Absolutely Sensational!

The rise and fall and rise of the tabloid press

The Godfather of Tabloid: Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer

By Jack Vitek

University Press of Kentucky

290 pages, $29.95

The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York

By Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

University of Chicago Press

278 pages, $20

In his entertaining but slapdash new biography of Generoso Pope Jr., who shepherded the tabloid National Enquirer to a circulation peak of over five million in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jack Vitek entices readers as skillfully as any headline writer in the heyday of Florida’s “Tabloid Triangle.” And he, too, sometimes puts more tease than meat into his prose. Vitek, a former journalist who teaches journalism and English at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, likes to backpedal away from his own bombshells. That leads to the following disclosures about the man who, Vitek admits up front, had a “dull lifestyle” and a “dour personality.”

Pope might have had Asperger’s syndrome, but that tells us more about the syndrome than the man. Because he probably had Mafia connections, Pope might have attended the funeral of the mobster Frank Costello, but no one knows for sure. Pope invented modern tabloid culture, except that in all his years as editor, he wrote hardly a word of copy, nearly all of his editorial decisions were “intuitive” or “arbitrary,” and he didn’t like celebrity stories but ran them because otherwise readers stopped buying. If he hadn’t died in 1988, Pope might have thought of ways to boost the paper’s cratering circulation in the difficult 1990s, or the tabloidization of the mainstream press might have made that impossible.

And last but not least: Pope was as influential a newspaperman as Joseph Pulitzer, except that Pope couldn’t have cared less about politics, social change, progress, or truth, and provided only “cheap, even mean pleasures” that distracted readers from more serious concerns. On the other hand, he never hurt anybody.

Vitek certainly deserves credit for his persistence in pursuing so inhospitable a biographical subject. Pope left behind so little evidence illuminating his ideas or inner life—so little evidence that he even had an inner life—that some speculation is inevitable. It may also be inevitable that although Pope gets top billing in the title, his much more colorful newspaper turns out to be the star of the book. Based in part on his interviews with the seventeen employees, from executive editors to the accountant and the gardener, whom he lists in his source notes, Vitek presents a rousing if somewhat disorganized picture of life backstage at Pope’s tabloids.

Much of the material about both the man and his paper is familiar. Pope’s father, who came to New York from Naples with little money and less English, ended up the owner of the influential daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano and a wheeler-dealer in local politics. The son had a privileged childhood; his classmates at the Horace Mann School included the likes of Si Newhouse and Roy Cohn, who became a close friend. After young Gene’s graduation from MIT in 1946, his father made him editor and publisher of the family newspaper. Gene Pope broke with his family, however, and in 1952, probably with financial help from Cohn and Costello, he bought the fading twenty-six-year-old Hearst-backed New York Enquirer.

For the first dozen or so years, Pope concentrated on gore, scandal, mystery, and freaks, including the archetypal 1963 story about the murder of an Olympic skier, i cut out her heart and stomped on it! But when circulation stalled, Pope hit on a new strategy: he changed the paper’s main fare from sleaze to celebrity gossip, which could be marketed without shame at any grocery store and tossed with the Cocoa Puffs into any shopping cart. His success inspired imitators, including the Canadian owner of two tabloids who followed Pope to Florida to start his third, and Rupert Murdoch, who founded the Star as a direct competitor. And in 1979, when Pope bought new color presses for the Enquirer, he started a second paper of his own, the Weekly World News, to keep the old monochrome presses busy and absorb the goofier tales of space aliens, miracles, and “Bat Boy” that didn’t quite make the grade for its sister publication.

Vitek gives due attention to the landmark moments in his saga. There is the invasion of the Fleet Streeters, British and Australian reporters who imported their raucous style to sunny southern Florida. The investigative exposure of the contents of Henry Kissinger’s “stolen” trash bags (unopened cans of soup and Maalox wrappers). The Carol Burnett libel suit. The Elvis-in-his-coffin photo, which a picture editor insists was “retouched” but not faked. The million-dollar Christmas tree set up every year on the company’s grounds, which never quite made it into the record books as the tallest. Oddly, however, Vitek quotes so sparingly from actual Enquirer articles that the reader has to wonder how many issues he’s seen for himself.

By the time Pope died in 1988, circulation figures for all the supermarket tabloids were declining, and a series of ownership changes ended with all six papers in the hands of a single company. Even though the Enquirer has repeatedly inspired bouts of everything from awe to disgust by scooping the mainstream press on its home turf—from Gary Hart’s monkey business to O. J. Simpson’s disavowed shoes, and recently Bristol Palin’s pregnancy—its survival is very much in doubt, while the Weekly World News now publishes online only.

It’s a lively story, sometimes a juicy one. But Vitek’s insistence that Pope “invented and fostered the ever-widening brand of tabloid culture” that has “spread far beyond the grocery checkout counter into nearly all other forms of our popular media” turns out to be about as persuasive as the latest sighting of Elvis at Starbucks. Vitek joins many other observers in suggesting that the supermarket tabloids were doomed by the diminishing differences between themselves and the rest of the media. Given the proliferation of slick gossip magazines like People and Us Weekly, the increasing attention paid by television to reality, celebrities, and bleeding-lead local news, the gossip-loving ethos of the Internet, and the pressures on the mainstream media to competitively cover the kind of story that requires, say, the words “President Clinton’s penis” to appear on the front page, the Enquirer has surely lost its monopoly on melodrama, sensation, and scandal.

