AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2010

Going Respectable?   

The National Enquirer got high marks for its powerful, solidly reported exposés of the bad behavior of John Edwards and Tiger Woods. But much of the supermarket tabloid’s day in and day out coverage falls far short of basic reporting and editing standards.

By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     

Over more than five decades as America's original supermarket tabloid, the National Enquirer has chronicled Elvis Presley sightings, two-headed calves, ghastly car wrecks and the many, many ways in which celebrities behave badly. These days, it is angling for something it has never had and never really sought: respectability.

The Enquirer's dogged investigation of former Sen. John Edwards' relationship with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter stood up against Edwards' repeated denials and denunciations of the weekly as "tabloid trash." The stories were not just history making; they could have been history changing. Had the Enquirer's revelations been matched by the mainstream news media at the start of the 2008 campaign, Edwards might have been driven from the race earlier, conceivably altering Barack Obama's path to the Democratic nomination and election. More recently, the Enquirer's pursuit--literally, at times--of Tiger Woods' extramarital relationships paid off in a story that set in motion one of the most widely covered celebrity scandals in years.

The twin blockbusters engendered a wave of admiring media coverage for the Enquirer, an unusual occurrence for a publication that once trumpeted stories like "I Put My Baby in a Waste Basket and Poured Concrete Over Her." The euphoria crested this spring when the paper submitted its Edwards stories for a Pulitzer Prize (it didn't win). "It was absolutely a moment of great prestige," says Barry Levine, the Enquirer's executive editor. "While the mainstream media, at the end of the day, didn't have the guts to let us into their select club, we won in the sense of new respect and new credibility."

Respect? Credibility? Oh, the irony. Throughout its history, from its modest roots as the New York Enquirer to its transformation under its late owner and editor, Generoso Pope Jr., the Enquirer succeeded with excess. Pope turned the paper into a disreputable scandal sheet and all-around guilty pleasure, filled with an enthusiastic combination of the lurid, the tawdry and the wholly preposterous. The Enquirer often bulldozed the boundaries of good taste, running gory photos of Lee Harvey Oswald's autopsy and of Elvis in his casket (the Enquirer's best-selling issue ever).

Now owned by American Media Inc., a tabloid conglomerate based in Boca Raton, Florida, the Enquirer is relatively more sedate these days, the elder member of the vast tabloid media culture it helped spawn. There's no question the Enquirer made a solid case for its journalism with the Edwards and Woods investigations, just as it has with earlier scoops. Among others, it broke the news of Jesse Jackson's out-of-wedlock child in 2001, Rush Limbaugh's addiction to painkillers in 2003 and the existence of O.J. Simpson's book, "If I Did It," in 2006.

But the exceptional doesn't prove the ordinary. It's still hard to take the Enquirer seriously, let alone respect it.

It's not what the Enquirer covers--its stock in trade is celebrity gossip--but how it covers it. In ways large and small, the Enquirer falls short of the most basic reporting and editing standards. It routinely asks its 790,000 weekly print readers and 675,000 monthly unique visitors online to trust its version of events. Almost all of its celebrity stories are based on blind, secondary sourcing; the Enquirer rarely seems to interview any of the famous people it writes about. Instead, information is attributed in the vaguest possible ways--to "friends," "close friends," "pals," "an insider," "a source." Multiple-source stories are unusual; many hang on the account of a single "pal" or "insider." Equal time and fair play are virtually unheard of, too. Celebrities or their representatives rarely get a chance to rebut, deny or explain their side in print. It's not always clear to the reader that the paper requested such comment.

The Enquirer makes no pretense about paying for information. It has done so for decades and puts its solicitation for tips right where readers can see them. Brightly colored house ads promise, "Got News? We'll Pay Big Bucks." Such payments are standard operating behavior in the highly competitive world of celebrity tabloid journalism and help publications like the Enquirer maintain "exclusives." But the policy is fraught; in 2003, the Enquirer was blindsided by two Salt Lake City Tribune reporters who secretly sold the Enquirer information about the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case that proved to be false (the reporters were fired; the Enquirer retracted its story--see "Salt Lake Blues," August/September 2003).

What's more, the paper doesn't say which stories were generated by payments, or how much the sources were paid (the amount depends on a number of factors, Levine says, including the tipster's willingness to attest to the information in court if the Enquirer is sued). Thus, it's impossible for a reader to determine which sources were motivated by a desire to inform and which were motivated to say extraordinary things by a payoff. "I don't think the reader really cares," Levine says.

