From Elizabeth Taylor in the 1950s to just about everyone and everything else in the 2010s: The tabloidization of journalism
[See previous post: “Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell: Studio-Manufactured Love Affairs.”] Despite the sensational coverage of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle's rape/manslaughter trial and of the (still unsolved) murder of director William Desmond Taylor in the early '20s, the tabloidization of entertainment news would go mainstream only in the '50s, probably as a consequence of the decline of the Studio Era – at its height from the mid-'20s to the early '50s – and the emergence of Confidential magazine and its imitators. (Note: Ingrid Bergman didn't have a studio to back her up in the late '40s, when she became a Hollywood pariah following an extra-marital affair with Roberto Rossellini.) [Photo: Elizabeth Taylor.]
The precursor of today's vicious online and supermarket gossip rags, Confidential mockingly implied that Liberace was gay, insinuated that hunk Tab Hunter and sultry Lizabeth Scott were also gay (Scott sued), and revealed sexual encounters (whether true or made up) involving the likes of Maureen O'Hara and Dorothy Dandridge (both O'Hara and Dandridge also sued). [See also: “Sex Scandals and Politics at the Movies.”]
Elizabeth Taylor: Tabloid fodder
In the late '50s, gossip rags kept their writers and their readers busy with the Debbie Reynolds / Eddie Fisher / Elizabeth Taylor triangle, which in the early '60s evolved into the Eddie Fisher / Elizabeth Taylor / Richard Burton / Sybil Burton quadrangle. Since then, tabloids (and the paparazzi, named after a photographer / celebrity parasite found in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita) have become a media fixture.
In fact, whether on television, online, or (in the past) in print, the tabloids have been as good as – at times better than – the Old Hollywood studios at manufacturing and perpetuating the celebrity of pop stars. Don't fool yourself, Elizabeth Taylor's lasting fame has less to do with A Place in the Sun; Giant; Suddenly Last Summer; or her Oscar-winning star turn in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than with the scandal-boosted Cleopatra – the biggest blockbuster of 1963 – and the ensuing tabloid attention that helped to fuel global interest in the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie pairings of the '60s and that throughout the decades have kept Taylor in the dementia-prone public's consciousness. (See also: “Hollywood Scandals: Ingrid Bergman / Elizabeth Taylor / Lana Turner.”)
Who's to blame?
Certainly not Elizabeth Taylor. Some have blamed media producers and/or the big conglomerates that control them for the near-total tabloidization of entertainment journalism – or rather, of journalism, period. Personally, I find that both unfair and dishonest.
If most news today consists of tabloidized, sensational, dishonest reporting, that's merely because most people today want to be fed that sort of shit. If the (vast) majority of news consumers the world over weren't shiteaters, shit purveyors would go out of business. See, it's all about market forces – and a large dose of hypocrisy – at work.