It’s hard to argue with that assessment. But to give Pope credit for inventing the vulgarity of American media is both over-enthusiastic and historically shortsighted. Ever since Gutenberg, societies have been creating—and eventually rejecting or absorbing—some form of what they would recognize as their own “modern tabloid culture.” I’m thinking, for instance, of the celebrity-mad and media-rich 1920s, when the New York Daily News splashed on its front page a hidden-camera photograph of a condemned murderess at the moment of her death in the electric chair. The New York Evening Graphic gained fame for its faked “composograph” photos illustrating, for instance, the notorious divorce trial of teenaged “Peaches” from middle-aged “Daddy” Browning by showing the two in bed. A combination of mainstream public protest and the sobering realities of the Depression eventually cleaned up the News and killed the Graphic.

Simply crediting Pope with a creation myth is also a much less interesting way to think about the evolution, functions, and particular appeal of the sensational media. It ignores the ways that tabloids and other lurid or gossipy entertainments have always been shaped by their culture as much as, or even more than, they themselves shape it. It also ignores the intricate dance (sometimes tango, sometimes hoedown) they often perform with their audiences, their critics, and “respectable” society.

At times, in fact, sensation is in the eye of the retrospective observer. In seventeenth-century New England, pamphlets and almanac pages describing the same kinds of strange occurrences that fill the modern tabloids—crimes, earthquakes, celestial phenomena, monstrous births—were common fare, but they weren’t (or weren’t mainly—) for titillation. The historian David Paul Nord has argued that in an era with no conventional newspapers, and in a society that believed that all events were directly ordained by God for the instruction and improvement of humankind, people took such items seriously: they treated them as pieces of public information containing directions on how to live in a manner acceptable to their Lord.

Often the job of the sensational press has been to test and define the ever-changing boundaries between what’s acceptable to a society and what’s not. William Randolph Hearst seemed to be taking that challenge as his personal mandate, earning both huge circulations and steady criticism with newspapers that were “like a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut,” as longtime reporter Arthur Pegler put it. (Pegler, father of the right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler, knew what he was talking about: he once planted a bottle of arsenic in the basement of a murder suspect to scoop the competition.)

But having gotten away with the frenzied hyping of such stories as the case of the dismembered masseur and the rescue by Hearst’s own reporters of a young Cuban woman held by “lustful” Spanish jailers, the publisher took a step too far. His Journal printed a verse and an editorial broadly suggesting the assassination of the “spineless” President McKinley some months before an anarchist would do just that. Even though no one seriously believed that the Journal had inspired the assassin, who couldn’t even English, the public’s disgust forced Hearst to temper his excesses for a while.

And even some of the publications furthest on the fringe could play important if controversial social roles. A provocative example is the largely forgotten genre known as the “flash press,” which flourished briefly in New York in the early 1840s. Bearing names like the Libertine, the Rake, the Flash, and the Whip, and generally hawked in male preserves like oyster bars and barbershops, these weeklies devoted themselves to racy stories and gossip about crime, theater, sport, scandal, and sex. So thoroughly and swiftly were they repudiated by mainstream society that very few copies survive; the only significant library collection is held by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The scandal sheets are deeply analyzed and copiously excerpted in the splendid new volume The Flash Press—the work of Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, three scholars who have written widely on the seedier side of life in antebellum New York. And yes, the flash papers were undeniably smutty. Readers were regaled with naughty woodcut illustrations of louche men and loose women. The papers also offered guided tours of the city’s best brothels, descriptions of its most popular prostitutes, accounts of divorce proceedings and notorious adultery cases, and gossip columns that posed ribald questions about the rumored misdeeds of people only thinly disguised as “J—S—” or the “old lecher from Bond Street.” Blackmail seems to have been a standard practice among the flash editors.

Yet these admittedly pornographic papers left a lasting imprint on the law, the sensational press, and politics. On the one hand, they aroused such general indignation as to inspire a novel legal strategy. Like most states at the time, New York had no laws against obscenity. Prosecutors invoked the English common-law tradition to haul the editors into court—in fact, the Antiquarian Society’s collection includes copies marked up by the district attorney for use as trial evidence. Several of the flash editors ended up among the first Americans ever convicted and imprisoned on charges of obscene libel. And The Flash Press argues that these cases later served as important precedents to establish the constitutionality of the 1873 Comstock Act for the suppression of “obscene literature and articles of immoral use.”

On the other hand, the flash editors were purposefully elbowing their way into the ongoing public debate about not only sex and gender but also other hot-button issues of the antebellum era: egalitarianism, individual freedom, evangelical religion, the dangers and opportunities of urban life. With tongue in cheek, the editors often used the righteous language of religious and moral reformers to justify their exploration of sexual topics. Their purpose, they insisted, was to reform the public’s morals by showing, as explicitly as possible, how immoral it truly was. But with cheerful inconsistency, they also celebrated male heterosexual license as a kind of “libertine republicanism,” an expression of individual liberty rooted in the seizure of privileges once reserved for the elite. The obscenity convictions of the flash papers effectively severed the link they had forged between pornography and politics; in the aftermath, dirty literature was simply dirty.

Vitek’s book is a readable and lively (if hyperbolic) introduction to the colorful empire of a rather pallid man. Yet a comparison with The Flash Press makes clear how relatively shallow are the scholarly insights of The Godfather of Tabloid. It’s as if Vitek had managed to dig up Kissinger’s Maalox wrappers but Cohen, Gilfoyle, and Horowitz were the ones who figured out what had given the honorable secretary his indigestion. 

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Andie Tucher is the author of Froth and Scum, a book about the Penny Press and teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.