The Tabloidization of Everything

In March of 2002, Milly Dowler, age 13, left her home in Walton-on-Thames for the last time. After she disappeared, her parents called the police. A search began. Blanket news coverage followed. In those days, probably a dozen British tabloids and half a dozen higher-brow broadsheets all chased the same stories. In an effort to beat his newspaper’s rivals, an investigator employed by News of the World, one of those tabloids, hacked into Dowler’s cellphone. He was looking for messages that offered clues; he may or may not have deleted some messages, thereby giving her family false hope that she might be alive.

A few months later, Dowler’s body was found. Several years after that, British police uncovered evidence of the phone hack, along with evidence that the phones of many other people—actors, athletes, Prince Harry—had been hacked by News of the World journalists in pursuit of other stories. The nation recoiled in horror: What kind of monster would hack the phone of a missing child? The Dowlers, along with a whole raft of celebrities, sued News of the World and its parent company, owned by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch shut down the paper and, over many years, paid out millions of pounds in damages. Prince Harry’s suit is still in the courts.

I am telling this story because it forms part of the background to another story, this one about The Washington Post, where I once worked, first as an editorial writer and then as a columnist. But before I get to that, I want to point out that the British phone-hacking scandal was unique in only one sense: There were negative consequences for the newspaper and its owner. More often there weren’t..  

On the contrary, phone hacking, phone bugging, blackmail, police bribery, and large payments to sources had been accepted in some corners of the British media for a long time. In the very happy decade I spent as a British journalist—at The Spectator, at the Evening Standard, and as a columnist at The Sunday Telegraph, before I got to the Post—I worked with many great editors and excellent journalists, and witnessed a lot of hand-wringing about whether intrusive tabloid journalism was good for the country. But nobody could argue with the logic of profit. When The Sun acquired a tape of Princess Diana speaking to James Gilbey, presumed to be her lover, or when the Mirror decided to publish a transcript of then-Prince Charles talking to his then-mistress, they did so because that would sell newspapers.

There were broadsheet versions of this, too. In 2009, Robert Winnett, then a reporter at the Telegraph, together with the newspaper’s top editor, Will Lewis—paid some $120,000 to an investigator who had got hold of stolen data showing that British members of Parliament were cheating on their expenses. Winnett and Lewis were richly rewarded: A scandal ensued, several MPs resigned, and the Telegraph sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

The fierce competitiveness of the British tabloid market produced a different way of writing about the news. Long before social media, the British tabloids experimented with the use of anger, emotion, partisanship, and polarization to capture and hold public attention. Sometimes they created celebrity scandals. Sometimes they attacked migrants or foreigners. Sometimes they deployed brilliant writers and reporters, which is why Britain has so many of those too. Along the way, they invented the modern language of populism, long before the word became part of our everyday lexicon. Any celebrity, any politician, any institution—the European Union, the British judiciary, the Royal Family—was fair game.  

The drive to win readers by whatever means possible eventually blurred the distinction between tabloids and broadsheets, especially within the ecosystem of what is sometimes known as the Tory press: Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, the Telegraph Media Group, the Daily Mail. The broadsheets are always looking for the best editors and the cleverest journalists, and often hire them from the tabloids. Broadsheet journalists are frequently persuaded to write for the tabloids, too; I’ve done so many times myself. Along the way, the distinction between the Tory press and the Tory party became blurred, as journalists, including former Prime Minister and Telegraph columnist Boris Johnson, moved back and forth between them (a pattern that happens on the left wing of British politics too). Finally, competition created a certain brutality, and not only toward politicians and celebrities. It was, and maybe still is, normal for new editors to fire large numbers of journalists on arrival. “Drowning kittens,” one proprietor called it. He meant thatit as a compliment.  

[Read: Revenge of the Brits]

Will Lewis, whom Jeff Bezos hired to be the publisher of The Washington Post earlier this year, emerged from that hypercompetitive, scoop-driven world, and is in fact one of its great success stories. He started his career at Tthe Mail on Sunday before moving to the Financial Times, where he broke quite a few stories, and then to the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times. He became the editor of the Telegraph, as noted, and then the CEO of Dow Jones and the publisher of Tthe Wall Street Journal, also owned by Murdoch. I have never met him. By all accounts, he is affable, charming, and very talented.

