The mystifying math behind a tabloid scandal.

A summary of what's been in the tabloids.
March 7 2002 2:14 PM

True to Formula

The tabs' secret formula for calculating their juiciest scoops.

Keeping Tabs has long observed that when it comes to determining newsworthiness, the tabloids appear to employ a simple formula: It's as easy as multiplying X (the notoriety quotient of a given tabloid personage) times Y (the salaciousness quotient of story, with extra weight accorded to sex, serious illness and/or impending death, marital/relationship discord, criminal wrongdoing, or any combination of the above). The most sought-after kind of story is, of course, one in which a high-X factor can be multiplied by a high-Y factor—say, photographs of Madonna cheating on her husband … with Julia Roberts! But the vast majority of tabloid ink is devoted to modest X-Y ratios, achieved by multiplying a high X by a low Y or vice versa. Or—to put it in plain English—the tabs can always justify writing about high-wattage celebrities, no matter how banal the details of the story; while people with only the most tenuous ties to the pop culture A list can become front-page tabloid news if their story is even vaguely sexy.

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In Tabloidland, Jennifer Aniston photographed picking spinach out of her teeth is mathematically equivalent to Gavin MacLeod in flagrante with a goat. (This, for the record, is entirely hypothetical; KT knows that Capt. Stubing—not to mention Murray Slaughter—would do no such thing.)

For a perfect illustration of the above theorem, look no further than this week's Star, which features anextremely high-X/moderate-Y story, followed on the very next page by an extremely low-X/very-high-Y combo.The first is a full-page account of how Tom Cruise's new orthodontia reportedly caused a painful gash in his mouth that sent him to the emergency room. The latter is a piece about actor James McEachin, who stars on a CBS drama called First Monday (no, we've never heard of it, either), and his estrangement from his daughter Alainia. McEachin's problematically low-X factor, however, is counteracted by Alainia's extraordinarily high Y: She is better known as "Cassandra Curves," a hard-core porn actress who has graced such screen gems as Big Bust Babes Volume 34.

See what we mean?

By setting their threshold formula so low, the tabs ensure themselves a virtually never-ending stream of material. The super-famous can do virtually anything and still fill pages. And the semi-famous need only be a little naughty. Or a lot naked. Or both.

Last week's Globe, for example, had a classic high-X/low-Y story. Two full pages were devoted to an analysis of a "baffling 'boob bandage' " detected on Jennifer Lopez's right breast during a recent Miami Beach photo shoot. Was it cleavage-enhancing tape? A bruise? Had J. Lo undergone a breast biopsy? Plastic surgery? The possibilities were virtually endless, and everyone from a representative of the "New York-based Intimate Apparel Council" to two different plastic surgeons and Lopez's publicist were called in to offer perspectives on the mysterious adhesive. The Globe even threw in a helpful sidebar on how you, too, can use tape to have "killer cleavage." (Service journalism and all, you know.) Whatever it is, we just hope it won't keep her from trying out for Big Bust Babes Volume 35.

Similarly, with Enron so prominent in our collective consciousness right now, the tabs could easily squeak in an Enron story with a relatively low-Y factor. The Globe therefore saw fit to call upon "world-renowned palmist" and KT fave Anthony Carr to give its readers "his unique insight" into the scandal by reading the palms of half a dozen figures in the Enron imbroglio and "exposing the gold diggers' tightly held secrets." Par example?Kenneth Lay's "sloping head line means he's a serial liar," and CFO Andrew Fastow's "thin wedge-style thumb shows he's an opportunist who could sell igloos to Eskimos." And it doesn't look good at all for auditor David Duncan, whose life line apparently disappears after 50. "He will die," predicts Carr, cheerfully, "quite possibly in an accident that could so easily have been prevented if he was the type to listen to the advice of others." Ouch! Oh, and let's not forget that the National Enquirer is reporting that Enron "gave the Taliban millions of dollars in a no-holds-barred bid to strike a deal for an energy pipeline in Afghanistan." Here, ladies and gents, we have a rare example of two strong X's multiplied by a barely perceptible Y, in order to achieve threshold status. Hey! Whatever gets you through.

The X-Y formula also provides a method for keeping long-forgotten names front and center. Keeping Tabs kept wondering, for example, what was so odd about the Globe's recent cover about Dolly Parton's purported affair with a teen-age boy in the 1970s, until it finally hit her: When was the last time you saw Dolly Parton on a magazine cover for any reason at all? But Dolly Parton having illicit sex with a youngster? Now that's the stuff tabloids are made of. And witness this week's Enquirer, which not only offers the exclusive story of how actress Pat Priest (aka niece Marilyn from The Munsters) is bravely battling lymphoma (remember: life-threatening illness = good to go!), but brings us an Evel Knievel update. While Evel's publicist's phone has probably not been ringing off the hook lately, all he needs to do to merit tabloid ink is misbehave a little. And voilà! Here he is in the Star allegedly drinking heavily (he had a liver transplant, hence the required serious illness and threat of impending death) and beating his wife, Krystal. Props to the Enquirer, by the way,for the clever "Evel Knievel's Boozing—With Another Man's Liver" headline.

Finally, the tabs glean a lot of their best Y-related material by dint of good old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness. Like dogs' jaws clamped around a sirloin, the tabs just don't know how to let a story go. Long after the network news trucks have packed up and gone home from staking out the home of a once-hot X like Tonya Harding or Darva Conger, tabloid reporters dutifully continue to sniff around the players in our various national dramas, and occasionally can break news this way—news that the mainstream media will then hurry to catch up on. (Darva's getting married, by the way, reports the Star.) Because despite their diminished X quotients, such people can still yield a respectably high, newsworthy Y. The Enquirer, for instance, has a "world exclusive" cover story on Patsy Ramsey ("Jonbenet's Mom Dying"), who is reportedly "gravely ill" with liver cancer "and could be dead within a year." (Mark Keeping Tabs' words: An update on Patsy Ramsey's poor health will soon appear in People.) And while technically, we could all be dead within a year, there's something comforting in knowing that those of us with pathetically low-X factors still won't end up in the tabs, unless, perhaps, we drink ourselves to death … with someone else's liver.

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