The ’70s equivalent of a media scandal

"Tabloid" is the hilariously strange-but-true documentary of Joyce McKinney, a media-savvy nutcase decades ahead of her time, thank the Lord.

Try to imagine what today's helldog media Cerberus (print, cable TV, online) would make of McKinney's actions - obsessively following her Mormon boyfriend to Europe, kidnapping him, shackling him to a bed and consummating what she imagined was their true-love relationship.

Even in the 1970s, her case prompted a print tabloid war in the U.K. like nothing before or since (for a modern-day equivalent, try to imagine Duchess Kate giving birth to a Martian). The Daily Mirror and the Express covered the crime and the arraignment, where McKinney, a Carolina beauty queen with a Jayne Mansfield figure, not only testified on her own behalf, but performed a dramatic monologue of tormented romance, of a Romeo and Juliet kept apart by an interfering church.

Print pandemonium. Fed by the resourceful McKinney, who passed notes to reporters that she kept concealed in body cavities - she was literally pulling stuff out of her arse.

While out on bail, she partied with The Who's Keith Moon and others, then fled back to the U.S. in disguise, U.K. reporters in hot pursuit, each looking for information to support their opposing narratives. One bought McKinney's story of true love taken to extremes; one looked for evidence that she was a loony with a sordid past.

It's not giving away too much to say that the latter point of view emerges victorious - it's the particulars that give "Tabloid" shape and substance. We hear these details from the surviving tabloid reporters.

And we hear from McKinney herself, still very much alive and very comfortable in front of a camera, sure of her charm. It's a weapon she used to manipulate men (she had a man-harem of patsies), whom she controlled as easily and completely as she managed half the media.

"Tabloid" is the work of Oscar winner Errol Morris ("The Fog of War," "The Thin Blue Line") and we wonder what it is about McKinney, other than a sensational set of "facts," that drew his attention.

Perhaps it is that McKinney was/is transparently full of beans, and yet was able to command the apparatus of news dispensation for an entire year (with an encore).

Media has gotten bigger, faster, more immediate and more omnipresent, but it hasn't gotten any better at weighing the ratio of pandering to informing.

McKinney, it's interesting to note, used chloroform to drug her Morman captive.

A detail that will not escape the attention of HLN's Nancy Grace, who kept a third-rate liar like Casey Anthony above the fold for years.

A first-rate fabulist like McKinney? If she were to surface today, we might never be rid of her.


Directed by Errol Morris. With Jackson Shaw, Dr. Jin Han Hong, Peter Tory, Joyce McKinney, Troy Williams, Kent Gavin. Distributed by IFC Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 21 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for sexual content and nudity).