TABLOID TELEVISION

"Tabloid television" is the name often used to describe a group of journalistic program formats that achieved high visibility and great popularity during the middle to late 1980s and early 1990s. Generally used with derisive intonations, the label designates a loosely delineated collection of related genres rather than a singular cohesive one. It has typically been taken to include three primary types of popular journalism. The first is so-called "reality-tv," which inserts minicams into a variety of ordinary scenarios like urban law enforcement, and extraordinary ones like spectacular accidents and rescues. Examples include COPS, American Detective, and Rescue 911. In "reality-tv," however, post-hoc reenactments may substitute for "actual footage," and "actual footage" might itself be carefully orchestrated and edited in a variety of ways to match social expectations regarding the characteristics of cops and criminals, for example, and the conventions of television narrative. Tabloid television's second primary type includes unconventional newscasts and documentary programs such as A Current Affair, Sightings and Unsolved Mysteries. Each of these shows simultaneously embodies and violates television's established journalistic conventions. A Current Affair, for instance, copies the structure of the evening newscast, at times apparently only to parody it by transgressing norms of realistic representation or substituting mockery and laughter for high seriousness and reverentially solemn tones. The third primary type of tabloid television is the issue oriented talk show, including Donahue, Oprah and The Ricky Lake Show. Like the other kinds of tabloid tv programs, these differ from "serious journalism" both in form and content. They typically value confrontation over "impartiality" and "objectivity" and include a multiplicity of contesting voices that challenges the traditional central role of the journalistic commentator or anchor. Additionally, they often deal with issues considered too "offensive" or "trivial" for serious journalism (such as marginalized sexual practices or the politics of romance and family life).

Tabloid television's explosion was abetted by a number of significant changes in American broadcasting that occurred during the 1980s. Among the most important of these were the expansion of cable television, a threefold increase in the number of independent broadcasting stations operating in the U. S. and the appearance of the FOX Network, owned by tabloid newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch. One consequence of these industrial changes was an unprecedented level of demand for new programs designed specifically for syndication. Because of their relatively low production costs compared to fictional television, tabloid shows began to look increasingly attractive to producers of syndicated programming. Moreover, a long writers' strike in 1988 enhanced the value of "reality-TV" and was directly responsible for tabloid style FOX Network shows like COPS and America's Most Wanted. These shows, produced with a minimum of narration or dialogue, were considered "writer proof," unaffected by unplanned production interruptions such as strikes.

The forms of tabloid television that emerged and became popular in the 1980s were not merely products of industrial dynamics and economics, though. They were also inevitably linked to the social context of the period, much of which was defined by Reaganism. As social historian Paul Boyer puts it, "Reaganism was a matter of mood and symbolism as much as of specific [government] programs." Assuming that the media do not "reflect" social history so much as they increasingly become an arena within which it is struggled over and played out, it is possible to find both congruence and dissonance between tabloid television and Reaganism.

Among the significant currents of meaning that Reaganism brought to the surface of American culture during the 1980s were those swirling around our collective anxieties over crime, drugs and, ultimately, race. For example, Reaganism helped popularize both a "war on drugs" and a politically successful "victims' rights" movement. The "war on drugs" saturated the electronic media with images of an urban battleground steeped in violent criminality that all-too-often struck at "innocent victims." Tabloid television played a significant role in both the circulation of images associated with the "drug war" and in the articulation of a populist sense of "victimhood." FOX's America's Most Wanted, for example, specialized in cinematically sophisticated reenactments of "actual crimes" followed by an open call for audience members to phone in whatever tips they might be able to provide the police that would help track down missing suspects or escaped fugitives. This premise implies not only a supportive stance toward police departments and crime victims, but also suggests that, in and of themselves, official institutions are incapable of ensuring social order. This was a premise that was extended in local as well as network broadcasting.

