Sleaze deluge dooms tabloid sales all over the US

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PITY THE National Enquirer. For the past year, America has been treated to the greatest tabloid story ever told - a presidential affair with more salacious details than any supermarket weekly could ever dream of, a political scandal with seemingly endless reverberations, and a cast of characters, from Linda Tripp to Henry Hyde to Larry Flynt, that could keep a daytime soap writer in ideas for years, writes Andrew Gumbel.

And yet America's tabloid newspapers and downmarket television reality shows have done singularly badly out the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The Enquirer's readership is down almost 20 per cent, as is the Globe's. The Star, the newspaper that broke the alleged story of Bill Clinton's black love child, has performed slightly better, but its sales figures are deep in depression too.

It's the same story with Hard Copy and Inside Edition, the television shows that attempt to emulate on the small screen what the tabloids do on paper. According to figures released by Nielsen Media Research, they have lost at last 20 per cent of their audience.

How come? Is this a reflection of popular disgust with the impeachment drama, a realisation that sleazoid values in American society have gone too far? Not at all. If Americans haven't been reading about Monica Lewinsky in the tabloids, it's because they can find all the facts and more on the front page of the New York Times.

If they miss it there they can watch the network evening news. Or a 24-hour news channel. Or the internet.

There has been such saturation coverage of Monica that the tabloids simply haven't had a look-in. What can even a rich publication with near-limitless resources do to trump Kenneth Starr? A tabloid may be sneaky but none has yet invented a way of dishing out subpoenas. Far from signalling a new vogue for high-mindedness, the declining sales and viewing figures actually bear witness to the growing tabloidisation of America - a process that has reached its apotheosis with Monica Lewinsky but began long before her.

"The tabloidification of American life - of the news, of the culture, yea, of human behaviour - is such a sweeping phenomenon that it can't be dismissed as merely a jokey footnote to the history of the 1990s," David Kamp wrote in a long analysis in this month's Vanity Fair. "Rather, it's the very hallmark of our times."

Since the beginning of the decade, stories like the William Kennedy Smith rape trial (in which the New York Times took the unprecedented step of naming the alleged victim), the dismembering of John Wayne Bobbitt and - above all - the OJ Simpson trial have pushed tabloid values into the mainstream and left little but extraneous gossip for the real tabloids to chew over.

Of the six tabloid shows on network television at the beginning of the decade, three have disappeared, largely because the more respectable shows have encroached on their turf. Diane Dimond, former reporter for Hard Copy, told how she pursued the story of a Massachusetts woman in 1996 who was raising triplets on her own only to discover that exclusive interview rights had already been snapped up by ABC's star reporter, Diane Sawyer.

The big media organisations have done their best to dress up their stories and investigations in a mantle of respectability. Most have pointedly refused to run with the (usually accurate) salacious material dug up by the internet columnist Matt Drudge; but they have done everything to raise the same issues in interviews and news conferences so they can hide behind the authority of a congressman, say, to print the same story with a semblance of honour.

The same has been true of the revelations of Larry Flynt, the Hustler publisher, on Republican congressmen. The papers happily reported Bob Livingston's adultery after the would-be House Speaker admitted it, prompted by Mr Flynt.

When the same trick failed to make the Georgian House member Bob Barr flinch, the allegations were pushed into opinion columns discussing the mores of character assassination rather than taking their place on the news pages, where they might be seen to give credence to a notorious pornographer.

The film-maker John Waters once characterised the editorial policy of the three supermarket tabloids as: "We hate you because you're famous", "We hate you because you're on TV" and "We hate you because you're famous and have sex".

Bill and Monica should have fit into all three tabloid categories - but the big guns from the Times and the Washington Post got there first.