Facts, Fallacies, and Fears of TABLOIDIZATION
Lynn Jr. Washington
Many mainstream media managers applauded themselves in early 1999 for not running with a story that Pres. Clinton fathered the teenaged son of a black former prostitute in Arkansas, despite the story being “out there” on the Internet, in a few newspapers, and as fodder on some syndicated talk shows. What appeared to be another salacious chapter in the Clinton sex scandals self-destructed when DNA tests failed to prove the President’s alleged paternity.
Mainstream managers cited their restraint in not going with this scandalous rumor as compelling proof that their journalistic standards–based on reporting of documented facts–still prevailed in the current media landscape saturated with the tabloid-style, “anything goes” approach to news coverage, Yet, as one media observer noted, the decision to delay running with what the New York Post headline termed the “Clinton Paternity Bombshell” was commendable, but certainly “not the mainstream news media’s finest hour.”
Today, the wall between the so-called fact-based standards of mainstream journalism and the “never-let-facts-stand-in-the-way-of-a-good-story” standards associated with tabloid journalism is porous. Frequently, the standards that supposedly separate mainstream journalism from tabloid journalism–ranging from stories about Bill Clinton to to those concerning former football star/ actor O.J. Simpson–can be a distinction without a difference.
Erosion in the wall separating mainstream. and tabloid standards is the subject of soul searching, sparking a healthy debate both in and outside of journalism. However, for many advocates of media quality, particularly racial minorities, this debate is largely irrelevant because it does not address long-standing questions of deficient, biased coverage by both mainstream and tabloid media.
Interestingly, the steady encroachment of tabloid-style journalism into mainstream media is actually having an adverse impact on tabloid publications and broadcast programs. Circulation at two leading tabloid newspapers–The National Enquirer and the Star–has dropped sharply. At the Enquirer, weekly circulation ebbed to 2,240,000 at the end of 1998, down from 5.000,000 in 1977.
The decrease in tabloid newspaper circulation parallels comparable declines in viewership of tabloid television news programs. Today, just three tabloid TV news programs remain, half the number of a few years ago, and these survivors are offering more tame presentations. One explanation for the decline in tabloid TV news programs cited in a January, 1999, New York Times business section article–the migration of tabloid-style stories to “traditional news organizations”–mirrors a reason cited for the decrease in tabloid newspaper circulation contained in a 1997 Times business section article. At that time, the drop was attributed to increasing interest by the mainstream press in “sensational stories.”
Some see the tabloidization of mainstream journalism as a good thing, claiming it benefits a staid medium and media consumers alike. “America’s mainstream media need more tabloid values,” exhorted a March, 1999, op-ed piece by British journalist Mark Steyn published in the Wall Street Journal. Steyn, a columnist for Great Britain’s Daily Telegraph, praised tabloid journalists for getting “the story” on Princess Diana’s hollow marriage and Pres. Clinton’s womanizing. He lambasted mainstream journalism as “house-trained,” mired in “monarchical deference” instead of digging into stories and tossing some dirt along the way, “The respectable media have achieved a weird distinction: They’re boring without being serious,” Steyn stated, contending that the “tabloid reptiles” work harder at getting juicy stories than mainstream reporters.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz scorched Steyn’s advocacy of tabloid values on mainstream journalism. Kurtz attacked such tactics as “trading cash for information” and setting people up, citing The Globe for paying a former flight attendant to lure ABC sports announcer Frank Gifford into a hotel room for a videotaped liaison.
Mainstream journalists should not “emulate the seedier tabloid tactics,” Kurtz admonished in a March, 1999, column. The only thing Kurtz and Steyn agreed on is that tabloids did a better job covering the O.J. Simpson trials than the mainstream press did.
While few feel that tabloid Visigoths are on the verge of sacking the standards of mainstream journalism, the increasing prevalence of tabloid-style stories on the pages of prestigious newspapers and on network newscasts is causing alarm. “Once tabloid topics and questionable allegations are in play, and in play widely, can newspapers and broadcast operations simply ignore them’? Do they roll over and go with the flow? Or is there something in between?,” asked American Journalism Review magazine columnist Rem Rieder in his March, 1999, column.