Thus, questions about the politics of these programs, which are quite contradictory and therefore difficult to assess, are unavoidable. On the one hand, the popularity of the shows indicates a level of popular distrust toward social institutions from which many people feel alienated. This distrust is often articulated as a class antagonism directed against "the system." Much crime-fighter tabloidism therefore appeals to the populist perception that only the people are capable of looking after their own interests, for "the system" is too often concerned with the narrow interests of the socially privileged. Thus, programs like COPS, whose minicams follow "the men and women of law enforcement" into dangerous situations, aren't interested in the upper echelons of police management and administration, but rather focus on the rank-and-file. In their emphasis upon the working conditions inhabited by "ordinary" cops, such programs resonate powerfully with a working class awareness that blue-collar folks inevitably labor under treacherous and difficult conditions and are poorly rewarded for it. As well, they appeal to a very real sense of vulnerability produced by a society in which the socially weak are far more likely to be criminally victimized than the powerful and the privileged.

On the other hand, these programs are part of a contemporary form of white racism that substitutes coded words and issues like "crime" and "drugs" for explicit ways of talking about race. As John Fiske has argued, this facilitates the exertion of racial power while enabling its agents to deny that race is involved at all. So, even though the individual criminals and suspects represented in these programs may often be white (albeit lower class "white trash"), an emphasis on rampant urban disorder appeals to deeply rooted anxieties in the white imagination regarding people of color presumed to be "out of control" and therefore in need of stepped-up policing. One of the primary responses to these white anxieties in contemporary America has been a massive expansion of urban surveillance systems. Such systems have the two-fold aim of "visibilizing" especially nonwhite populations, and therefore making them available for social discipline, and of encouraging people to police themselves with greater circumspection and vigor. There is much justification for the view that reality-based "tabloid TV" is partly an extension of such surveillance practices. The case of Stephen Randall Dye, a fugitive who turned himself over to police after agonizing for two weeks over a story about him on America Most Wanted, provides anecdotal evidence in support of this position (Bartley, 1990).

Tabloidism's partial and populist distrust toward institutions of law and order is extended to the judicial system in the programs Final Appeal and Trial and Error. Like America's Most Wanted, these shows produce reenactments of crimes, but these are supplemented by further reenactments of the trials of the people accused and convicted of those crimes. Rather than supporting these convictions, Final Appeal and Trial and Error reexamine and question the validity of those criminal verdicts that have resulted in actual incarcerations. The voice-over narration from Trial and Error's opening segment encapsulates the logic these programs follow:

"Beyond a reasonable doubt." This is the guardian phrase that empowers juries to protect the innocent in America.... The most conservative estimates say that we wrongfully convict and imprison between six and seven thousand people every year. Two half-brothers were within sixteen hours of being executed when it was discovered that the prosecution's star witness was actually nowhere near the crime scene, and she'd only seen it in a dream. A couple in Southern California was convicted of a murder that never even occurred. The alleged victim was found alive and well and living in San Francisco years later....Witnesses sometimes lie, confessions are sometimes coerced, lawyers are sometimes incompetent, and sometimes juries make mistakes.

Final Appeal and Trial and Error ultimately question whether our courts ever operate "beyond a reasonable doubt." In doing this, they appeal to a form of popular skepticism that, at particular times and in particular contexts, turns against the judicial system and refuses its discursive power to produce authoritative truths. The first trial of Rodney King and the urban uprisings that answered its verdict provide the most obvious examples of this sort of popular skepticism erupting explosively and demonstrate that faith in American criminal justice is largely a consequence of one's position in American society. In turn, programs like Final Appeal and Trial and Error demonstrate one of the ways in which tabloid television is capable of tapping into widespread suspicions of officialdom shared by many people who occupy positions of social subordination.

The view that tabloid television circulates beliefs that appeal to a popular skepticism toward official truths receives anecdotal support from Dan Lungren, California's attorney general. Lungren has coined the term "Oprahization" to describe changes in American juries that many prosecutors feel have increased the difficulty of securing criminal convictions. Says Lungren, "people have become so set on the Oprah view, they bring that into the jury box with them" (Gregory, 1994). According to a professional jury consultant, "talk-show watchers . . . are considered more likely" than others "to distrust the official version" of events produced by prosecuting attorneys in courtrooms across the land (Gregory, 1994). Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti has gone so far as to pronounce that the criminal justice system is "on the verge of a crisis of credibility" due to these changes in the sensibilities of jurors (Gregory, 1994).

