can’t consent. And the living — even those who publish cheap supermarket tabloids — ought to respect that.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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