Two Cheers for the Tabloids

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Tabloid newspapers have scandalized polite opinion since they first appeared in the early 20th century; and, as the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal shows, they "have not lost their grip on indecent reporting, especially when it comes to breaches of privacy." On the whole, that's a good thing, writes tabloid historian Ryan Linkof in today's New York Times. Not that he's defending the clearly illegal actions journalists and private investigators in the employ of the News of the World. But "one does not have to support illegal activity in order to defend intrusive reporting," he argues. Maybe intrusiveness is often "indecent"; but in a lot of cases this will be outweighed by the public interest in exposing awkward facts. And anyway, "decency" and "privacy," as he points out, are slippery notions – not to mention convenient shields for concealing information. The Murdoch scandal has raised calls to rein in the tabloids through new laws. That would be a big mistake, says Linkof. For one thing, the phone-hacking, police-bribing NOtW journalists broke the existing law and will pay – in some cases have already paid – the price. Most tabloids operate within the law, even at their most "indecent," and that's as it should be. "Journalism has always been marked by a battle to define the boundaries of acceptable investigative behavior," Linkof says. "The tabloids — just as they ought — constantly test those boundaries."

'Why We Need the Tabloids' [Ryan Linkof, New York Times]