Irrespective of the sincerity of this debate over the creep of tabloid standards into mainstream media, the issue suffers from a shortsighted focus on smoke rather than the fire. Missing from the debate is agreement to address increasing shallowness in mainstream coverage on matters of public substance. Political campaign coverage, tot instance, places more emphasis on poll results and reporting candidates’ fax pas than on probing campaign claims by candidates. The intimacies of celebrity lifestyles receive wider coverage than the intricacies of public and corporate policies that affect quality-of-life issues.
Curiously the American media historically has reveled in stories which involve sex, crime, and human sensationalism –generally considered the character traits of contemporary tabloid journalism. For example, the 19th-century penny press had a feeding frenzy with the 1836 are murder of prostitute Helen Jewett by Richard Robinson, printing lurid details and fictionalized accounts. Decades before the media orgies in the Simpson and Dr. Sam Sheppard trials, New York City newspapers went wild with the trial of Harry Thaw for the 1906 love triangle murder of wealthy architect Stanford White. The lurid coverage of this “trial of the century” outraged Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, who attempted unsuccessfully to have the post of rice stop the mailings of newspapers filled with “such loathsome” coverage.
Another important historical aspect missing from this debate is the media legacy–mainstream and tabloid–of inaccurate, inadequate coverage of issues related to minorities, particularly blacks. Minorities constantly feel maligned by the “white” media.
The initial editorial in America’s first black-owned newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, stated in March, 1827, that blacks “have suffered much by being incorrectly represented” in the press. The criticism in the 1968 Kerner Commission report that the media fails to “report adequately” on race relations remains true today. Confirmation of the criticisms contained in the Freedom’s Journal editorial and Kerner Commission report are abundant in even a cursory examination of major news events of the 1990s. Most media approached the brutal March, 1991, beating of Rodney King as a horrific aberration and not another incident of systemic Los Angeles Police Department brutality. Yet, in the years before the King beating, racially stained police brutality controversies involving misuse of fatal chokeholds and police attack dogs swirled around the LAPD, producing class-action lawsuits.
The Simpson trials sparked many latent biases in the media. Time’s digitally darkening and adding ape-like features to Simpson, creating a menacing cover picture during the criminal trial phase, angered many. Media reporting on both Simpson trials emphasized anything incriminating, while slighting exculpatory evidence. For instance, reporters downplayed favorable bloodstain evidence during the criminal trial and ignored Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki’s record of biased rulings against blacks in race discrimination cases during the civil trial. This one-sided coverage by predominately white reporters resulted from race bias, according to Dennis Schatzman, the only African-American reporter to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of both trials. “Blacks appear to not be entitled to equal and fair treatment by the news media … even if they’re rich,” stated Schatzman, a former judge and co-author of The Simpson Trial in Black and White, during a January, 1977, address to newspaper publishers.
During the height of the 1998 House impeachment proceedings, information resurfaced regarding the ties of key Republican players in this constitutional controversy to a white supremacist/anti-Semitic hate group, the Council of Conservative Citizens. The relationship between House impeachment prosecutor Bob Barr (R.-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott with the CCC was certainly “out there.” It received early exposure by The Village Voice in 1996 and later coverage in the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. However, mainstream and tabloid media exhibited little interest in playing up the associations of prominent impeachment players with a racist organization. Some observers saw a double standard in the failure to treat the Lott-Barr-CCC connection with the same glaring coverage given black leaders deemed too chummy with alleged hate-mongers like Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
For many African-Americans, the intense attack by mainstream media on the August, 1996, “Dark Alliance” investigative series ignited renewed distrust of the white media’s credibility, particularly its commitment to accurate reporting. The articles detailed a massive drug- and weapons-selling scheme in South Central Los Angeles during the 1980s involving men closely connected with the contras, a guerrilla movement created by the CIA to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
This three-part series stuck a chord in African-Americans unlike any media account in recent memory because it provided plausible explanations to perplexing questions about the cocaine epidemic ravishing black communities. Written by reporter Gary Webb for the San Jose Mercury News, Dark Alliance compiled an impressive array of government documents, court records, interviews, and other materials to detail a trail of cocaine shipments from Central America through contra associates in California to a black Los Angeles drug dealer. Webb’s series did not charge the CIA with directly ordering the dumping of cocaine into black communities, as erroneously asserted by his major media detractors. It did present compelling evidence, though, that CIA officials knew about the contra drug trafficking and did nothing.
