Was God an Astronaut? How to Tell If Your Child Is a Potential Hippie. Jimmy Carter: The Night I Saw a UFO. Di Goes Sex Mad: “I Can’t Get Enough.” I Killed John Belushi.
Recognize any of these late-late-show “breaking headlines” from past issues of the National Enquirer? If so, you can always claim you saw them while breezing through the express lane at the supermarket. Or that your J-school prof used them to teach budding journalists how to sell a story — any kind of story — in extra-heavy bold-face, Second-Coming type.
But as documentarian Mark Landsman knows, the old-school screamer heads (O.J. in the Murder Shoes!) are only the relatively innocent way of looking at the Enquirer and what it came to mean in the over-stimulated world of modern journalism. It got worse. Hence Landsman’s new doc exposé, Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer.
Industrial-scion-turned-media-baron Generoso Pope Jr. founded what we recognize as the bottom-feeding tabloid Enquirer when he bought the old New York Enquirer in 1952 and turned it into a sensation-seeking semi-guided missile of half-truths and endless innuendo — inspired by “gawkers’ blocks” at grisly highway crash scenes. Pope hired journos from the famously ultra-competitive British dailies to chase attention-grabbing “news,” and got the bright idea to sell his wares from racks strategically placed at grocery checkout counters.
The emphasis was on gossip, tailored for a mythical “Missy Smith in Kansas City,” who “wanted to know that celebrities suffered too.” They suffered, all right. Tom Cruise, Whitney Houston, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Jodie Foster, Tiger Woods, John Travolta, and Natalie Wood all got the Enquirer treatment in those carefree days, alongside tales of hapless proles (Mom Boiled Her Baby and Ate Her). But the champ was Elvis Presley. “Elvis was everything to an Enquirer reader,” notes one of the doc’s talking heads — a roster that includes reporters Carl Bernstein and Maggie Haberman as well as former NE editors Steve Coz and Iain Calder.
The lowbrow approach worked. Thanks to such scoops as the photo of Elvis in his coffin and nonstop transom-peeper stuff on Princess Di, by the 1980s the Enquirer boasted 25 million readers a week. Along the way, cutthroat newsroom rivalries, ubiquitous paid sources, and protection money shakedowns (Bob Hope and Arnold Schwarzenegger evidently paid to not be seen) added to the paper’s sleazy mystique. Lowest common denominator drove the Enquirer‘s corner of the marketplace, and before long it crept into the mainstream.
Somewhere along the line the paper made a hard turn to the right. Presidential candidate Gary Hart got sandbagged, and the face of Donald Trump began to pop up more frequently, mixed in with machine-gun coverage of Monica Lewinsky, Hillary Clinton (the ugliest photos they could find), Sarah Palin, and of course Oprah Winfrey. When David Pecker’s American Media, Inc. bought the declining Enquirer in 1999 (and cut the pub’s budget), the doors were opened to blatant rightwing smears and puff pieces. The most virtuous political figures got the hatchet while the very worst got the love. The 9/11 terrorist assaults ushered in a wave of patriotic vitriol, along with the practice of “catch and kill,” in which the Enquirer would “catch” a target public figure (ideally a liberal) with his/her pants down and make a deal to spike the story before it ran.
The big guns came out for Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign. Some stories were buried, others favorable to the Very Stable Genius were treated as if holy scripture. In 2018, Pecker and AMI were granted witness immunity for their involvement in a shenanigan that would have been a slam-dunk cover for the old catch-as-catch-can Enquirer. Reportedly a doorman at Trump Tower had knowledge of a Trump peccadillo that culminated in the birth of a child — names were named, the Enquirer bought the story from the source, and when Pecker finally killed the piece the brouhaha went to court, with lawyer Michael Cohen left holding the bag.
If all this is beginning to sound like a rehash of today’s TV and Internet news coverage, that’s because mass-market-media current events/political reportage is increasingly indistinguishable, in some cases, from vintage Enquirer frothing. In 2019, Amazon honcho Jeff Bezos went to war over photos of him and his girlfriend, and alleged the Enquirer was involved. A year before that, the paper published a puff-profile special issue devoted to Prince Mohammad Bin Salman — as if to deflect attention away from any Saudi culpability in the murder of reporter Jamal Khashoggi.
In April of this year, Pecker’s AMI sold the National Enquirer for $100 million. As Scandalous suggests in its fascinating dirty-laundry exposé of the once-powerful nameplate, the Enquirer has hardly been missed — except perhaps when it comes to details of the crimes of Tori Spelling.