Keeping Tabs

It’s All About the But

Anna Nicole Smith, Rulon Gardner, and the tabloids’ favorite conjunction. 

As she journeys forth on her never-ending quest to achieve total tabloid enlightenment, Keeping Tabs occasionally has a true epiphany. The last one came to her while reading the most recent batch of tabloid offerings—a particularly rich crop, if only for the Enquirer’s detailed line graph charting Oprah Winfrey’s weight from 1976 to the present; the Star’s claim that Camp David has become a kind of lesbian Playboy Mansion, with “shameful” goings-on of which the first lady is said to have occasionally participated in; and the Globe’s intriguing assertion that “germophobe” Al Gore’s dopp kit contains “separate sponges for hands, feet, face and private regions.” (If you were wondering about that Enquirer“World Exclusive” cover story on O.J. Simpson’s supposed “Murder Confession,” in typical tabloid fashion, there’s not really much there. The only real news in the piece is that Simpson’s most recent ex, Christie Prody, now believes that Simpson did indeed murder his ex-wife and Ron Goldman. Oh, and he “is constantly getting up in the middle of the night to urinate.”)

Anyway, it is no secret that the tabloids traffic in extremes: The residents of Tabloidland are always either joyfully picking china patterns after a single date or desperately plotting suicide over a hangnail. When it comes to a good thing—say, a budding romance—the tabs do tend to get a little ahead of themselves in pumping up the stakes. Hence this week’s Star cover stories claiming that newly single Meg Ryan is (already) planning to have a baby with Russell Crowe and that newly single (and straight?) Anne Heche is (already) shopping for wedding rings with cameraman Coley Laffoon. The Enquirer, in a similar vein, is predicting that 20-year-old Chelsea Clinton will wed beau Jeremy Kane at the White House over the Christmas holidays. At the other end of the spectrum is the tabs’ penchant for needless—and wildly disproportionate—despair, a delightfully amusing shtick that has crossed Keeping Tabs’ radar several times before (click here and here).

What Keeping Tabs realized while sifting through the most recent issues, however, is how the tabs chart a third way, in which both of these extremes can coexist—by cleverly throwing a downer into any seemingly joyous or stable scenario. The mechanics of this wrench-throwing are truly sublime in their economy. It’s all, you see, about the “but.”

Take American wrestler Rulon Gardner, whose defeat of the seemingly infallible (or is that un-fellable?) Russian goliath Aleksandr Karelin was universally lauded in the mainstream press and was arguably the most uplifting story of the Sydney Olympics. Leave it to the tabs to find the one black cloud on Gardner’s horizon. “But what viewers don’t know,” the Globe confides, “is that Gardner still has an ache in his heart, despite his stunning victory.” That ache, it would appear, stems from the 1979 death of Gardner’s brother Ronald, who died of a cancer now easily treated.

Likewise, track star Marion Jones “was the golden girl of the Sydney Olympics with her warm smile, dazzling speed and astounding three gold medal wins,” reports the Star. “But”—you knew it was coming—”even with the adoring applause of the crowd and the million-dollar endorsements that come with it, something was missing from her triumphant moment in the sun—her father!” We’re sure that Jones will be overjoyed to know that the Star tracked down said missing father at his Los Angeles laundromat and feigned shock that he was not interested in kvelling over his estranged daughter’s accomplishments with a tabloid reporter. If it’s a “despite” you’re looking for, look no further: “But despite the joy [of winning], despite the love of her mother and husband, none of her medals can really make up for the emptiness in her heart created by her dad’s indifference.”

It’s not just Olympians being targeted by the tabloid “but” patrol, either. There’s Anna Nicole Smith, who stands to receive more than $1 million for every day of her marriage to magnate J. Howard Marshall, according to the Star. A good thing for Anna Nicole, wouldn’t you say? Yes, “but friends are worried that her newfound joy will turn to tears as her self-destructive behavior comes back to haunt her. With millions ready to burn a hole in the back pocket of her designer jeans, they fear she’ll stop at nothing to indulge her every whim.” (Similarly, while the story lacks an actual, explicit “but,” we couldn’t help but notice that according to the Star, “hunky” emergency medical technician Tom Gill’s happiness at being named Fox’s “Sexiest Bachelor Alive” and winning $100,000 were “tempered” by having been called to a particularly gruesome accident scene that “shook him to the core” just before the show aired.)

Comedian Ray Romano was clearly not thinking about the tabloid killjoys when he joked about having mitral valve prolapse—a relatively innocuous concern, according to the American Heart Association—during a recent appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. While Romano’s own mother and sister-in-law confirm that Romano is none the worse for wear, that’s hardly good enough for the Globe, which blithely tells readers that he is “suffering from a heart problem that could kill him at any minute!” Romano and his family can pooh-pooh all they want, chides the Globe, “but experts, including Dr. Michael C. Plewa of the Medical College of Ohio, warn that MVP can be fatal, noting that it was blamed for suddenly killing 27-year-old Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis in 1993.” The Star concurs. “But while Romano made light of the situation, if the problem gets worse, he could be in line for heart surgery.”

The death of actor Richard Mulligan is similarly but-ridden. “To the world, Empty Nest star Richard Mulligan always had a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face,” says the Star, “but his smile masked a tortured soul.” The story goes on to explain that Mulligan died “brokenhearted … regretting that he’d been such a cold and distant dad to his estranged son James, 42.” The Globe trots out the “Sad Last Days” headline for Mulligan, who reportedly whispered, “I’ve had a good life. I don’t regret a thing” on his deathbed. Doesn’t sound very sad, does it? Not so fast. “Despite his deathbed confession, pals say the 67-year-old Empty Nest star died a sad and lonely man,” explains the Globe. The Enquirer, having already run a stock “Brave Last Days” story on Mulligan back in August, goes the other route, reporting that the actor “fought with dignity and courage to his last breath.” He died, the story says, “on his own terms” with loved ones at his bedside. Son James reportedly visited regularly “until the end.” According to his ex-wife Lenore, Mulligan’s last words were “I’ve made sure you’re all taken care of—now I can die.” (For those of you keeping score at home, the suicide of actor Richard Farnsworth also merits a “Sad Last Days” headline from the Star.)

Speaking of suicide, Keeping Tabs would like to close with a challenge. Our August contention that the Globe had misused the word “suicide” in headlines led to a flurry of protests in “The Fray” claiming that the tabs were grammatically justified. Since that time, the Globe has tried to get away with the ear-bending “Singer fights to save AIDS sister” subhead in a story about Mariah Carey, but has certainly outdone itself with last week’s story about Vili Fualaau, the student with whom teacher Mary Kay LeTourneau had an illegal relationship. The headline? “Jailed Rape Teacher’s Teen Lover on the Lam.” Keeping Tabs invites readers to find a scenario in which such a headline is grammatically defensible … no ifs, ands, or buts about it.