We work at a tabloid. It's a real tabloidy tabloid. Unlike the Daily News, with its hurrah-for-immigrants charts, its isn't-that-nice stories about entrepreneurs peeling a living off the streets of what well-off people no longer feel comfortable calling the ghetto, we make no apologies. We don't send serious journalists out to cover the ghetto. We are the ghetto for serious journalists.
Our newspaper was founded on the reasoning that if it took ten billion years for man to crawl out of the muck, then he's overdue to be dunked back in it. Our home deliveries once increased 20 percent when we hatched a cross-promotion scheme that enabled us to be hidden inside the Times on people's doormats. The other papers don't respect us, possibly because of the name of the paper: it's called Tabloid. (Motto: "America's loudest newspaper.") Old folks understand what they're getting, wide-pantsed hipsters love the cheeky self-referentiality of it. Internally, we call it the comic: We work here so we can laugh at the world. Everyone has to believe in something, so we placed our faith in skepticism. We weren't the first to discover that the world is a toilet. We just give you something to read while you're sitting on it.
Three years ago I was the youngest hack on rewrite. The four of us were lashed to consecutive cubicles, a whole squadron of back-of-the-class smart-asses thrown together in the front row facing the Desk, within doughnut-flinging distance of Max, the screaming, insane city editor. Occasionally some aged hack would refer to "the rewrite pit," and though we were on the same elevation above sea level as everyone else, we loved to think of ourselves as a feared four-headed monster, waving our tentacles at our betters.
By unspoken rule, once settled for the day, rewrite doesn't leave the office. Rewrite doesn't do lunch or go to the gym or meet "sources" for drinks. Rewrite never knows how long it'll be at work; true soldiers of smudge never want to leave. Every day is spent abusing three drugs: caffeine, MSG, and information. Rewrite knows everything that happens before it's finished happening. You had to: A breathless reporter in the field could call in at any moment with a new bump on any story that ran in the paper in the last month—genocide in the Balkans, a hot-dog-eating contest in Coney Island—and you had to come up with the right questions to caulk up all the holes in time to write it up for edition. Rewrite studies every wire story, absorbs every TV news broadcast (not hard: they steal all their stories from us), gobbles up every newspaper.
Sucking in coffee, spitting out wisecracks, rising to every gruesome moment with hard-boiled nonchalance, we four deadline poets wrote pretty much the whole news hole. We worked strictly for our own amusement, the outside world's opinion mattering somewhere between diddly and squat. Max pushed our buttons—"Stir up a little outrage," he would order, his eyebrow cracking like a whip—and out came the headlines, backed up by the usual dubious quote-whore suspects ever ready to spew anger on demand. It isn't hard to find somebody who is famous, or has followers, or holds office, or used to hold office, or at very least has "association" on his letterhead and a membership of one or more—who is up for a nice game of controversy. Our Rolodexes burst with their names. We had their home numbers. We could find them on any weekend and any night. The numbers were our buckshot, which we would take into the forest and fire at the truth, hitting sometimes, missing most, but when you return for the evening with dinner for your tribe, no one asks you how many bullets you had to fire.
When things were breaking our way, Max, this anonymous figure, a guy whose face never turns up on TV shows or in syndicated columns, whose name doesn't appear in any paper, even ours, a guy who is no threat to be recognized at a soiree where people swarm around the fops who run Forbes or Vanity Fair (not that he even goes to those six-to-eighters in the first place; he's always at work till ten) was the most powerful journalist in America. And when he roared, the republic waved a hand in front of its face and wilted before his halitosis. Under his bidding we judged the judges, vetoed the politicians, and bounced the basketball coaches we didn't like. We were the double espresso to the heartbeat of the city, our gibes providing excellent graphics for TV news. Even the respectable press, too timid or too dull to marshal its own attacks and making everything look more complicated than it was, would wistfully issue reports of our crusades. To us they're just an empty canyon begging to be shouted into. It's our America now. When was the last time you saw the front page of the New York Review of Books on World News Tonight?
To rewrite, there is one unforgivable blunder—the one whispered about darkly in drowsy 2 a.m. heavy-news-day conversations when everyone's thoughts turn to the nearest drinkery; the one rewrite parents warn their rewritten children never to do: Pull a Hymietown. Hymietown is the word once used to describe our city by a major presidential candidate in the 1980s. The candidate casually dropped this municipal pet name into an interview with a Washington Post reporter who, confronted with the scoop of the year, the one that would reverse the tide of the presidential campaign and vaporize a figure who had a shot at the top, promptly buried it in the 37th paragraph of the interview. Since no one outside the journalism industry has ever read to the 37th paragraph of any newspaper story (ours never run more than one-fourth that length), the remark would have had the shelf life of a banana if Tabloid's zombie-eyed rewrite man, a night prowler skulking in the graveyards of words, hadn't scoured every sentence of the Washington Post wire at 1 a.m. and plucked out the one noun that mattered in a 2000-word story. As though he'd found a wounded bird in a trampled nest, he gave it the care and nurturing it deserved by resettling it in the hot incubator light of our page one. So ended the candidate's chances of winning the New York state primary. To this day, J schools will teach you that the Post broke the Hymietown story. Yeah, they broke it. We fixed it.
Kyle Smith is the book- and music-review editor at People magazine. The foregoing is excerpted from Love Monkey, by Kyle Smith. Copyright © 2004 by Kyle Smith and published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022. You can buy Love Monkey at Amazon.com. Smith will read form Love Monkey in New York, at Barnes & Noble at 82nd Street and Broadway, on Thursday, February 19, at 7:30 p.m.