Gothic News Darkens Front Pages

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"Suicide! Assassinations! Mad bombers! Mafia hit men! Automobile smash ups! The Death Hour...!" says the hero of the 1970s film Network in a burst of sarcasm, a "Sunday night show for the whole family."

In recent years, however, as stories about the bizarre or irrational become more acceptable as mainstream news, the sarcasm of the '70s is increasingly giving way to the realities of the '90s.

Whether due to public fascination with the gothic details of crime, or to a sales strategy by media marketers, the era of defining deviancy on Page 1 seems to be more pervasive. As a result, say experts, is that behavior that used to fall under the category of abnormal is becoming more normal.

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"The constant coverage of deviancy tends to make weirdness seem normal," says Jean Bethke Elshstain of the University of Chicago Divinity School. "The remote, the forbidden, the mysterious just seem ordinary fare after awhile. That does strange things to the moral compass of a person or a society."

The murder of designer Gianni Versace allegedly by a gay prostitute, for example, set a new standard for instant exploration of a suspect's psyche. Between July 16 and July 29, two of the most respected newspapers in the country together ran more than 70 pieces on the story, almost half of those after alleged killer Andrew Cunanan's body was found. That makes the Cunanan story one of the biggest of the summer so far - admittedly a "slow news" time - rivaling or even eclipsing the budget deal, Senate hearings on campaign finance, and the expansion of NATO.

While the tabloidization of journalism is a well-worn phenomenon, critics say coverage of the lurid is going more upscale and up-page. "What's new is the instant delivery of the 'In Cold Blood' kind of tale," says William Powers, media critic of The New Republic. "That and the kind of play these stories get. The Washington Post played the recovery of Cunanan's body above the fold [on Page 1]. That was quite a decision for them."

The new journalism of deviancy delves quickly and deeply into motives, history, and methods. In the decade of computer downloading, nothing lies for long beyond the reach of camera or keyboard. No lightless tunnels of the subconscious, no dancing demons of the irrational, are today unexplored by the new Woodwards and Bernsteins of the dark side.

Just this spring, a host of aberrant-behavior stories had a lengthy shelf life. There's boxer Mike Tyson's chomp of champ Evander Holyfield's ear, a not-for-family video of sportscaster Frank Gifford, the mass suicide of a UFO-cult, and Bill Cosby's past dalliances.

Partly, say experts, many journalists cut their teeth for two years producing the O.J. Simpson story - finding new angles of interest that they now apply in a post-O.J. media climate. (Some 1,449 pieces on Simpson ran on network news between 1994 and 1996 - making it the number 11 story of the decade.)

"The up-to-the-minute coverage of the aftermath of the Cunanan suicide reminded me of the white Bronco chase on the freeway," says Mark Crispin Miller of Johns Hopkins University. "People have always been fascinated by oddities and the forbidden, but this is a new level. Walter Cronkite wouldn't have done these stories, and his audience wouldn't have expected them."

Experts say the new journalism of deviancy is being driven by a number of factors. One is the perception of a news vacuum. The country is at peace. The times are fairly prosperous. In the post-cold-war era, no longer do countless stories of ideological conflict - the West versus the Communists - provide editors with an easy national cultural narrative. Nor, in a period when the upheavals brought by sexual permissiveness and protest familiar to baby-boomers is still being sorted out, is the lure of things off center waning.

And then there are ratings. Reports on complicated issues - the eat-your-spinach approach to news - is not a big seller. But compelling narratives about those who go over the edge - the fries and shake of the news business - does sell.

In this sense, the kind of tabloid TV found in newly popular shows like Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, and Ricki Lake is changing the context of what is acceptable fare, even for the mainstream press. "Material that always had an audience in the tabloids is now becoming respectable," says Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson postulates a new "Culture of Gothic" - in which high journalism now discusses the meaning of deviancy as a clue to where society is going. Those sympathetic with the discourse of the deviant say the questions probe areas of criminal intent that used to be covered up and is thus helpful. Yet the repetition of such stories, say those unsympathetic, is not salutary for the health of society, particularly since the motive is often news sales rather than the unmasking of patterns of evil.

"What we get on the fly-in TV pieces on deviancy is no more sophisticated and nuanced than the three-headed fish people used to hear about in Medieval times," says Miller of Johns Hopkins.

"The national networks have figured out what local news always knew about ratings," says Dr. Lichter. If "you scare people enough, they tune in again tonight to find out if things are as bad as they were last night."

Between 1990 and 1992, the networks averaged about 100 murder stories a year, according to a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. After the slayings, the number of reports tripled - to 350 a year.

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