The tabloid excesses of CNN.com, MSNBC.com, and Foxnews.com.

Media criticism.
Jan. 30 2008 6:40 PM

"Fishermen Beat Rare Dolphin to Death"

And other tabloid headlines from CNN.com, MSNBC.com, and Foxnews.com.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

In their craven pursuit of clicks, the editors at CNN.com, MSNBC.com, and Foxnews.com turn their sites into virtual tabloids by peppering their home pages with the most sordid and bizarre stories that can be culled from the world's news wires. In the past two days, CNN.com has given "top story" status to these tabloid-quality headlines:

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Over the same interval, the editors at MSNBC.com have offered these outré news headlines:

Given the tabloid roots of its parent organization, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., it's only natural that Foxnews.com excels at tabloid excess. Here's just a taste from the Foxnews.com home page from the last 48 hours:

Although any story featuring sex, violence, death, or dismemberment can qualify a news story for heavy promotion on a cable channel Web site, nothing satisfies the sites like an endangered baby. If an infant or a toddler anywhere in the world has been harmed or placed in peril, the story is a safe bet to be featured by one of the Web tabloids. If the baby has suffered a gruesome injury or is rotting dead, it's a cinch, as Foxnews.com's "Manhunt After Infant Found Dead Near Car" and similar stories by the competition demonstrate.

If the wires fail to produce a baby-in-a-microwave story, the Web tabs are happy to fill the depravity gap by substituting accounts about slightly older children imperiled by sex monsters. In the past two days, Foxnews.com has promo'd both "Kindergartener Accuses 2 Classmates of Sex Assault" and "Elementary School Principal Charged in Sexual Assault."

After babies and toddlers, the surest topic for Web site exploitation is an animal in distress. Accounts of scalded cats and dragged dogs routinely top the sites' "most viewed" lists. ("Vick," as in admitted dog-abuser Michael Vick, is currently the second-most frequently searched term on CNN.com.) Editors don't mind misrepresenting an animal story if it will produce clicks. Take, for example, "Fishermen Beat Rare Dolphin to Death," promo'd today on CNN.com. The promotional headline implies that the fishermen in Bangladesh knowingly beat a rare dolphin to death, but they didn't. As the story explains, they had never seen a Ganges River dolphin before, and thought they could make money selling this "rare fish" they found trapped in the low waters of a tidal channel. So, they killed it. What were they supposed to do, call the Cousteau Society?

Web tab editors know what base impulses they're playing to when they fuse a neglected child story with a "he's just a misunderstood pup" account, as Foxnews.com did this week with "Dog Disfigures Boy; Mom Blames Son, Vows To Keep It." If only there had been a sex angle to include, the piece might have set a page-view record for the site and the celebrity of infamy for the editor who pushed the story onto Foxnews.com's home page.