The National Enquirer: Ur-Text of the Tabloid Age

Generoso Pope Jr., the MIT-educated founding father of America's guiltiest pleasure, was stuck behind a long line of rubberneckers gawking at the scene of an auto accident when inspiration struck. There might be a market for a newspaper trafficking in blood and guts. The stories would be short and graphic—newswire copy with pulp flourishes. And so the National Enquirer was born. In a couple of hundred words, readers learned about a boy smashing in his father's skull with a wooden board, rooting through the dead man's pockets for loose change, drinking up that loose change in a saloon, then, sober and full of remorse, begging the judge to send him to the electric chair. The paper also featured gross-out stories with an ironic touch: FAMILY EATS BARBECUED MEAT—FINDS IT WAS THEIR DOG.

To its dedicated readers, 1 million strong, the tabloid was the perfect antidote to the cheerful "Ozzie & Harriet" optimism that held sway in the late '50s and early '60s. But the dynamics of the media marketplace soon changed. In the ongoing suburbanization of America, the newsstands and corner cigar shops where men in fedoras had once anonymously browsed the racks looking for something to satisfy their more prurient desires were fast becoming relics. More and more Americans were picking up their magazines in the checkout lines of supermarkets and drugstores—neither of which was eager to carry a publication with screaming banner headlines advertising lurid stories about hideous murders and gruesome accidents. And there was now a new market to tap: the suburban housewife. So the Enquirer reinvented itself, this time as a purveyor of so-called gee-whiz journalism. Mystics, pop psychologists, UFO sightings and tales of survival against impossibly long odds all became standard fare. Behold the supermarket tabloid.

There was another ingredient, too, one that quickly became the Enquirer's favorite beat—celebrity scandal. Lately, the tabloid has been knee-deep in the private lives of our politicians. Some of their scoops have made their way into the mainstream media; most haven't. If you're reading this magazine, you probably know that John Edwards has admitted to having an extramarital affair with a former campaign aide named Rielle Hunter. What you may not know, unless you are also a reader of the National Enquirer, which broke the Edwards story months before his televised mea culpa, is that Hunter was apparently "whisked away" to the Caribbean on a private plane days before Edwards came clean about their tryst, and the former presidential candidate has reportedly arranged to support her and their "love child" to the tune of $15,000 a month. (Edwards has not commented on the latest Enquirer reporting, and the journalistic establishment has yet to touch it.)

Surely you know that the unmarried daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is pregnant. (Here, too, the Enquirer was there first, but the tabloid says its planned story on the unplanned pregnancy was pre-empted by a formal announcement from Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign.) But you may not know of a host of other provocative allegations about the Palin clan raised in the Enquirer's reporting—allegations vigorously denied by the McCain campaign, which has threatened legal action, and unconfirmed by any other major news organization, including this one.

Such is the strange place that America's premier scandal sheet occupies in our media landscape. The Enquirer doesn't compete with newspapers like The New York Times or newsweeklies like Time or NEWSWEEK, but with celebrity magazines like People, Us Weekly and OK! It uses methods scorned by the mainstream media—rifling through trash cans, stalking subjects and, most of all, paying for information. And it pursues the sorts of seamy stories from which most newspapers and magazines tend to recoil. Yet the Enquirer lands too many big scoops for the mainstream media to ignore—or, more accurately, that they ignore at their peril.

Think of the Enquirer as the media establishment's rogue uncle who likes to throw back a few at family reunions and then regale relatives with tacky, delicious stories of debatable veracity. He isn't entirely assimilated into polite company, but then you can't stop listening to him, either. The tabloid's arrival in our nation's newsrooms is eagerly greeted with a combination of admiration, disgust and envy. Journalistic hand-wringing (should we have had that story?) and soul-searching (is it even news?) invariably follow. "Most journalists approach the Enquirer with radioactive tongs," says Howard Kurtz, longtime media critic for The Washington Post. "But they know full well that the paper has a track record of nailing big stories about politicians and sex —even while using methods that we don't approve of."

It's gotten tougher to ignore the rogue uncle of late. "Despite our initial reticence, journalists ended up doing the Edwards affair story and the Jesse Jackson love-child story and others," Kurtz says. "The fact is that we all live in a tabloid world now, and sometimes public people do stupid things."

And when they do, chances are the Enquirer will find a way to catch them in the act. Indeed, the Edwards scandal was reminiscent of the Enquirer's undoing of another handsome and charismatic young politician, Gary Hart. Like Edwards, who denounced the Enquirer's first reports of his extramarital activities as "lies, tabloid trash," Hart, too, initially denied the widespread rumors of his womanizing. While the mainstream media debated whether to try to prove him wrong, the Enquirer shelled out $60,000 for a photograph of Hart with his 29-year-old girlfriend, Donna Rice, sitting on his lap aboard the felicitously named yacht Monkey Business. Game over.

