“Surgeons Cut My Head Off—And Sewed It Back On!”
That’s a real headline from the Weekly World News. The tabloid’s front cover shows a surgeon fussing over an operating table with the severed head of an attractive brunette wearing an expression of perfect serenity.
Tabloid journalism has always fascinated me, so much so that I forced the protagonist of my novel, The Journalist, to work for a tabloid and concoct stories like the one above.
What’s a tabloid? In general terms, it refers to newspapers half the dimension of broadsheets, which we can think of as the standard size for a newspaper. Right here I need to distinguish between tabloid-sized newspapers and tabloid journalism. Almost every large city has a respectable, tabloid-sized newspaper (to make it easier to read on a subway?). Those papers often refer to themselves as compact. But tabloid journalism is associated with the tabloid-sized papers of questionable repute found in supermarket checkout counters.
My novel’s hero has written breathless articles about green aliens who’ve taken up residence at the Boston Red Sox playing field, a famous television cook who’s gone on a hunger strike, and a boy in Brisbane who can tell the future by licking truck tires. Bizarre topics like these are only slight exaggerations of what some tabloids print.
The first tabloid newspaper is thought to be The Daily Mirror, started in London in 1903 by the interestingly named Alfred Harmsworth. By 1909 it was selling a million copies a day. Competitors flourished across the globe.
Today’s tabloids specialize in celebrity gossip with paparazzi photos showing their subject in awkward situations. We learn of the subject’s alarming weight gain, drinking problems, family troubles and general misbehavior—we’re more than happy to learn that the rich and famous are no better than we are. A few tabloids take a strong political stand. Those I avoid.
The Onion (which you can read online) brilliantly spoofs tabloids. Several daytime television shows owe their existence to tabloid journalism.
What’s true in a tabloid and what’s not? If the front page reads, “Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby” and shows an “official photo” of the former First Lady tentatively gripping a creepy, bald, babyish thing, then you can be pretty sure the story is fake. (Yes, that actually appeared in the Weekly World News.)
Some stories hover between truth and fiction. Tales of celebrity misdoings sometimes stray over the libel line and get the paper’s owners in court. And once in a while a grocery-store tabloid will beat the respectable press to a story. Tabloids were the first to disclose that the married Senator John Edwards had fathered a child with his girlfriend, which brought to an end his presidential run.
As stated earlier, I have a weakness for tabloids, the more lurid the better. While standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, I’ll often grab a tabloid off the rack, drop it on top of a box of Corn Flakes and mutter to the person behind me, “Uncle Larry asked me to pick up a copy.”
I’m not sure I’m fooling anyone.