Burt Kearns was a pioneer in the trash-tabloid programs that reshaped television news in the ’80s and ’90s, bouncing from A Current Affair in New York to Hard Copy in Los Angeles and back again, often with lawyers nipping at his heels. His Tabloid Baby is a numbingly complete account of those years, written in tiresome tabloidese, but not without its moments. Kearns was fired from almost every TV job he ever held, including his pre-tabloid gig at the NBC local news affiliate in New York, apparently for lying, stealing stories, or low ratings. (Kearns’ narrative doesn’t always make this clear, but he quotes news clippings that do.) The best parts of the book are his candid confessions of the sleazy tactics — ranging from stealing a Joey Buttofuoco tape off a New York satellite feed to copying the infamous Rob Lowe sex tape off an Atlanta television screen — that got him into trouble.
Kearns also pops off some good caps at pompous media figures, including Jeff Greenfield, who greeted a tabloid cameraman who baited him during the O.J. trial by saying, “This is the kind of lack of civility that I really think is unfortunate.” What’s surprising is that the pomposity and self-importance is shared by Kearns and his tabloid colleagues. They fought studio stooges to “take television to the next level,” Kearns says over and over again. But his idea of innovation is his bottom-feeding O.J. show, Premier Story, which never even made it into syndication. (Kearns’ mentor, Peter Brennan, on the other hand, moved on to the huge syndication hit Judge Judy.) But there’s no arguing that tabloid reporters like Kearns, for better or for worse, paved the way for what he calls “the Lewinsky fellatio story.” And the boozy, Vegas-stomping, strip-club-hopping, Sammy Davis Jr.–fawning life he describes, in vomit-in-the-office-trash-can detail, is emulated by mainstream media personalities today.