A Fray posting following Keeping Tabs’ most recent offering alleged gross insensitivity toward the deadly anthrax outbreak at tabloid publisher American Media Inc. The poster complained that “where there is death and the horror of anthrax, this miscreant treats it as a notable play of ironic humor.” Had Keeping Tabs crossed a Maginot line of ironic, flippant, miscreant-ism in predicting that the tabs would scurry to serve up “gripping first person accounts” of the anthrax scare? Probably not, because when the Globe, Star, and National Enquirer weighed in this week with their behind-the-scenes anthrax issues, gloriously studded with precisely such gripping first-person accounts, Keeping Tabs was fully vindicated. We now have as close to scientific proof as we’ll ever get: The tabloids have no shame.
Where even to begin describing the journey through this week’s issues? Even Mr. Keeping Tabs, who usually enjoys a good tabloid chuckle now and then, could only sigh when presented with this week’s National Enquirer cover line: “World Exclusive from the people who lived through the nightmare.” So bountiful is the anthrax coverage that Keeping Tabs can only pay glancing homage to the best of last week’s non-terror-related crop, which include a Star cover story on how Prince William purportedly lost his virginity to an unnamed “older woman” last December (“We just kept on and on,” William supposedly told a friend. “We hardly slept. It was absolutely wicked. She is a fabulous girl.”).
While other targeted members of the media, including New York Post editorial page assistant Johanna Huden and the New York Times’ Judith Miller, managed to write sensibly about their harrowing anthrax scares, the tabs elevate the first person account to a new level entirely. See, for example, “The Day I Found I’d Been Exposed to Anthrax: Enquirer Reporter’s Own Horrifying Story” or Globe reporter Felicia Levine’s “How Anthrax Attacked Me,” salted with sentences such as: “The bone-chilling fear that I may have been exposed made me panic. Horrified, I began to hyperventilate.” The Globe also reports that AMI employee Bobby Bender—who gave the deadly package to Sun photo editor Robert Stevens—asked co-workers, “My God, do you think I killed Bobby Stevens?”
The biggest Tabloidland mystery continues to be why the Globe—usually hands down the tawdriest of the three tabloids—has been plagued by such a puzzling lack of edge. Despite the fact that its very offices were the site of the first deadly anthrax exposure, the Globe’s cover line this week reads: “Tom Brokaw’s Agony,” while their own, very direct connection to the anthrax story is buried several paragraphs down. Claiming to have the “REAL story” behind the germ attacks, the Globe has the skimpiest and least compelling coverage. (They partially redeem themselves by finding the requisite “industry expert”—Frank J. Romano, chair of the school of printing at the Rochester Institute of Technology and “author of 35 books on the printing industry”—to selflessly reassure readers that the magazines themselves are not tainted with anthrax.) Even the Globe’s tribute to its own fallen comrade is tepid. Reporter Joe Mullins’ “My Friend Bob Stevens” takes your breath away with observations like: “He was a nice man and I’ll never forget him.”
For the record, Keeping Tabs couldn’t find any of the promised Brokaw “agony” over the infection of his assistant with anthrax, but the Globe does report that “off-camera, the outraged anchor let his anger show, smashing his fist onto tables and lashing out at the evil plotters who sent the letter, calling them ‘bastards’ and ‘cowards.’ ” The Star also features Brokaw getting steamed: “If I could, I’d choke the life out of the gutless cowards who did this,” he supposedly told a friend. When his assistant was definitively diagnosed with anthrax, the Star reports that Brokaw was allegedly “overwhelmed with guilt. He welled up with tears and could barely speak. He said: ‘It kills me to see poor Erin suffer for something meant for me.’ ”
True to form, the Star zeroes in like a laser on the one tenuous celebrity connection to the story: the anthrax-laced letter sent to the AMI premises was addressed to Jennifer Lopez, giving the Star license to refer to it—of course—as the “Jennifer Lopez terror letter.” There’s even insightful comment on the situation from Lopez’ ex-husband, Ojani Noa: “When Jennifer finds out that someone used her name to these ends, she’s going to be extremely upset.” (The Globe, by the way, calls addressing the letter to Lopez an act of “diabolical cunning,” while the Enquirer settles for “clever ploy.”)
Overall, the Enquirer’s coverage is by far the most extensive, and includes the kinds of touching detail you just won’t find anywhere else. For example, anthrax-exposed AMI mailroom employee Stephanie Dailey has been watching the Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show to take her mind off things. And while the Star devotes the most ink to the late Robert Stevens, complete with a special “Death of a Hero” graphic, only the Enquirer has the headline proclaiming him “The Man Who Saved America.” (American Media CEO David Pecker similarly vaunts his staff in an open letter to Star readers that praises the “heroic efforts” of AMI employees in “getting our publications to press.”) The Enquirer also claims to have an“exclusive” interview with Robert Stevens’ widow that turns out to be almost word-for-word the same as the Star’s. Oops.
The all-around most feel-good anthrax story, however, would have to be the Enquirer’s “The Little Dog Who’s Licking Terrorism,” featuring anthrax’s “littlest victim,” Scooby Doo, the 4-and-a-half pound, year-old poodle owned by Enquirer editor David Perel. Perel was understandably rattled when he realized that two of his children had been in the American Media building around the time of the anthrax exposure: “Then it hit me—Scooby Doo was in the building too!” Fear not, puppy fans; Scooby’s on antibiotics and doing just peachy. And no, we’re not being ironic.