The Edwards scandal unfolded more gradually. The Enquirer started working on the story a year ago, after an anonymous tip to its Los Angeles bureau. The tabloid's first report on the affair in October 2007, headlined PRESIDENTIAL CHEATING SCANDAL! ALLEGED AFFAIR COULD WRECK JOHN EDWARDS' CAMPAIGN BID, wasn't exactly cautious. But the Enquirer refrained from naming his mistress or mentioning that she was pregnant until December, when the paper says a team of its reporters who had been staking out Hunter's Ob-Gyn's office for weeks finally managed to get a photograph of her. On July 22, 2008, came the coup de grâce: in the middle of the night, an Enquirer reporter chased Edwards around the lobby of the Beverly Hilton, where Hunter was allegedly staying with her baby. Edwards finally admitted to the affair a few weeks later in an interview with ABC News—though he denied that Hunter's child was his—and the mainstream media piled on.

The tabloid's editor in chief, David Perel, himself a refugee from the journalistic establishment—he started his career at The Washington Post and did a stint as a sports columnist at Gannett before landing at the Enquirer in the early 1990s—has been on a victory lap ever since, with plenty of chest-thumping, Usain Bolt style. Among other things, Perel has questioned the mainstream media's "investigative muscle" and accused it of being "lazy."

He has a point. Even the ombudsman of The New York Times, Clark Hoyt, chided the paper for being too squeamish about the story in a column headlined SOMETIMES THERE'S NEWS IN THE GUTTER. Of course, the Enquirer has at least one clear advantage over the Times and the rest of the mainstream media: its editorial judgment is not, and has never been, clouded by a sense of civic duty. "The big news organizations tell people what they think they should be interested in, whereas we try to give them stories that they are interested in," Perel told me.

There is a simple economic explanation for this simple editorial credo. Unlike most newspapers and magazines, the Enquirer sells very few subscriptions. The lion's share of its revenues are derived not from advertisers—as is the industry norm—but from single copies bought at newsstands. From its inception and throughout its various reincarnations, the Enquirer has always been driven solely and unabashedly by the need to move copies. As such, the tabloid's history serves as an almost unimpeachable barometer of the nation's appetites and obsessions.

The Enquirer as we now know it was born in the 1970s, and flourished amid the nation's growing infatuation with celebrity culture. Gossip had been around ever since the days of Walter Winchell, the first reporter to break the taboo against writing about the private lives of celebrities. But between the rise of television and the appetite for scandal created by Watergate and Chappaquiddick, celebrity gossip now became a thriving industry of its own, complete with a new category of magazines like People and Us.

Week after week, the Enquirer's soaring circulation numbers told the story: there was just no substitute for good celebrity dish. The week of Elvis Presley's death in August 1977, the paper sold a staggering 6.5 million copies—a tally that exceeds today's daily circulation of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, combined—thanks to the instantly iconic front-page photograph of the King in his coffin, taken by a distant teenage cousin and sold to the Enquirer for a relative bargain at $18,000. The Enquirer was now the top-selling nonperishable item in America's supermarkets, outpacing Campbell's chicken soup and Bayer aspirin. To ensure that the scoops continued, Pope filled his newsroom in the sleepy city of Lantana, Fla., with veterans of Britain's tabloid wars.

The Enquirer became required reading for daily newspaper reporters and national TV news producers during the 1995 murder trial of the greatest open-field runner in the history of the National Football League. Overseen by Perel, the Enquirer's O. J. Simpson coverage included upwards of 20 reporters who between them broke a string of notable scoops, most memorably the fact that O.J. had bought a knife at an upscale cutlery store only a few weeks before his wife was murdered. Like so many of the Enquirer's biggest stories, this one had come courtesy of a fat check. When questioned by other reporters, the salesman who had sold O.J. the knife had denied having done so—but when offered $35,000 by the Enquirer, he came clean.

During the 1990s, the mainstream media frequently found itself feeding at the same trough as the Enquirer. Looking back now, it could hardly have been any other way. From Clarence Thomas's Coke can to Nancy Kerrigan's kneecaps—let alone Monica's blue dress—the '90s simply produced too many stories that straddled the line between tabloid grist and, for lack of a better term, news.

Yet even when the mainstream media followed the Enquirer into the muck, it did so tentatively. Recall that in 1998, while this magazine was proceeding cautiously with what would have been the first story about President Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern, the less discriminating Matt Drudge hijacked NEWSWEEK's reporting and broke the most sensational political-sex-scandal scoop in American history. The mainstream media leapt right in after him. Paradoxically, though, the saturation coverage of Monicagate, with its intimate late-night Oval Office sessions and presidential DNA samples, didn't whet the media's appetite for more. Many of the reporters assigned to the beat understood that they could hardly sit out the first impeachment trial of a sitting president in 131 years. But that didn't make them any more comfortable chasing after this tawdry story. If anything, the whole sorry saga left the media even more conflicted about whether to root around in the private lives of politicians, particularly when there were no clear public consequences at stake.