The major media attacks. The major media initially ignored the disturbing revelations raised in the series, despite its appearance during a period when issues related to America’s drag problems dominated the Bill Clinton-Bob Dole presidential campaign. Nearly two months after its publication, however, the major media unleashed an unprecedented attack on the series. America’s premier news organizations castigated Webb professionally and personally, accusing him of egotistically sensationalizing unsubstantiated claims of contra-CIA drug connections. Additionally, the anti-Dark Alliance coverage assailed African-Americans for accepting Webb’s baseless allegations about such a connection. An Oct. 4, 1996, Washington Post article examined the angle of blacks embracing as “fact unsubstantiated reports or rumors about conspiracies targeting blacks.”
One extraordinary aspect of the series is the fact that it gained wide popularity during the weeks following publication through its availability on the Internet and extensive coverage by alternative and black-owned media. “Ever since [the Mercury News] story was published, two questions continue to nag me. Why haven’t the major media picked up on this? And why haven’t the presidential candidates even mentioned this story,” wrote Washington, D.C., talk radio host and NAACP national board member Joe Madison in a Sept. 28, 1996, commentary published in the Washington Afro-American.
A questionable aspect of the salvos against Dark Alliance was that the factual foundation for Webb’s series was “out there” for over a decade. The archives of most newspapers attacking Dark Alliance contained articles amply documenting Webb’s claims of Federal government complicity with contra drug trafficking plus black concerns about the drug glut and biased Drug War enforcement.
Many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, carded a December, 1985, Associated Press article on contra cocaine trafficking that cited a “new secret CIA-prepared analysis.” Numerous media accounts in 1986 presented developments in this contra-cocaine story, including Reagan Administration denials of wrongdoing by the guerrillas.
In July, 1987, the House Select Committee on Narcotics concluded that “evidence existed” linking the contras to drug smuggling. A Senate subcommittee issued a lengthy, scathing report in 1989 detailing Federal government complicity with contra drug dealing. Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.), chair of the Terrorism and Narcotics Subcommittee, began his probe in the wake of the 1985 Associated Press report. Major media attacks on Webb’s reporting of Federal agency complicity with contra drag dealing made scant reference to the documentation in these Congressional reports. This failure to check clips was not the only journalistic flaw contained in the anti-Dark Alliance coverage. The Los Angeles Times did a tabloid imitation of eschewing previously reported facts in its October, 1996, attack on the series.
Webb identified black drug dealer Ricky Ross as the kingpin at the end of the contra cocaine pipeline. The Times article stated Ross had “nothing to do” with the epidemic rise of crack cocaine in Los Angeles. Yet, two years before this attack article, the Times published an extensive article identifying Ross as the “outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles’ streets with mass-marketed cocaine.”
“In all the stories about `black paranoia’ trolled forth by Webb’s assailants one topic was conspicuously ignored: the long history of the racist application of US drug laws,” stated the authors of the 1998 book, White Out: The CIA, Drugs and the Press. The nationwide controversy over the charges in Webb’s series forced the CIA to conduct an internal probe. The results, released in 1998, confirmed that the CIA knew about contra drag trafficking, failed to stop it, and misled investigators about the trafficking. Nevertheless, the major media issued no corrections about its flawed reports attacking Webb and African-American reaction to Dark Alliance.
If the mainstream media is to fulfill its stated commitment to fact-based standards, it must do more than merely lessening its coverage of tabloid-style stories. Mainstream media must accurately and effectively report stories from all strata of American society. Further, it must end what Mark Steyn called “monarchical deference” to the prevailing status quo.
Lynn Washington Jr. is assistant professor of journalism, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pa.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Society for the Advancement of Education
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group
Thanks to MJJJusticeProject warrior @CUOREMJJ who researched and found this article. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1272/is_2654_128/ai_57564088/