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Sex. Scandal. Illicit activities. There. Now you're reading...or at least that's what the newspapers would lead you to believe. Tabloids like the National Enquirer and The Star make their money from tawdry journalism--if yellow journalism was the sobriquet for sketchy political writing and slightly unconventional reporting style, their writing would best be labeled red, for ignominy. The screaming headlines and conspiratorial accusations and the near voyeuristic exposes of public peoples' private lives make a mockery of the profession and of the noble possibilities of a free press.
When individual liberties and democratic politics were first being established in this country and across the ocean, freedom of the press was deemed an essential right of citizens and an essential component of a working democracy. Newspapers would serve two main purposes: first, they would keep citizens informed of and involved in the local and national affairs, educating them in order to foster a better citizenship. Second, the knowledge that an independent press existed would chasten public officials and check their potential excesses. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about newspapers during the early nineteenth century in his monumental work Democracy in America: "So the more equal men [sic] become and the more individualism becomes a menace, the more necessary are newspapers. We should underrate their importance if we thought they just guaranteed liberty; they maintain civilization."
The tabloids not only do nothing to elevate the quality of civilization or to enhance the quantity of liberty, they are themselves a menace to society and an embarrassment to the uplifting task of newspapers. Instead of serving as a quality check on our public officials, tabloids celebrate, and sometimes create, their improprieties. Inquiring minds deserve better.
As much as I would like to write off tabloids as marginal and irrelevant, they are neither. On the most direct level, tabloids are many Americans sole providers of information. But tabloids reach even beyond those that read nothing else; they are ubiquitous at grocery markets across the country, as anyone who has ever waited on a shopping line knows. And they are enticing. More than once, I have glanced covertly and shame-facedly at their headlines, trying to look nonchalant as I read as much of the front page as I can before the old lady in front of me finishes paying for her Metamucil and prune juice. Inevitably, I move forward embarrassed for having been pulled in, dying to know if Princess Di really is having an affair with her ex-husband's butler. Even as I mock the papers whose lead stories deal with aliens almost as often as they write about us human types, I am aware of the effect of their conspiratorial, scandal-seeking message on my own assumptions and world views. Although I laugh at their incredulous reports, the pernicious element of these papers is that they undermine trust; they create an environment where the given is illegality and dirt, and only the naive believes anything else. So as not to seem gullible and provincial, we become more suspicious of the government, more disenchanted with public officials and more complacent about the general lack of humanity among our fellow citizens.
I am working this summer at the Forward, a national Jewish weekly based in Manhattan. While the paper prides itself on serious reporting--and I haven't heard of a slush fund to pay willing eye-witnesses to make up stories for us--the reach of the tabloids is unavoidable. No newspaper, no matter how respectable, can escape the popular expectation of "scandal exposed" that the tabloids have trademarked. If readers don't get infamy uncovered for their buck, they'll stop buying the paper. As a result, even the best papers have responded as any good capitalist ventures would--they have started lowering the quality of their reporting in order to attract readers.
The threshold for what is considered news-worthy is lowered, and we find ourselves reading about Prom Moms on the front page of national papers and about college moms on the front page of The Crimson. In both cases, the publishers and editors defend their decisions to print personal tragedy with the language of professional integrity and journalistic honesty--after all, it happened. But maybe mere existence should not be the sole criterion for publishable material. Maybe the impact on the lives of those being written about and a sense of responsibility to the greater community should also be included in the calculus that guides our decisions about what is news-worthy and what is not. Those who disagree with me have argued that the public has a right to know. However, it has become increasingly unclear to me whether or not such a right exists. Citizens in this country have a right to many freedoms, but I do not believe that unchecked information about everyone's personal lives is one of them. The claim that the public has a right to know everything sounds more like irreverent voyeurism than journalism or constitutional freedom.
Unfortunately, the balance I am yearning for is frustratingly elusive. Freedom of the press is a central tenet of any viable-democracy. A legal limitation on that freedom would be devastating. But the laxity of standards and the lure of cash have put the journalistic profession in a precarious position--one that cannot continue if newspapers hope to maintain their role as perpetuators of civilization as Tocqueville imagined. Perhaps, then, I can add my voice to the clarion call for a reevaluation of the mission of journalism and the potential dignity of the profession.
Talia Milgrom-Elcott, a senior in Mather House, is a columnist and an Associate Editorial Chair of the Crimson.
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