Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
Director: Mark Landsman
Yep, that’s me in the photo above, third from the right, about seven years into my 10-year stint as a writer at The National Enquirer in Lantana, Florida during the 1980s.
I arrived at The Enquirer three years after Elvis died and left two years before O.J. jumped into his white Bronco, but I was there for some prime moments, including Gary Hart sinking his career aboard the Monkey Business, John Belushi checking out at the Chateau Marmont, Grace Kelly driving over a Monaco cliff and Carol Burnett crying on a Los Angeles witness stand as she sued us for libel.
In short, I was there for much of the meatiest stuff covered in director Mark Landsman’s bouncy history of the paper that set the standard for gossip-loving readers with Enquiring Minds.
Thumbnail Review: What he gets right, he absolutely nails. And aside from some glaring omissions, his overview captures nicely the high points of the Enquirer’s turbulent history.
To be fair, it would be impossible to effectively condense nearly seven decades of tabloid legend into 90 minutes. Landsman breezes through the paper’s early days in the 1950s, when a young man named Generoso Pope, Jr. bought a struggling New York City weekly (using borrowed Mob money) and changed it from a glorified racing sheet to a lurid catalogue of violent death and unspeakable violence (“Man Eats Dogs,” “He Cut Off Her Head”). Pope’s longtime deputy Iain Calder — my boss in those good-old-bad-old days — picks up the story, explaining how, after circulation plateaued at 1 million, he shifted to celebrity gossip. The content was still on the shady side, but tame enough to be placed next to every supermarket checkout stand in the nation.
With that, Pope had hit on the secret sauce of circulation success. At its height, the time of Elvis’ death and that infamous coffin photo, The Enquirer was selling up to 6.9 million copies per week. Many of its leads were fertilized through the copious distribution of money to sources, including friends, family members…and occasionally even the subjects themselves.
Most poignantly, the film touches on The Enquirer’s weirdly symbiotic relationship with Bill Cosby: The paper would get wind of an illicit romance between Cosby and a woman…The Enquirer would go to Cosby for a quote…The Enquirer would come away killing the negative story but getting an “Exclusive Interview With America’s Dad.” It seemed like a harmless gambit at the time, but in retrospect — and you can see this in the eyes of the editors telling the tale — it may have emboldened the man to later pursue even more destructive behavior.
As the film’s narrative barrels through the 1980s and early 90s — related with good-natured aplomb by former staffers I know and like — a familiar pattern develops: The Enquirer buys stories left and right, but the paper itself cannot be bought. Say what you will about its content, The Enquirer remained for much of its history an equal opportunity gossip monger. Then comes the ascent of the paper’s current owner, David Pecker, at which point the paper begins currying favor and influence — particularly when it comes to a certain New York City developer with his eyes on the White House.
Carl Bernstein gets a lot of time in this film, and he uses it to dismiss The Enquirer, even at its best, as a rag wrapping itself in the First Amendment. But you know, since my days at The Enquirer I’ve known enough journalists — good and bad — to understand no one leaves their political and social biases checked at the newsroom door. The editors at The New York Times, CNN, FOX, and CNBC may not have a locked safe containing all the negative stories they’ve caught and killed regarding their favorite candidates, but if they’re honest, they’ll confess they spend a good part of their day cleaning the filters between their brains and their reporting. Sometimes they succeed in purging their biases, often they don’t.
The sad fact is that after a decade I had to leave The Enquirer precisely because my own filters were getting hopelessly clogged. It’s not that I was on some high horse about paying sources. I still say an unpaid source is often motivated by jealousy or anger, and as such is notoriously unreliable — while a paid source knows full well if they give you bad information they’ll never see another dime from you.
In my case, I didn’t see much point in living a life where the most important thing in the world on a given week was the daring heights of Catherine Bach’s shorts on The Dukes of Hazzard or the latest catfight on the set of Dynasty.
I do know one thing: The men and women of The National Enquirer knew how to get the stories their readers wanted. Scandalous is a rousing account of the years they did it better than anybody in the business.