He also lives by the rules of the world he made his career in. His name was recently mentioned in a court case connected to that long-ago phone-hacking scandal—the story that just won’t go away—and he is alleged to have offered an NPR reporter an exclusive interview in exchange for not writing about it. That might not have bothered anyone in London, but, like the practice of paying sources, it is unusual at The Washington Post. Lewis fell out, abruptly, with The Washington Post’s now ex-editor, perhaps in part because he also asked her not to publish about it.

Lewis chose to replace her with Winnett, the man who broke his most important story. His logic was surely commercial: Winnett gets scoops, scoops get readers, and readers are what the newspaper needs. But The Washington Post also gets scoops, only it does so differently. My colleague Stephanie McCrummen, a former Washington Post reporter who helped break the story of Ray Moore—the U.S. Senate candidate from Alabama who had harassed teenage girls—wrote yesterday that her team never paid sources, and for very good reasons: “The reputation of the Post newsroom has been built upon readers’ trust that reporters do not pay sources, much less steal documents, hack computers, or engage in other deceptive news-gathering practices that have been associated with a certain kind of British journalism and the worst of American tabloid journalism.” McCrummen reckons that the Post’s stories about Moore had so much power because people believed them. Moore lost his race.

[Stephanie McCrummen: All The Washington Post has is its credibility]

Nobody has said this very clearly, but the newsroom anxiety about both Winnett and Lewis might touch on the politics of their previous jobs as well as ethics and potential conflicts of interest. Lewis founded a public-relations agency that still bears his initials and through which, according to the Financial Times, he offered advice to Johnson and the Conservative Party, among others. Winnett has long worked at the Telegraph, a newspaper whose close alignment with the Conservative Party has never been in doubt. I don’t know whether he would have brought partisan headlines to The Washington Post, but I am guessing that some journalists feared he would. Whether or not they were correct, we will never know, because he is already gone.

Facing a newsroom revolt, Winnett on Friday resigned from the Post editorship. Back in London, some of his British colleagues rallied to his defense in an amusingly partisan manner. The Murdoch-owned Times wrote an article about Winnett that made a glancing reference to the money-for-data and other ethics stories that had roiled the Post newsroom, focusing instead on a claim that the “staff revolt” against Winnett had begun when he “pointed out errors in the newspaper’s coverage of the war in Gaza.” In The Sunday Times, Gerard Baker, a former editor of The Wall Street Journal, dismissed the “sanctimonious” Post reporters and called the newspaper “a reliable mouthpiece for left-wing, woke, progressive ideology,” language that could just as easily have been used by Sean Hannity.

But before this story becomes a full-blown culture-war meme—clever, brutal right-wing Brits versus mushy, woke left-wing Americans—it’s worth noting that this saga is unfolding just as the Conservative Party, which has long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the Tory press, is imploding. This implosion is partly thanks to Brexit, a populist policy pushed by the Tory press, which if nothing else has made Britain poorer. Not all of those newspapers turned out to be good for the country, in other words—and not all of them are doing that well, either. Ownership of the Telegraph Group has been in limbo for months. Both The Sun and the Daily Mail, like just about every other form of media on the planet, are losing circulation and advertising fast. Whatever tricks they once used to beat their competitors might not work for that much longer.  

And no wonder: In Washington, in London, and everywhere else, we are drowning in unethically sourced information. The stuff that once shocked and scandalized us is now all over the internet, available for free. X, Facebook, Telegram, and YouTube have taken anger, emotion, and partisanship to levels no newspaper will ever match. AI-driven social-media campaigns will go even further. The tabloidization of everything is all around us already. That market is saturated. We don’t need The Washington Post’s contribution as well.

I don’t have a formula for the future of newspapers, and won’t presume to propose one. But if Lewis wants to build on The Washington Post’s reputation, using its existing journalists, he will find a less crowded market if he builds a higher-quality, more reliable, and more trustworthy newspaper—and finds readers who will pay for it, for exactly that reason.

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