Poison Penance

"Tabloid Reporters Tell All Their Shocking Secrets," screams the cover of Poison Pen, a new book from former Star and National Enquirer scribes David LaFontaine and Lysa Moskowitz-Mateau. But if that's true, then it happened somewhere else than between the pages of this slight tome, which is more accurately identified as a tell-some rather than a tell-all.

Of course, accuracy is not the strong suit of the typical scandal sheet schmuckraker. As Moskowitz-Mateau explains, "Tabloid reporters can't outright lie about something or else we'd get sued. But there's always room for embellishment. Enormous room."

It's a wonderful principle, and you only wish the book's authors had applied it more vigorously. Which is not to say that Poison Pen doesn't have its moments. When LaFontaine confesses how he feasts on abandoned, ant-ridden KFC chicken after a day-long, unsuccessful attempt to get photos of the Taylor-Fortensky Never-Never Land wedding, or when he describes how a bachelor-party photo of a semen-flecked, stripper-groping Harry Hamlin actually made it onto the cover of the Star, the book attains at least a measure of its sordid promise.

But too often Poison Pen is just an uninspired rehash of stories already told, a behind-the-scenes look at celebrity culture that unfortunately is given by a pair of myopic tour guides who mostly only manage to gloss the surface. The authors may have left the tabloids behind them, but they still write in the bland staccato of the genre; cliché substitutes for psychological detail, hype for humor, and ultimately the book's taint-by-numbers approach to dishing the dirt and its junior-high book report insights into the tabloid mind fail to illuminate or even entertain.

Even worse, however, is the confessional aggrandizement that permeates Poison Pen. "Working for the tabloids had never been a lifelong dream for either David or me," says Moskowitz-Mateau; both she and LaFontaine take pains to make it clear that, ultimately, they knew that such work was beneath them. The book is punctuated with many instances of self-absolution, earned through the kind of fatalistic candor the talk shows have made so popular:

"How could I attend her funeral in the hopes of getting a good story out of it? It seemed immoral and low. I did it anyway."

LaFontaine and Moskowitz-Mateau constantly refer to colleagues and competitors who are sneakier, sleazier, and more heartless than they are - if only one of those ruthless, unrepentant souls had written this book...

Indeed, when it comes to writing about tabloid culture, a poison pen can only take you so far; you need something mightier - a sword, say - to do a proper job of backstabbing.

-- G. Beato

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