When grocery store shoppers snag a copy of Weekly World News (the rag responsible for the refuses-to-die “Bat Child” hoax), they know they’re getting fake news. But when they pick up the National Enquirer, it’s a far more ambiguous prospect.
Enquirer headlines are deliberately provocative, shouting details of the private lives of real people — including Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and Oprah Winfrey — from their strategic perch in checkout aisles across America. Over the course of nearly seven decades, the tabloid crushed the aspirations of at least one presidential contender (by publishing the photo that exposed Gary Hart’s extramarital affair) and crusaded to elect another, running negative coverage of Donald Trump’s political opponents, which the candidate conveniently referenced in his 2016 campaign.
A hard-hitting — and at times hard-to-stomach — documentary from “Thunder Soul” director Mark Landsman, “Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer” subjects the tabloid to the same treatment it showed so many of its targets, leaning on inside sources to spill the tea on their former employer. Here, in the words of those who worked for the iconic dirt-digging organization, are the secrets of how the Enquirer changed the face of American journalism for the worse, using tactics that defy journalistic ethics — and sometimes also the law.
Every bit as shocking as the outlet’s juiciest scoops, “Scandalous” investigates and exposes the extraordinary arc of the paper’s history, from the Mafia-linked interest-free loan that founder Gene Pope allegedly used to buy and rebrand the failing New York Enquirer in the early ’50s to the outrageous “catch and kill” tactics American Media honcho David Pecker used to protect Trump and other personalities close to the paper (for which Pecker was granted federal immunity after agreeing to participate in the Robert Mueller investigation).
Under Pope, who recognized that sensationalism sells, the Enquirer began running gory photos from American crime scenes. Pope’s overtly exploitative strategy drove readership on newsstands but didn’t work with his next major innovation: placing the paper in supermarkets, where it would catch the attention of “Missy Smith in Kansas City,” as the ambitious publisher described his target audience. According to ex-Enquirer reporter Judith Regan, appealing to the average American housewife meant uncovering gossip for readers who, in her words, “wanted to know, essentially, that celebrities suffered too.”
In some cases, that might be as simple as reporting public figures’ diet setbacks and plastic surgery disasters. But the Enquirer sold better when the stakes were higher, as when actor John Belushi died of what others reported as “natural causes.” The Enquirer dug up the real story, pressuring Cathy Smith to admit her role in shooting him up with “speedballs” (which subsequently led to her arrest). Back in those days, the paper was constantly being sued for libel, and yet, it consistently scooped the so-called mainstream media, which has gradually gravitated in the same direction, adopting Enquirer-style tactics as a way to stay competitive.
The turning point was the O.J. Simpson murder investigation, which dominated the news across nearly all outlets at the time. On trial, when presented with the pair of Bruno Maglis whose prints were found at the scene of the crime, Simpson claimed, “I would never wear those ugly-ass shoes,” only to be caught in his lie when the Enquirer unearthed photographic evidence of him sporting them in public.
“Scandalous” gives the Enquirer credit for its coups but also blames the paper for the tabloid-ification of contemporary journalism. Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein appears throughout, pulling no punches as he discusses the dishonest and at times anti-democratic techniques. Early on, the Enquirer made a practice of paying sources for information, essentially bribing parties close to celebrities to share personal details about their employers, relatives and friends. It was around that time that Trump, pretending to be someone else, started “leaking” stories about himself, as evidenced by a tape recording of one such call. (Landsman rigorously relies on direct quotes and primary sources.)
In some cases, a celebrity might be powerful — or else valuable — enough to kill an unflattering story by offering greater access in exchange. The doc reveals how Bob Hope and Bill Cosby covered up their bad behavior that way for years but fails to connect the practice to old-school Hollywood tattler Hedda Hopper and the tawdry tradition of showbiz gossip mags like Confidential. Similarly, nothing is said about the way PR reps planted stories to distract from gay rumors and rehab stints involving their clients. Even so, such trade-offs appear to have been fairly common in the paper’s early days, paving the way for the arrangement that flourished under American Media CEO Pecker, who cozied up to celebrities the Enquirer had once been committed to exposing.
“Scandalous” is at its most scandalous when detailing how the paper would buy exclusive rights to adulterous stories involving Schwarzenegger and Trump, then bury them in order to benefit such figures’ political ambitions. The Enquirer took an active role in helping both run for office (though no mention is made of how it handled Ronald Reagan decades earlier). In any case, it’s hard to ignore the irony of watching Trump, who’s all but declared war on outlets such as CNN and The New York Times, insisting that the Enquirer “does have credibility” when referencing front-page hit pieces about his rivals. If anyone out there thinks the National Enquirer is harmless entertainment, “Scandalous” gives no shortage of alarming reasons to reconsider.