Tabloid Religion

Originally posted on USC’s now-defunct TRANS/MISSIONS: Media, Culture, Religion, Society blog.

by Judith Weisenfeld

To say that journalistic ethics have drawn unfavorable public attention lately would be an understatement. The media coverage of Casey Anthony’s trial reached an unprecedented level of intensity, with live television broadcasts from the courtroom and the participation of journalists, bloggers and the general public via social media. Interested observers could even choose between various iPhone apps providing a live video stream from the courtroom and news updates throughout the trial and jury deliberation.

In the wake of Anthony’s acquittal, the biased cable news coverage of analysts like Nancy Grace, who dubbed Anthony “Tot Mom” and assumed her guilty from the outset, has rightly been called into question. While the morality of Grace’s coverage has received particular scrutiny, she was not alone in devoting excessive attention to the case that, in turn, fed the public’s salacious desire for spectacle.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the ever-widening scandal involving phone hacking and police bribery by reporters at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World has resulted in the demise of the 168-year-old tabloid along with resignations, arrests and Parliamentary hearings involving the Murdochs themselves. As with the U.S. media’s approach to the Anthony trial, the News Corporation revelations have cast a sharply unflattering light on British media culture. While the lightning-fast pace and volume of coverage of cases like Anthony’s is unparalleled, the mutually-supporting relationship among media, audiences and those thrust into the spotlight is, of course, not new.

Not surprisingly, the inclusion of a religious angle often magnifies the opportunity for sensationalism. Oscar-winning director Errol Morris’ new documentary, “Tabloid,” explores these issues in relation to a notorious case involving Americans in England in which sensationalist representations of sex and religion fueled the crass competition to sell papers. In 1977 British headlines blared about “the case of the manacled Mormon” in which former beauty queen and “call girl” Joyce McKinney kidnapped and “shackled for sex” one Kirk Anderson.

“Tabloid” is structured around an extended interview with McKinney who insists that she and Anderson, who does not appear in the film, were in love and that the Mormon Church kidnapped him to keep them apart. In the mode of deprogrammers, McKinney extracted Anderson from what she believed was a cult that had brainwashed him.

Morris’s examination of McKinney’s story represents another entry in his catalogue of films concerned with the challenges of accessing truth in such narratives. Perhaps more apparent is the connection to Morris’ filmic explorations of American wackiness in which he often highlights religion. In fact, Morris said in a recent interview that he “likes to think of the Bible as an extended tabloid story.” “Tabloid” gives audiences the opportunity to weigh competing truth claims and assess the mutual media dependence of McKinney and British tabloid journalists through their own words. Unfortunately, Morris represents Mormonism only through clips from an anti-Mormon cartoon and interviews with Troy Williams, a former Mormon and gay activist, leaving viewers with little means to assess with nuance what role Mormon theology and institutions actually played in the saga.

Morris’ handling of McKinney’s story showcases elements of media culture and the compromised ethics of tabloid journalism that are now commonplace. The story is particularly rich because of McKinney’s obvious hunger for media attention–she returned to the limelight a number of times, including in 2008 when she had her dead pit bull cloned–but it also highlights the harm that such attention can cause to those caught in the spotlight. Today’s journalists should see the probing of ethics in “Tabloid” as a useful history lesson, but also note the filmmaker’s failure to think carefully about the place of religion in shaping a story, obscuring issues in need of analysis and amplifying sensationalism.