When the Enquirer first reported on the Edwards affair, the paper was writing about a candidate who was still very much in the running for the Democratic nomination. Not every major media organization dismissed the story out of hand. The investigative unit for ABC News tried chasing it down, but wound up running into a lot of dead ends, largely because of the network's prohibition against paying for information. "Reporting in the Enquirer's wake is very difficult," says Brian Ross, the head of the unit, who told me that one woman his team tried to interview on the Edwards story had found a note in her door from an Enquirer reporter promising $50,000 for pertinent information. "The first question every potential source asks is, 'What's in it for me?' And all we can offer them is a cup of coffee," Ross says. ABC did eventually get its hands on some potentially incriminating e-mails, according to Ross, but when they asked Edwards if the rumors were true, he said no. The network never aired the tape. "We couldn't get past the denials," says Ross.

For the most part, though, the mainstream media steered clear of the Edwards story. Why? As quaint as this may sound, America's major news organizations still see themselves, at least in part, as public servants. It wasn't so long ago that the Federal Communications Commission explicitly mandated that each of the networks have its own news division to keep the citizenry well informed. Until the arrival of "60 Minutes," network executives simply assumed that these divisions existed to educate and illuminate, not to turn a profit. Even as the mainstream media have—reluctantly or not—gone more tabloid, newsroom demographics have been moving in the opposite direction. Ever since Watergate, our nation's newsrooms have been dominated by Ivy Leaguers who got into journalism to play a role, however subjugated, in the shaping of our political discourse, not to chase rumors of an extramarital affair.

Even the Enquirer has at times wondered about its no-holds-barred reporting, and once briefly courted respectability, albeit as a business strategy. In 1997, the tabloid's Harvard-educated editor in chief, Steve Coz, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times denouncing one of its rivals, the Globe, for hiring an ex-stewardess to seduce Frank Gifford. During the tabloid backlash that followed Princess Diana's death that same year, Coz took to the cable-news circuit to call for a press boycott of the paparazzi who were selling photos of the crash scene. Yet ultimately, toning down the Enquirer made about as much sense as tarting up The Wall Street Journal—a move not even Rupert Murdoch has had the temerity to attempt.

Today, most of the Enquirer's scoops are pure, unabashed tabloid fare—celebrity breakups, pregnancies, etc. But every now and then the paper breaks a category-buster like the Edwards affair and, when it does, the story is invariably greeted with skepticism from the majority of the journalistic establishment.

Accuracy is certainly an issue. Ross says he treats the Enquirer as a tip sheet, one that's more reliable than an anonymous e-mail but by no means reliable enough to take as truth. Despite having some of the best lawyers in the business, the Enquirer has had its share of libel problems. The tabloid hasn't been successfully sued in more than 30 years, but its lawyers have disposed of a number of disputes without going to trial; even as the tabloid was being feted for its Edwards scoop, it was quietly settling a lawsuit over a 2006 story that claimed Sen. Edward Kennedy had a love child of his own. Still, the Enquirer has surely been right often enough to have earned the attention, if not the approval, of the mainstream media.

Whether it wants that approval is a more complicated matter. The Enquirer appears on one level to enjoy its outsider status: after Edwards, Perel took obvious pleasure in thumbing his nose at the "stodgy elitist guard" of the "clueless" mainstream press, and the paper ran an entire feature lording its scoop over the country's major news organizations. Yet at the same time, the Enquirer has evinced the outsider's craving for respect. The tabloid treats it as news when other media confirm what it has already reported—a tacit acknowledgment that the paper's stories only really become legitimate when they find purchase elsewhere.

Judging by the zeal with which the mainstream media initially went after the Bristol Palin story, the big dogs may finally be losing some of their skittishness about crossing over into tabloid territory. The Internet was buzzing with stories on the Edwards affair for months before the story ever cracked the more venerable publications. As Perel himself wrote in The Huffington Post, Edwards "unwittingly unzipped a new era of how the press will cover scandal and where Americans obtain news." In other words, now that the American public has the blogosphere, it no longer needs the networks and the big papers to tip it off to the latest celebrity scandal.

The irony, though, is that the public may no longer need the Enquirer, either. The Internet, the ideal medium for salacious, unconfirmed gossip, has been eating away at the tabloid's circulation for years. The Edwards story has been a boon, but it's all relative. The week in August that Edwards admitted to the Rielle Hunter affair to ABC, the Enquirer sold 738,000 copies, making it one of the paper's most successful issues of the year—but still a far cry from its average weekly circulation of 1.4 million just five years ago.

David Pecker, the chief executive officer of the Enquirer's publisher, American Media Inc., is in the midst of a desperate bid to refinance the struggling company. If he fails, American Media could very well end up in bankruptcy court. That's a fall from grace that the mainstream media, reeling from its own precipitous drop in readership, will no doubt be more than happy to cover.