- Tabloid, Inc.: Crimes, Newspapers, Narratives
In the summer of 2011, the ethics of tabloid journalism were questioned when it was revealed that the London-based News of the World had tapped into the cellphone records of a child murder victim. As the story unfolded, the public learned that this was not an isolated incident but a repeated attempt by the tabloid to learn the secrets of celebrities, politicians, and victims of crimes. The potential criminal actions of contemporary tabloid journalists linked tabloids and scandal in the public imagination, a theme explored by V. Penelope Pelizzon and Nancy M. West in their recently-published Tabloid, Inc.: Crimes, Newspapers, and Narratives. Tabloid, Inc. chronicles the rise in importance of American tabloid news in the early twentieth century. One of the significant findings of the book is the degree to which Hollywood made use of stories “ripped right off the front pages” and often mimicked the look of the tabloids in its advertising. Authors Pelizzon and West have produced a carefully-researched and lucidly-written book that should interest scholars in periodical, media, and film studies.
The book is divided into an introduction and five full chapters, followed by a short “coda.” There are twenty-one black-and-white photographs interspersed through the chapters, chapter notes, and a bibliography. Primarily, three American tabloids are referenced in the study: the New York Daily News, the Daily Mirror, and the Evening Graphic. The first two chapters establish the [End Page 220] theoretical underpinnings for the narrative study, drawing on the work of Gerard Genette and Peter Rabinowitz, while the introduction sets forward the authors’ central concept of narrative mobility:
The tabloids were, from day one, expert at recycling the same story types across media, genres, and styles. They multiplied events by shaping them around literary archetypes or by publishing reports emphasizing different interpretations of the same action. They retold the same episode in photos and in text. They also gestured tirelessly toward Broadway, crime fiction, romance literature, and Hollywood . . .(15)
Part One of the text contains three chapters that examine the years 1927–1933. Chapter One, “For Shopgirls and Stenographers,” focuses on advertising strategies for sensational films, particularly extensive press books—collections of articles, photographs, and lobby cards based on the tabloid style. By 1930, “big news” was starting to become big business for the Hollywood studios. Chapter Two traces the implications of Darryl Zanuck’s idea to make films with subjects “ripped right off the front pages” (53). The ensuing headline news policy provided Warner Brothers with a competitive edge, as the scandals and disasters that served as fodder for the films seemed to satisfy the public’s appetite for sensation. The chapter traces the narrative mobility of the murder of Alfred “Jake” Lingle, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who was murdered by the mob in 1930s. Warner Brothers picked up the story and turned it into the film The Finger Points (1931). Ultimately, the authors conclude, the bleed between big news and film constructed “implicated audiences,” those who live in “the ‘real’ world the drama represents” and those who watch “the artistic depiction of that world” (74).
“Trading Tommy Guns for Typewriters,” the third chapter of Part One, looks at a number of films in what the authors call “the tabloid racketeer format,” including the best-known example, The Front Page (1931). A significant difference of these films is that the journalists were themselves flirting with criminal behavior. Such films popularized stereotypes as “hard-boiled editors” and “wisecracking reporters” (89). The chapter would not be complete without a look at one of the outsized and infamous real journalists from the era, Walter Winchell, Broadway columnist for the New York Mirror from 1920–1963.
Chapters Four and Five are included in Part Two, which broadens the scope of study to media other than crime film or tabloid journalism. As its title “Multiple Indemnity” suggests, Chapter Four develops the connections between the noir classic Double Indemnity (1944) and the Snyder-Gray murder trials of 1927 and 1928...