This week, as the media explored the unholy alliance between politics and sensationalist right-wing journalism, I took it on as my civic responsibility to consume bottom-of-the-barrel tabloids.
On Wednesday, the former Playboy model Karen McDougal settled her lawsuit against American Media Inc. (AMI), the parent company of an array of tawdry tabloids. To recap for those of you who follow neither tabloids nor broadsheets, in the run-up to the 2016 election, the National Enquirer bought the exclusive rights to McDougal’s story of her affair with Trump, then buried it to protect him. (Trump is a personal friend of the company’s CEO.)
Another of this week’s news events: Maggie Haberman, a veteran of the New York tabloids and a current White House correspondent for the Times, won a Pulitzer for her coverage of the president. “It’s no coincidence,” her colleague Glenn Thrush wrote during the campaign, “that one of the best reporters covering the president-elect this cycle happens to be the one who best understands the tabloid-Trump nexus.” While the New York tabloids and AMI’s supermarket rags are of different journalistic quality, Trump is a president both packaged for and propelled by sensationalist coverage. In recognition of that—and in honor of Haberman’s Pulitzer and McDougal’s new freedom to tell her story—I went to Rite Aid (welcome to the Trump era, when Rite Aid is my bookstore) and bought the current issues of three of AMI’s most popular publications. I’ll walk you through their insights now—for, you know, civic reasons.
Despite its focus on politics and culture, Globe is the most prurient of the AMI tabloids. Picking up this week’s issue, I quickly learn that Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock had a “penis facial” (which is actually just a spa treatment that, per Blanchett, “smells like sperm”). I also learn that a factor in Scary Spice’s custody battle is whether she, as her ex-husband alleges, tried to urinate on their furniture in front of their children. I’m frankly disgusted—Scary Spice should use her genius to be original rather than copy the president’s greatest hits.
In an attempt to locate serious news, I turn to the cover story about Michelle Obama’s forthcoming book, which is apparently “set to expose cheating & dirty tricks with crooked Clintons.” I assumed from the headline that the “cheating” was political, but I’m incorrect—according to the article, Obama’s book will focus on her husband’s serial infidelities and “their dismal sex life,” which is somehow Hillary’s fault. Globe’s accusations against the former president include: having “the nerve to take selfies” with the “attractive blond prime minister of Denmark” and smiling excessively at the actress Gabrielle Union. “Political insiders,” Globe warns, “are already quaking in their boots.”
With the Obamas mired in marital strife, Globe turns to the current president, Donald J. Trump, who is engaged in a far more serious pursuit: fighting a secret war against Russia to “punish Kremlin kingpin Vladimir Putin for meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections!” According to the article, this secret was kept secret until now because Putin and Trump feared that publicizing their strife would only escalate the conflict. This makes sense as both men are known for their restraint.
As usual, the Globe saves its worst for Hillary Clinton. Despite her heretofore undisclosed battles with “brain cancer, alcoholism, and cerebral blood clots” (which have led the “double-dealing Democrat” to face “her final days”), she is still in need of a good public shaming. This time, it’s the audacity of planning her own funeral! Since she “doesn’t trust her straying husband” to plan “the send-off she is convinced she deserves,” Hillary is arranging an elaborate funeral for herself at Arlington Cemetery—one that mirrors the slain President Kennedy’s. All this glory is “despite her poor showing in the presidential election,” which, as readers of other news may remember, she technically won by three million votes. Nonetheless, Hillary needs to “get over herself!”
I should digress briefly to note that AMI tabloids are rigorously fact-checked by a team of lawyers who ensure that the magazine’s language doesn’t create libel exposure—so you can take these stories as legally “true,” if not factually so.
Among many splashy stories in this week’s Enquirer, the two most boring are: Martha Stewart is furious that her luggage was lost on a nightmare trip to Sweden, and Olivia Wilde was flustered that a man working the gate at a Hollywood studio didn’t recognize her. With that out of the way, we can move on to the greatest hits: O.J. hired contract killers from prison, a handwriting expert confirmed the identity of JonBenét Ramsey’s killer, and Priscilla Presley wants to retrieve Elvis’s diamonds and jewels that she gave to “men she bedded after his death.” If that isn’t spooky enough, this issue also exposes the chilling fact that the toothpaste I use—Sensodyne Pronamel—is only “as effective as spit.”
In the Enquirer’s tips for “How to Succeed Like Donald Trump,” readers are instructed to “Brighten Your Smile,” since “Trump’s super white teeth are like tiny strobe lights that draw attention to his mouth—and his message.” I’m tempted to write this off, but then I remember the rigorous fact-checking process. Since the lawyers find it legally defensible to call the president successful, perhaps upgrading my toothpaste might actually reap professional rewards?