Even with its opaque sourcing, the Enquirer routinely plays a kind of bait-and-switch game, offering shocking or titillating headlines that don't always deliver what they promise. Consider "Sick Pam Drinking Herself to Death, Pals Fear," a story promoted on the cover of the April 26 issue. The article reports that "aging sexpot" Pamela Anderson has been drinking heavily, despite suffering from hepatitis C, a condition that damages the liver and makes drinking alcohol dangerous.

But Anderson's "pals" don't exactly fear that Anderson is drinking herself to death, as the headline claims. If they do, none is quoted as such, even anonymously. Instead, the most the story can muster is a comment from "a source close to" Anderson, who offers a secondhand account of what Anderson's friends are allegedly thinking. At best, says this "source," Anderson's friends are "frustrated" by her alleged behavior. The "drinking-herself-to-death" angle comes not from "pals," or even from sources close to her pals, but from two doctors, neither of whom, the article notes, has ever treated Anderson. Even this bit of transparency falls a bit short. One of the doctors, Dr. Gabe Mirkin, said in an interview with AJR that he knew nothing about Anderson's medical condition or personal habits when he was contacted by an Enquirer reporter. "I should have kept my mouth shut," Mirkin says. "I have no idea whether she's drinking." (Sarah Cordes, whose byline appears on the article, declined to comment; other Enquirer reporters contacted for this story either did not respond or referred questions to Levine.)

The April 19 issue offers a small but telling example of the Enquirer's approach to celebrity "news." A full-page story headed "Amazingly Cheap Kreskin" describes how a Canadian pilot, Peter Lythall, flew the entertainer known as the Amazing Kreskin, a "mentalist" who performs live regularly, to a show in McBride, British Columbia, last fall. According to the Enquirer's piece, Kreskin stiffed the pilot on the $1,200 bill. The story includes an interview with Lythall.

There's only one problem with the story: "It simply isn't true," Kreskin said in an interview. Kreskin says he and the pilot never discussed the cost of the flight, which was hastily arranged by a club owner who knew Lythall. Nevertheless, for several weeks afterward, Kreskin says he tried to settle with Lythall, and at one point offered him $400. Kreskin says his attorney attempted to contact Lythall via e-mail twice and later mailed a letter, but received no response each time. These details didn't appear in the Enquirer's story, even though Kreskin says he told the paper's reporter, Don Gentile, about them before publication. So why did the Enquirer apparently inflate a mundane and ambiguous dispute into an attack on Kreskin? "You think I'm a mind reader!" Kreskin replied, laughing. "It would have taken them one day [of reporting] to check this out. I can say this story proves that the National Enquirer is an authority on its own point of view."

A more troubling indictment of the Enquirer's reporting came in front of a national TV audience in March. Levine, who has spent most of his professional career working for such tabloid stalwarts as Star magazine and Fox's "A Current Affair," was invited to appear on ABC's "The View" for what he thought was going to be a celebratory segment about the Enquirer's Pulitzer entry.

Instead, Levine spent four minutes under attack by Barbara Walters, one of the program's co-hosts. Walters brandished a clip of a March 1 Enquirer story ("Barbara Plays House with Frank Langella") reporting that the actor had moved into Walters' Manhattan apartment and that "a summer wedding is in the works," according to "friends." What's more, the article also reported that Walters' "View" colleague Whoopi Goldberg, a former paramour of Langella's, had given her "blessing" to the forthcoming marriage.

"People do take the National Enquirer seriously because you have broken these stories," Walters told Levine. "But then we have these things that are just total baloney."

"I beg to differ, Barbara," Levine responded. "We have written dozens and dozens of stories over the years about you. And there are people close to you who absolutely want to see you get married again."

But Walters would have none of it: "You printed something totally, totally untrue!"

Levine tried another tack: "All I can say, Barbara, is that we trust our sources.... Barbara, did you go out on dates with Frank?"

Walters, growing agitated, replied, "Frank Langella is a friend.... I have lots of friends whom I go out with, and so does Whoopi. That doesn't mean that somebody is living in my apartment, living in my apartment, and that I'm marrying him in the summer."

"All I can say is that we have sources that we rely on," Levine said, "who take polygraph tests to the information, who sign legal affidavits..."

"[Get a] new machine, baby!" shot back Goldberg, to laughter from the studio audience. Goldberg characterized the story as "crap."

Levine offered several responses when asked by AJR about the Walters article. At first he dismissed it as "a cute little gossip story" that Walters "elevated into something bigger." Nevertheless, he says, "We still stand by the story. That's a given."

But why stand by a story that two primary sources have directly disputed, not just as a matter of perception or interpretation but on matters of fact? Levine even acknowledges that Walters' claims--that Langella never moved into her apartment, that no wedding was ever planned, that Goldberg never "approved" of a close romantic relationship--are accurate. "I'm not going to call Barbara Walters a liar," he says.

