One of the great speeches in the history of newspaper movies is delivered by Michael McDougal, the fictional star columnist for the fictional tabloid New York Sun, in the terrific 1994 classic, “The Paper.”
“We run stupid headlines because we think they’re funny. We run maimings on the front page because we got good art,” says McDougal, played by Randy Quaid. “But at least it’s the truth.”
McDougal’s passionate and idealistic defense of tabloid journalism touches a chord in the heart of every news hound and hen who ever labored in the vineyards of serious journalism, but at times secretly imagined playing in the wacky world of splashy sensationalism and salaciousness.
So it is that we have gazed in recent weeks to London, where the excesses of Fleet Street, the Mecca of tabloid journalism, are on trial in the form of Rebekah Brooks, the former and fallen queen of Rubert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire.
Titian-tressed tabloidist: Brooks, as loyal Calbuzz readers know, stands at the center of a scandal that involves Murdoch papers, under her control, illegally hacking into the phones and voice mail accounts of celebrities, royals and, in one way-over-the-line case, a kidnapped and murdered girl named Millie Dowler.
Beyond the back-and-forth of the sniffy fellows in Old Bailey wigs, however, the trial is irresistible for its singular, detailed and up-close-and-personal look at life at a savagely competitive tabloid – with the most ferocious competition sometimes raging at one’s own paper:
Brooks spoke of the “old-school misogyny” and the cut-throat competition that ruled the News of the World, where she started her Fleet Street career.
Competition was so fierce between journalists on the News of the World that at one point rival colleagues cut her phone line to stop her scooping them. She told the jury at the Old Bailey hacking trial how she walked into the office one Monday morning in 1994 or 1995 after she had got a scoop about the late Tory MP Alan Clark to find she had no phones. “I suspected the news desk,” Brooks said…
The news desk would compile a file of the features department’s “perceived mistakes” and “silly stories”. There were listed as “Twat 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6”, she said.
Tabs on trial: In the broadest sense, Brooks stands in the dock for practicing with great ruthlessness and skill a guilty pleasure brand of journalism: readers in Great Britain and the U.S., not least the two nations’ elitists, love to trash it as sordid, seedy and unworthy of attention, while devouring and gossiping about its stories. As New York Times correspondent Katrin Bennhold wrote in an excellent trial situationer:
When Rebekah Brooks first entered the witness box in Britain’s phone hacking trial, her lawyer reminded the jury that she was not on trial for running Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspapers.
Even so, her testimony over the past two weeks has offered a rare view into the skating-on-the-edge culture of the popular press here, one that fascinates and revolts Britons in equal measure: the scavenging in lawyers’ trash cans; the hidden recording devices; the six-figure sums paid for exclusive access to the mistresses of celebrities; the private jets whisking those mistresses to expensive hide-outs from the competition.
From “Benji the Binman,” sorting through garbage cans for legal documents to hooker Divine Brown, arrested with Hugh Grant in 1995, episodes recounted at trial sound like an Evelyn Waugh novel.
Case in point: Brooks chose to spend nearly $250,000 of her paper’s money to stash Brown and her large family at a Nevada resort to keep her away from rival tabs, for an exclusive in the News of the World headlined, “Hugh Told Me I Was His Sex Fantasy.”
Guardian gotchas: The gold standard for following the trial is coverage in The Guardian, a bitter Murdoch rival that broke the story of the phone hacking and many others involving Brooks. We can only imagine the scenes of snot-flying laughter in the Guardian newsroom at their report on Brooks’s testimony about why her husband, horseman Charlie Brooks, hid a laptop and another bag behind garbage cans in an underground garage in their neighborhood, which police originally suspected was an attempt to conceal evidence harmful to her case:
She then learned her husband had hidden bags including a laptop and a collection of DVDs behind a bin in the underground car park.
“He told me everything at this point. He had hidden his rather large porn collection and was quite exasperated. Then he said to me the police had found his bags, so there was a chance that he could be arrested,” she said.
“I just lost it. It seemed like a monumental cock-up.”
A final yarn: After ex-government official Clare Short criticized the “Page 3 Girls,” a regular photo feature of topless models in a Murdoch tab, Brooks responded in bloodthirsty Fleet Street style by first publishing a story headlined, “Fat, Jealous Clare”; next, running a photo shopped picture of Short’s head attached to a topless female body and, finally, organizing a protest of topless models at the former minister’s home.
At one point this week, Brooks answered a question about one of her stories by saying: “It all seems so silly now, but it was important.”
Stayin’ alive. Sort of: Not since his performance as Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever,” has bad rug-wearing John Travolta attracted so much attention at the Academy Awards as he did Sunday with his extraordinarily moronic fail in introducing singer Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem.”
But if Travolta’s bewildering blunder was the low point of what the estimable David Wiegand makes a case for being the worst Oscar show in recent memory, it also helped create the high point of history for Slate, which apparently had one of its heavily tatted, plentifully pierced 25-year old coding geniuses stay up all night to swiftly devise and post “The Adele Dazeem Name Generator.”
The feature, which allows readers to enter their name and find out how John Travolta might mispronounce it… had been viewed by 9.5 million unique users by Wednesday afternoon and was adding roughly 100,000 people an hour.
For the record, your Calbuzzers will henceforth be known as “Joannes Reegers” and “Paul Thompseen.”
Life in the incubator, Chapter 91: Speaking of boldly inventing the future of journalism, Audrey Cooper, our favorite managing editor of Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle, was out and about this week preaching the gospel according to, well, Audrey.
Our spies tell us that the professionally modest and personally humble Cooper, who owns a spot on the “Calbuzz List of 10,000 People Under 40 to Watch,” gave a talk at the Google Media Summit during which she said that she doesn’t look to the New York Times for what to do, because, “they ought to be looking at me” for guidance. This just in: Jill Abramson adds Audrey to her iPhone “favorites” contacts.
The leader of the erstwhile Voice of the West, according to our source, at one point also said: “There is no more print readers being born today.”
This on National Grammar Day. You could look it up.