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:
Over the same interval, the editors at MSNBC.com have offered these outré news headlines:
Haiti's poor resort to eating dirt
Watch that hot drink! Airline offers naked flights
Dr. Phil defends intentions with Spears
Video: Life after dog fighting
Video: Trains turn car into fireball
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.
What the sites really love are sordid stories that can be presented as serials, if not cliffhangers. A maiden in distress, preferably a hiker, turns up missing. Her car is found. A scrap from her dress located on the edge of the highway. Her next-door neighbor vanishes before police can interview him. It doesn't take much imagination to visualize the Web tab editors monitoring the wires for updates and loyal readers constantly refreshing their pages—or subscribing to alerts—to catch the next chapter. Because the story line rarely varies, the Web site editors are rarely guilty of exploiting novelty. Their game is exploiting familiarity, with their audience mimicking the child who wants the same horror story read to him over and over again because the familiarity brings a strange comfort.
The public embarrassments, car crashes, overdoses, and rehab adventures of celebrities generally sate the Web tabs' appetite for exploitable serial content. But one Web site—CNN.com—is enterprising enough to create its own serial. With its parent network, CNN.com has created a serial it doesn't have to share with the Foxnews.com or MSNBC.com in the form of "Youssif." Youssif is a 5-year-old Iraqi boy who was attacked about a year ago by masked men who set him afire. CNN.com has published more than 20 stories about him and hosts an equal number of videos about his plight and the good works of doctors at a California burn center. Without a doubt, CNN has done something good for Youssif, but in tabloid tradition Youssif has done something good for CNN.com. Right now, his name is the seventh most-frequently searched word on the site, and given the severity of his burns, his story will have a long, prosperous run for CNN.com.
To be sure, all three Web tabs publish lots of staid and responsible news stories about politics, the economy, and culture, so there's no danger of journalism-that-is-good-for-you being driven off viewers' desktops. And to be sure, tabloid fare has long been a part of the average reader's media diet. But CNN.com's, MSNBC.com's, and Foxnews.com's celebration of and reliance on stories like today's "Human Tongue Accidentally Served Up in Hospital," which are explicitly designed to momentarily rouse and titillate the Web audience, says worlds about how the site thinks of us. Life is a freak show, the Web sites instruct, and we viewers just another bunch of freaks.
And who could resist "Man Arrested After Cat Finds Child Porn Stash"? Note to Weisberg: Instead of pondering the meaning of the Web tabs, should we relaunch Slate as the lowest common denominator purveyor? Please let me know at email@example.com so I know you're reading. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)