As the respectable media edges closer and closer to its tabloid kin, it spends more time denying the family likeness. Last week, CBS News tantalized viewers with excerpts from an exclusive "60 Minutes" interview with Bill Cosby -- then announced huffily that the full interview wouldn't run because "the (Cosby) story had taken on a ... rather unseemly life of its own," as CBS News President Andrew Heyward put it.
What's the logic here? Surely if the Ennis Cosby murder was important enough to warrant the hype surrounding CBS's "exclusive" (and a six-page cover story in Time magazine to boot), then so is the news that America's favorite role model, the author of a bestselling book called "Fatherhood," may have himself fathered a daughter he's deserted. In many ways, the second story is potentially more revealing than the first, a telling comment on the fragility of a racial politics based on empty symbolism and pointless searches for "role models" untainted by scandal. The Ennis Cosby murder, by contrast, is simply another reminder that random crime can strike anywhere -- as if we need any more such reminders. Indeed, the media attention given to the murder may, ironically, have served to further misinform the American public on the highly-charged issue of crime, the story suggesting in its lurid outlines that our cities are "out of control," when in fact violent crime rates have been declining for several years.
The Cosby case is just one of many "unseemly" stories that have popped up over the past month or two, from the JonBenet Ramsey murder to the return of Paula Jones -- stories that have captured the attention not only of the supermarket tabloids but of the mainstream press as well. In many cases, rightly so: The media is now giving Jones the measured, critical respect she should have gotten back in 1994, when her story was so cavalierly dismissed by a press casually contemptuous of her trailer-park style and ready to laugh off her allegations as little more than tabloid fodder.
But these stories make the mainstream media deeply uncomfortable -- in part because they point out how much the respectable news media has in common with the tabloid rags and sleaze TV we all pretend to hate. I find the hand-wringing itself to be pretty unseemly. The news media doesn't need to be respectable to be effective; the elite media's fear of looking too much like the National Enquirer can actually get in the way of serious journalism -- as it did so clearly in the case of Paula Jones, a case that, for all its tabloid trappings, touches on profound and complex issues of power and its possible abuses.
I'm not going to glorify the tabloid press; I, too, redden a little on those rare occasions when I purchase The National Enquirer in the checkout line. But for all their sordidness, the tabloids (on newsprint and on television) are at least honest about what they do. They rarely pretend to be anything other than relayers of gossip and scandal.
The respectable media could use a little bit of this blunt honesty. It dresses up its prurience with pop psychology "insights" and sociological bombast, but it's not hard to see through the ruse. What do we really learn from these trite pop-culture "analysis" pieces, like, say, the Washington Post's account of the ways in which Ennis' death "Hits (us) Like a Loss in the Family of America"? Post writers Jon Jeter and William Booth spared few platitudes in their attempt to convey the gravity of the situation: "It was like a shared, intimate grief with the treasured entertainer and philanthropist, like some far-flung family worried about the kindly uncle who was struggling with the worst hurt he would ever know."
Similarly unenlightening was Newsweek's cover story on the death of JonBenet Ramsey, which I found difficult to distinguish from the cover stories in the supermarket tabloids that everyone says they despise. I have to say I find the "glamour" photos that Newsweek ran, showing the 6-year-old tarted up like a Vegas showgirl, as disturbing as the "Little Beauty Queen Sex Murder Crime Scene Photos" run by The Globe. Sure, the National Examiner quoted from such dubious "experts" as "famed psychic" Dayle Schear, who suggested "there was a lot of hate surrounding this girl." But Newsweek quoted liberally from "experts" of its own -- most of whom knew precious little about the specifics of the case. Among them: Newsweek Contributing Editor Frank Deford, who as a Miss America judge in 1977 thought JonBenet's mother (Miss West Virginia) spoke well, but was "a little automaton."
Still, in the Ramsey case, the press has felt more than a little squeamish about its own prurience, which is why so many respectable media types denounced the publication of the crime scene photos so vehemently. And because Bill Cosby (even despite the recent revelations) seems to so many in the media to be a man deserving a certain dignity, the Cosby saga has occasioned even more (mostly fruitless) hand-wringing among members of the press embarrassed to have invaded the private life of such a beloved figure. Both Fox News and CNN opted out of the press "stakeout" of Cosby's house early on, and CNN apologized for airing close-up footage of Ennis Cosby's body. "We have standards which are much higher than this," CNN president Tom Johnson told Cosby, "and I can only say this was an aberration." No such standards applied to the reporters covering, say, Richard Jewell.
It's all a bit reminiscent of the legendarily violent crime comics of the 1950s. The comics publishers, properly fearful of censorship, claimed they were offering morality tales designed to prevent crime, but any 10-year-old reader with half a brain knew that was pretty much bunk. The covers shouted "CRIME" in letters several inches high, with the phrase "does not pay" hidden off in the corner.
People turn to the news (in all its varieties) for many reasons, some good, others base. It's hard to know just when healthy curiosity gives way to unhealthy voyeurism. And I'm much less troubled by this question than many of our media critics pretend to be. But as Freud pointed out so long ago, even the most noble of us have ignoble impulses under the skin -- and those who pretend to be the most virtuous are often the most rotten inside.
Book advance whores
Speaking of Tabloids: In the Feb. 3 issue of Time magazine, professional curmudgeon Calvin Trillin attempts to explain the ethical difference between Dick Morris selling his story to Random House and Sherry Rowlands selling her story to the Star. Trillin confesses he hasn't "been able to think of a convincing answer beyond pointing out that Random House had paid a lot more than the Star and in a capitalist society a large sum of money brings a certain amount of respect, even if it is spent on a book that turns out to be a turkey." The Morris book also raises the possibility that in the future, writers who get caught, er, consulting "with a hooker in a cheap motel (will) be able to say to their wives, 'I was only trying to get a bigger advance.'" Hey, it's a tough business.