Talk shows, then, also appeal to a popular skepticism toward official truths. And like the other tabloid programs, their emergence and success bears no small relationship to Reaganism. In Elayne Rapping's words, "the people on these shows are an emotional vanguard, blowing the lid off the idea that America is anything like the place Ronald Reagan pretended to live in." It's no coincidence that tabloid talk shows achieved their highest visibility and popularity in the wake of Reagan, for Reaganism's widening of gaps between such groups as rich and poor, men and women, whites and Blacks brought social differences into clear definition and sharpened the conflicts around them (Fiske, 1994). If Reaganism entailed a widespread cultural repression of voices and identities representing social difference, Reaganism's repressed others returned with a vengeance on TV's tabloid talk shows, which invite the participation of people whose voices are often excluded from American commercial media discourse, such as African Americans, Latinos and Latinas, sex industry workers, "ordinary" women, blue and "pink" collar laborers, the homeless, the HIV positive, people living with AIDS, youths, gay men, lesbians, cross-dressers, transsexuals, convicted criminals, prison inmates and other socially marginalized groups. This is not to say that tabloid talk shows have a political agenda of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-classism, or anti-homophobia, but rather that in opening themselves to the participation of a very broad range of voices, they necessarily encourage potentially progressive conflicts over cultural, racial and sexual politics. In particular, these shows often emphasize what we might call "the politics of normality." A number of prominent commentators such as Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault have examined the role of norms as instruments of power that facilitate the efficient identification of deviance, which is typically punished or subjected to "treatment" and social discipline. But tabloid talk shows are marked by a level of indiscipline that often disrupts the enforcement of norms and allows people who are disadvantaged by those norms to talk back against them.

The last genre of tabloid television includes unconventional newscasts and documentary programs like A Current Affair and Sightings. It is difficult to generalize about these programs, though often they utilize approaches to storytelling that violate the norms of mainstream journalistic practice in a number of ways. One is to disavow the seriousness of conventional journalism. For example, A Current Affair, one of the early definers of American television's tabloid style, was originally anchored by Maury Povich, a refugee from "serious" news whose style was playfully irreverent. This gave much offense to conventional journalists like Philip Weiss, who writes of Povich that "the rubber-faced lewdness his role calls for, the alacrity with which he moves through a half dozen expressions and voices (from very soft to wired and mean) is a motility reminiscent of the veteran porn star." In his autobiography, Povich writes that his own scorn for the pretensions of the quality press shaped the agenda at A Current Affair, which he describes as a "daily fix of silliness, irony, and tub-thumping anger" infused with "an odor of disrespect for authority." He explains that "somehow the notion had come about that news was church business and had to be uttered with ponderous and humorless reverence; instead news was a circus delivered by clowns and dancing bears and should be taken with a lot of serious skepticism."

The significance of A Current Affair's frequent disavowal of the seriousness of more traditional or "respectable" journalistic forms is suggested in Allon White's observation that "seriousness always has more to do with power than with content. The authority to designate what is to be taken seriously (and the authority to enforce reverential solemnity in certain contexts) is a way of creating and maintaining power." Official definitions of "serious journalism" such as those taught in university courses and circulated by the "respectable press" seemed to reinforce an established vision of "that information which the people need," often as prescribed by a community of experts whose lives are quite removed from those of ordinary people. Consequently, analysts like Fiske argue that tabloid television's negotiated refusal of mainstream journalistic seriousness embodies an irreverent, laughing popular skepticism toward official definitions of truth that serve the interests of the socially powerful despite their constant appeals to "objectivity."

