It used to be called yellow journalism. Using sensationalism, scare headlines and lurid photography, newspapers in the late 19th century competed for circulation by exploiting public interest in the grisly and the shocking.
Much of journalism improved, but yellow journalism seemed impervious to change. Modern yellow journalism was typified by the screaming 1983 New York Post front-page headline: “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.”
The writer of that headline was Vincent A. Musetto, who died last year at age 74, having worked at the Post for 41 years. The Post obituary said of his headline: “As witty as it was horrific, it expressed with unflinching precision the city’s accelerating tailspin into an abyss of atrocious crime and chaos.”
Today we have Donald Trump for that.
Trump has changed the rules for what is and isn’t atrocious, chaotic or, at least, acceptable news.
Last week, a reporter tweeted in part, “New anti-Trump superPAC ads feature a naked Melania Trump, and a bear-skin rug.”
The tweet was accompanied by the ad in question, a semi-nude photograph of Trump’s wife, Melania, a former model. Above Mrs. Trump were the words “Meet Melania Trump. Your next first lady.” And below were the words “Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.”
The effectiveness of the ad — or the lack thereof — is the notion that many people still care who the first lady is and whether a picture that is about as “naughty” as the ones featured in the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is enough to scandalize the nation.
The ad was puerile enough to resemble a Donald Trump tweet rather than a Ted Cruz tweet, which Trump appeared to prove by tweeting: “Lyin’ Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!”
Sort of makes you long for the good old days when political ads were about health care and carbon emissions, doesn’t it?
But what are the beans that Trump may spill about Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and why should we care?
An online story by Vanity Fair spilled the beans about the spilled beans: “The Cruz campaign has already publicly acknowledged that Heidi suffered a ‘brief bout with depression’ when she gave up a high-powered career in Washington to follow Cruz to Texas.”
How this leads logically from a naughty photo of one candidate’s spouse to the fact that another candidate’s spouse once suffered from depression, I don’t know.
You can pick just about any statistic you want about depression in America, but it is safe to say that millions of Americans suffer from it, some all the time and some occasionally, some severely and some mildly, some seeking help and others not.
Why Trump would threaten to reveal this about a future first lady, I also don’t know. Does Trump believe that the first lady ascends to the presidency should something happen to the president? Does Trump believe that this is England in the 16th century rather than the United States in the 21st?
And does anyone believe that a depressed president has never held the office? I think Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president, and if he didn’t suffer from depression, I can’t understand why not. He certainly had a right to. And he still did a swell job.
Which raises the question: Is depression the scarlet letter it once was — especially in a spouse rather than the officeholder?
The whole thing doesn’t make any sense to me. I think killing a bear to make a rug is a worse thing to do than taking off your clothes and lying on that rug for a picture. (Among consenting adults and consenting bears, of course.)
Anyway, Cruz called Trump a “sniveling coward” and said Trump should “leave Heidi the hell alone.” This is where things stood, except for a tabloid story that Cruz has had extramarital affairs with five women, which Cruz denies and blames on Trump. Trump denies being involved.
Which is a shame. Nobody even challenged anyone to a duel. By the end of the week, all the alleged misbehavior just seemed to lie there like a huge steaming pile of … spilled beans.
“Years from now, when my daughters Google this, they will read these lies,” Cruz told reporters, adding, “The question that the people of America are going to have to answer is, How low will Donald go?”
It is my sincere hope, however, that when the people of America Google and read these stories not too many years from now, the question they will want answered is: Who the heck was Donald Trump?
Follow Roger Simon on Twitter: Follow @politicoroger