With all the excellent commentary about what the criminal tactics of employees of the Murdoch media empire reveal about tabloid journalism and its cozy relationship with politicians and police, there has been a notable silence concerning the more fundamental question of what can rightly be called the tabloidization of our world. What I have in mind here is the leering, sensational tone pioneered by new mass-circulation journalism during the last quarter of the nineteenth century that specialized in reports of accidents, suicides, marriage proposals, love triangles, divorces, murder, and trials about divorce and murder—and has now become the pervasive tone of our mass media today. That it took the breaking into messages on the cell phone of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl to waken people to just how deranged tabloids have become speaks to our obliviousness to the unseemly materials that casually assault us when we read even respectable newspapers and magazines, turn on the TV or radio, take in a movie, happen upon a billboard, or sit next to someone on the subway who is playing a video game or listening to overly amplified rap music. One of the only ways left to us to become more sensitive to the very things that dull our sensibility is to revisit the responses of people who were the first to experience invasive journalism, for they were still living in a world different from the one that was just taking shape. They were accustomed to thinking that the proper role of the press in a democracy was to publicize all matters that concern citizens and the common good.

The first thing to note about the new invasive journalism is that it was experienced by those who objected to it as “indecent,” by which they meant “the wanton and unnecessary expression or exposure, in words or pictures, of that which the common sense of decency requires should be kept private or concealed.” People living during the last part of the nineteenth century had a far stronger sense of the “sanctity” of private life than we do and were deeply concerned about what happens to a person’s honor and dignity when his or her personal affairs were paraded before strangers. They were acutely aware that matters that were not large enough to withstand public attention, but were vitally important to the people whose lives were being exposed, were liable to become light and laughable. They repeatedly condemned “shameless” reporters for bringing “disgrace” upon their “victim,” but they also believed that there were dire consequences for the character and quality of the larger world. One need only think of the treatment of Anthony Weiner or Eliot Spitzer in tabloids like the New York Post and by late-night TV talk-show hosts who reap profits by turning people’s personal foibles into national jokes to realize how well-founded was the fear that published gossip cheapens and deforms public conversation. And when it comes to the media frenzy surrounding alleged crimes like the Dominique Strauss-Kahn attempted rape case and all the lurid, clinical details that were broadcast on TV news around the clock, we are made to experience another effect that the first critics of sensational journalism deplored: the flooding of our world by obscenity.

Anyone reading this large literature of objections to the new invasive journalism cannot help noticing that people used to take words and images far more seriously than we do today. In a pathbreaking essay, “The Right To Privacy” (1890), the future Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, and his law partner at the time, Samuel Warren, drew attention to the way published rumor “belittles by inverting the relative importance of things, thus dwarfing the thoughts and aspirations of a people.” A steady diet of gossip and scandal, they believed, “destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling,” and ultimately “results in a lowering of social standards and morality.” E. L. Godkin, founding editor of The Nation, went even further in his indictment of the new journalism: “Its pervading spirit is one of vulgarity, indecency, and reckless sensationalism; it steadily violates the canons alike of good taste and sound morals; it cultivates false standards of life and demoralizes its readers.”

Even though this way of speaking about the harms wrought by tabloid journalism has come to sound moralistic and old-fashioned, it is worth noting that it was once the native tongue of enlightened, liberal figures like Brandeis and Godkin. In my opinion, it provides a deeper understanding of the consequences of incessant scandalmongering than anything we have today. Beginning in the 1990s with the televised confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas and the impeachment of President Clinton, our public conversation descended to new tawdry depths from which it has not yet emerged. What was most telling about those hearings was that ardent, self-avowed defenders of “family values” and “civility”—the very people who should have recoiled from the shameless tactics of exposure—were all too willing to violate privacy and disregard the coarsening of our public conversation in the name of ferreting out “the truth” about strictly personal affairs. That even they could not recognize that some things are “unfit to be seen or heard”— another nineteenth-century meaning of “indecent”—reveals just how far the tabloidization of our world has proceeded. 

Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.