One Trump success tip that I absolutely agree with is to “Accept Change.” Flexibility is an asset in these turbulent times! “Most of Trump’s casino management team,” the article explains, “perished in a freak 1989 helicopter crash. This taught him how to deal with staff shake-ups.” This was very enlightening to me. I used to believe that Trump systematically pushed out members of his staff through virtuosic passive aggression and paranoia, but now I know he’s merely rehearsing old traumas, which is a key to management success! I move on to a sidebar, in which the magazine urges Roseanne Barr to run for elected office.
The Examiner is, far and away, my favorite of the supermarket tabloids. Aimed at an older audience, it is mystical and pure of heart. This week’s issue opens with a nostalgic feature about production secrets from Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On the Waterfront and later reveals that Betty White, like Hillary Clinton, is planning her own funeral (trend alert). While Hillary was berated for her hubris, the kind and gentle Examiner merely calls Betty White “hard-working.”
I learn truly useful facts from this week’s issue: you can tell if an egg is fresh enough for poaching if it floats in water, an hour soak in a hot bath burns as many calories as a half-hour walk, and you can reduce a bruise’s color by elevating it above your heart. In regards to my boyfriend’s difficult mother, the Examiner encourages me to “gush about her son! Praise her astounding mothering that made him so wonderful. That way, she has no time to criticize you!” I find myself tempted to buy one of the Examiner’s featured products—a DVD set of the third season of Lily Tomlin’s Laugh-In—but I haven’t owned a DVD player in years.
I’ll be honest: I have little connection to the articles about bygone stars whose heydays even my parents don’t remember. For me, the draw of the Examiner is the dubious therapeutic advice. I relish Dear Tony, an advice column from “America’s Top Psychic Healer,” which juxtaposes vague, New Age optimism with catty swipes at the letter writer. “I see rainbows,” he tells two separate readers about their financial and romantic futures. But when a woman named Shirley asks whether her son and daughter will ever stop hating each other and “decide to be nice to me,” Tony responds, “You give me nothing to work with. Dates of birth would have been a great help.” Then, he twists the knife: “We know what is the effect,” he says. “Are you the cause?”
Then there’s dream interpretation. “Europe’s prestigious Dr. Marcus Webber,” the Examiner crows, “is bringing his amazing expertise to America.” He does this, apparently, by putting the most positive spin possible on readers’ fraught and eerie dreams. A woman writes in. She is married to her third husband but cannot stop thinking of her second husband, who cheated forty years ago and then left her to marry his mistress. In her dreams, he comes back, and she plans their remarriage, but when she arrives at her own wedding, he always marries his mistress instead. To me, this dream seems troublingly naked, but not to Dr. Marcus Webber. “To dream that you are getting married to your ex,” he writes, “suggests that you have accepted aspects of that relationship and learned from those past mistakes.” Newly skeptical, I google Dr. Marcus Webber’s credentials and find that he has no online footprint. Or did Marcus Webber of Morgan Stanley’s London office decline to tell LinkedIn that he moonlights as a dream interpreter? This seems likely since they’ve already told us that the doctor is European.
After reading all three of these AMI papers, I’m tempted to take a sleeping pill and temporarily remove myself from the world. Perhaps I’d dream something wild for Dr. Marcus Webber. But I would be remiss to sign off without mentioning my two favorite sections: the personal ads (euphemistically called the “Friendship Club”) and the classifieds. In these sections, whose listings are nearly identical across all three magazines, readers’ desires and emotions are palpable. It’s the most humane—and the most troubling—writing I’ve read in a long time.
The classifieds list a psychic from San Francisco who can bring back a lover in one day, a service that mints new identities through sham documents, and an ad that reads simply, DON’T TELL ME! I’LL TELL YOU!—an oblique promise that callers will be understood without needing to explain. The Friendship Club is both odd and earnest—widows and widowers seek new love, inmates look for connection (“Someone non-judgmental. Could really use a friend.”), and a seventy-five-year-old man in Reno (who “believes that no civilian should be allowed to have a killing machine, like the AR-15”) wants a woman to watch old movies with. Many of the ads specify that the respondent should be white. One exception is the white man looking for a relationship with a “Mohawk Indian woman who upholds the Indian tradition.” The following ad is simply perplexing: “Attractive middle aged WM [white man] wants a friendship with a younger woman that does not get along with other women.”
I’ve felt a lot of despair lately. Checking the news or scrolling through Twitter makes me feel besieged and alone. Perhaps, in this, I have something in common with the lonely hearts in the personal pages. But for me, this isn’t about connection. It’s an evasive—and even condescending—cliché to point to the pathos of struggling Trump voters, as though they’ve made an errant, emotional choice rather than a damaging, rational one. Reading these magazines was not particularly heartening. But I can say at least this: if the Scary Spice pee tape leaks, I think the public’s curiosity will transcend even the most entrenched political divides.
Sylvie McNamara lives in New York.