Besides mocking the seriousness of mainstream news, some tabloid programs like Sightings and Unsolved Mysteries confer seriousness upon issues that would likely be treated with laughing dismissal, if at all, in traditional newscasts. Thus, Sightings has featured stories about house hauntings, werewolves in the British countryside, and psychic detectives, while Unsolved Mysteries has delved into the paranormal terrain of UFO sightings and alien abductions. Popular interest and "belief" in such issues persists despite, or perhaps because of, official denials of their "truth" and "seriousness," and this antagonism between popular belief and official truth is part of the more general antagonism between the social interests of ordinary people and those of the powerful. Sightings opens each broadcast with a refreshing disclaimer that nicely encapsulates the difference between its attitude toward the process of informing and that which guides more conventional journalistic enterprises: "The following program deals with controversial subjects. The theories expressed are not the only possible interpretation. The viewer is invited to make a judgment based on all available information."

By transgressing certain norms of conventional journalism, tabloid television has drawn the scorn of a great many critics who feel that journalistic TV should address "loftier" issues in more "tasteful" and serious ways. And it has shown that television can be quite adept at speaking to a variety of forms of popular skepticism toward some of our social institutions and the versions of truth they pronounce.

-Kevin Glynn

FURTHER READING

Bartley, Diane. "John Walsh: Fighting Back." The Saturday Evening Post (Indianapolis, Indiana), April 1990.

Bernstein, Carl. "The Idiot Culture." The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), June 1992.

Beschloss, Steven. "TV's Life of Crime." Channels (New York), 24 September 1990.

Bird, S. Elizabeth. For Inquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

Boyer, Paul. "Introduction: Reaganism: Reflections on an Era." In, Boyer, Paul, editor. Reagan as President. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990.

Campbell, Richard. "Word vs. Image: Elitism, Popularity and TV News." Television Quarterly (New York), 1991. Dahlgren, Peter, and Colin Sparks, editors. Journalism and Popular Culture. London: Sage, 1992.

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

_______________. "Popularity and the Politics of Information." In, Dahlgren, Peter, and Colin Sparks, editors. Journalism and Popular Culture. London: Sage, 1992.

_______________. MediaMatters: Everyday Culture and Political Change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Fiske, John, and Kevin Glynn. "Trials of the Postmodern." Cultural Studies (London), October 1995.

Foucault, Michel, and translated by Alan Sheridan. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Glynn, Kevin. "Tabloid Television's Transgressive Aesthetic: A Current Affair and the Shows that Taste Forgot." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), April 1990.

_______________. "Reading Supermarket Tabloids as Menippean Satire." Communication Studies (West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring 1993.

Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Gregory, Sophfronia Scott. "Oprah! Oprah in the Court" Time (New York), 6 June 1994.

Katz, Jack. "What Makes Crime 'News'?" Media, Culture and Society (London), 1987.

Katz, Jon. "Covering the Cops: A TV Show Moves In Where Journalists Fear to Tread." Columbia Journalism Review (New York), February 1993.

Knight, Graham. "Reality Effects: Tabloid Television News " Queen's Quarterly (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), March 1989.

Mellencamp, Patricia. High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age, & Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Morse, Margaret. "The Television News Personality and Credibility: Reflections on the News in Transition." In, Modleski, Tania, editor. Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Pauly, John J. "Rupert Murdoch and the Demonology of Professional Journalism." In, Carey, James, editor. Media, Myths, and Narratives: Television and the Press. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1988

Povich, Maury, with Ken Gross. Current Affairs: A Life on the Edge. New York: Berkeley, 1991.

Rapping, Elayne. "Daytime Inquiries." The Progressive (Madison, Wisconsin), October 1991.

Rose, Frank. "Celebrity Victims: Crime Casualties Are Turning Into Stars on Tabloid TV. "New York (New York), July 1989.

Sauter, Van Gordon. "In Defense of Tabloid TV." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 5 August 1989.

Seagal, Debra. "Tales from the Cutting-room Floor." Harper's (New York), November 1993.

Weiss, Philip. "Bad Rap for TV Tabs." Columbia Journalism Review (New York), May 1989.

 

See also America's Most Wanted; Donahue, Phil; Rivera, Geraldo; Talk Shows; Winfrey, Oprah