Sex, celebrity, crime or all three. That's the formula for tabloid stories.
Unfortunately, the so-called mainstream media are becoming more like tabloids, and, to a lesser extent, vice versa.
The mid-'90s seemed to be the turning point, when many conventional newspapers filled their front pages with "news" about the OJ Simpson trial -- even The New York Times. Somehow that made lurid stories not only acceptable, but even desirable, for educated readers.
Though most people tend to equate tabloids with absurd articles about alien abductions or Elvis sightings, they have, in fact, published some real news. We can thank (if that is the right word) The National Enquirer for first reporting Tiger Woods' and John Edwards' infidelity. Even the Pulitzer board said the paper might be eligible for consideration for a prize for investigative journalism. Moreover, so-called elite publications have been known to credit the Enquirer as a source.
Columnist Michael Kinsley said this illustrates a "process whereby the daintier elements of the press can enjoy sex while claiming to have preserved their virginity: they simply wait for their less fastidious brethren to report something, then report -- with distaste -- that it has been reported."
Like it or not, we live in an age of "normalization of hyperbole." Yet this is nothing new. Shakespeare's plays are full of suicides, murders and sex. As the mass entertainer of his day, he fully understood the bloody appetites of the public.
In truth, many classic stories could easily be summarized with tabloid headlines, as you'll see if you try to match the items in the two groups below. (Answers are at the end.)
1. To Kill or not to Kill Dad's Murderer: Son Wavers
2. Judge Suggests Cutting boy in two in Custody Dispute
3. Angry Mob Votes to Kill Prophet Preaching Non-Violence
4. Penniless Student Robs and Murders Elderly Landlord
5. Ruler Banishes Daughter for Refusing to Flatter Him
6. Manipulative Wife Pushes Husband to Kill to Gain Throne
7. Wartime Bar Owner Falls for Mysterious Disappearing Beauty
a) The story of Jesus
b) Crime and Punishment
c) King Lear
f) King Solomon
Source: I saw a similar quiz in How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, who in turn cited Literary Trivia: Fun and Games for Book Lovers by Lederer and Gilleland for the idea.
Answers: 1: e; 2: f; 3: a; 4: b; 5: c; 6: g; 7: d.