- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What would a world without tabloids look like? Not as much fun, for sure, if the tattletales and snoopers and others of irreverent ilk lost their voices on the printed page. Who would supply headlines such as “Headless body found in topless bar” (New York Post), “Ford to City: Drop Dead” (New York Daily News), or perhaps the pithiest of them all, the show-biz tab Variety on the stock-market crash that announced the Depression: “Wall Street Lays an Egg.” Who among us doesn’t get a touch of schadenfreude watching feet of clay crumble in shoes?

This is not high art, but it’s the stuff that’s sold in the penny press (as it was called in less inflationary times) ever since Johannes Gutenberg and his famous press shortened the time between illumination and publication. Most of us don’t lust after the lurid details of the grotesque, but we don’t mind a little titillation.

The line between what’s public and what’s private in the prints is something like pornography - you know it when you see it. We’ve come a long way from days when high society was off-limits because good taste demanded it. The tabloids have always known what you can get away with - just barely - and the tabs have been the arbiters of what passes and what’s over the line. Vulgarity drives the mainstream press now, and the new social media is as much about exhibitionism as communication, so the boundaries have been blurred in a lasting way.

In a defense of tabloid exposure, Ryan Linkof, a history instructor at the University of Southern California, makes a good case in the New York Times for the way the tabloids persist in breaking down the wall between the social upper crust and ordinary people. This, he says, benefits democracy in the pursuit of truth. Newspapers are content with the less noble pursuit of mere facts, which is usually very different from truth. Citing the excessively protective treatment of the royal visit of the newly married Prince William and Kate Middleton, he observes how we long to get beneath the banal shields of the rich and famous. Exposure mitigates tension between social groups.

The appetite for the follies of royals as well as Hollywood celebrities reduces envy, giving lower-rung watchers a less-obstructed view and sometimes even that precious schadenfreude, the taking of delight in the troubles of others. It’s the price the privileged pay for their luxurious toys and celebrated distinctions, and the price we pay for allowing the press to satisfy popular curiosity. The passion of the tabloid press for a story come hell or high water - within legal limits, of course - occasionally breaks a significant story that the prim and proper press misses.

It was the supermarket tab National Enquirer, after all, that invaded the privacy of John Edwards, ending forever his presidential dreams. Had Mr. Edwards not been exposed and had he been nominated or - horrors! - elected, he would have been at dangerous risk of blackmail, with the rest of us consigned to suffer as well. The Pulitzer Prize board thought the story merited its recognition and accepted the Enquirer’s submissions for the prize in both “Investigative Reporting” and “National News Reporting.” (Some other paper won.) While the emphasis on exposing sexual behavior appeals to prurient interests, it prevents blackmail and makes up the public’s right to know. Transparency has its embarrassing advantages.

Isolated success stories, of course, hardly lend forgiveness to the London tab News of the World for its illegal hacking into the cellphone of a murder victim or illegal intrusions into the lives of grieving families. These episodes remind us of the importance of a free press with hopes that those in charge will exercise responsible judgment.

Rules of political privacy require the exercise of good judgment from both the press and the politicians. Privacy as an issue flared recently when a reporter asked Rahm Emanuel, the newly elected mayor of Chicago, where his children would attend school. He lost his temper and screamed at the reporter that such news was a private family matter. That may be true, but nothing so separates the privileged and the rest of us as the schools our children attend. It wasn’t always so, more’s the pity.

Mayor Emmanuel chose one of the best (and most expensive) private schools in Chicago for his children, and no one begrudges him that, but it should be public knowledge because most public schools in Chicago, like so many urban public schools elsewhere, are lousy and because the political masters insist that vouchers and charter schools are verboten. Inquiring minds need to know. We don’t need tabloids to prove that point, but it’s good for everyone that the tabs are there.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.