Yet Levine offers a revealing defense: "At the end of the day, it's clear she didn't marry him, but friends thought they were getting married. It was the perception of the friends."

The answer suggests that it's not what's factually accurate that actually matters to the Enquirer. It's what someone--"a source," "a friend," "an insider," someone who might have been paid commensurate with the juiciness of the tip--says he or she believes to be true. By this logic, the Enquirer can never really be wrong, as long as someone actually said what the Enquirer reports.

Even though the story is untrue, Levine says no corrective action will be taken. The Enquirer doesn't regularly run corrections and besides, he says, the story wasn't a big deal: "This was not a cover story, and it did not have an impact for us on our circulation. It met the legal standards of our lawyers for publication."

This suggests another of the Enquirer's editorial standards: If a story is flawed but doesn't raise legal issues, it's acceptable for publication. "At the end of the day, you're dealing with a supermarket tabloid that is picked up every week by people who are obviously comfortable with the news they are receiving and their interpretation of it," Levine says. "Some [readers] believe everything we publish is true. Some think maybe the headline pushes the facts too far. It's all a question of perception."

For this reason, among others, news organizations that follow the Enquirer's "scoops" do so at their own peril. A prominent example: The Enquirer reported in its March 3 issue that a federal grand jury indictment of John Edwards was "imminent." The story, citing unnamed "insiders," reported that Edwards was about to face charges for campaign finance violations stemming from alleged payments to Rielle Hunter. The story was picked up widely, with the Enquirer cited as its source. But more than two-and-a-half months later, no such indictment has been issued. The Enquirer hasn't explained the apparent delay or followed up on the indictment claim.

Indeed, the Enquirer may have finally squandered whatever goodwill it earned from its Edwards coverage with a story posted on its Web site on May 1, asserting that President Obama had had an affair with a former campaign worker in 2004. "Obama Cheating Scandal: Shocking New Reports" read the headline over a piece that described the alleged affair, which--in typical Enquirer style--was based on an unnamed source, a limousine driver. Within hours of posting the story, however, the Enquirer beat a hasty retreat. It initially retracted its claim that there was video evidence of the relationship. Then it yanked the story altogether. Once again, the mainstream media didn't bite (among the MSM, only the Chicago Sun-Times reported on the story, twice). And this time, caution was rewarded.

The Enquirer is well attuned to the legal limits of its journalism, having learned some hard lessons over the years. In 1976, it began an epic battle with Carol Burnett after the comedienne sued the Enquirer over a gossip item that said she had argued with Henry Kissinger in a Washington restaurant and had seemed drunk in public. (Burnett took particular offense at the item because both her parents were alcoholics.) Burnett won the initial trial in 1981, with a jury awarding her $1.6 million. The award was subsequently cut twice on appeal, and the Enquirer was finally ordered to pay Burnett $200,000 by a California court in 1983.

The Burnett case helped define and refine the Enquirer's reporting and business methods, says Jack Vitek, the author of "The Godfather of Tabloid," a biography of the Enquirer's late former owner and seminal editor, Generoso Pope Jr. As a legal matter, the episode signaled that the paper was willing to employ "a scorpion defense"--engaging in persistent, stinging counterattacks to wear down plaintiffs, he says. It also propelled the Enquirer deeper into what Vitek calls "gray journalism," stories that come close to the limits of libel but never step over it. "They learned very well how to delay, when to fight and how and when to settle," Vitek says. "I think for them [lawsuits] are basically under control and simply a cost of doing business."

That is not to say that the Enquirer has avoided legal trouble in the past few years. Its recent history has been pockmarked by lawsuits. In 2003 and 2004, the Enquirer's owner, American Media, settled separate suits with former Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) and his wife, Carolyn, that grew out of the Enquirer's reporting on Gary Condit's relationship with murdered intern Chandra Levy.

In his lawsuit, Condit alleged that the Enquirer and the Globe and Star tabloids, also owned by American Media, had ruined his reputation by falsely intimating or asserting that he was involved in "deviant and perverted sexual conduct" and was "criminally involved" in the kidnapping and murder of Levy (police in Washington repeatedly said Condit wasn't a suspect in Levy's disappearance). American Media settled with Condit for an undisclosed sum. Carolyn Condit's suit was the result of a 2001 Enquirer story reporting that she "flew into a rage" during a telephone conversation with Levy; Carolyn Condit said she had never spoken to Levy. This suit also was settled for an undisclosed sum and included an apology from the Enquirer.

The Enquirer's legal issues are arguably greater in the United Kingdom, where libel laws are more favorable for plaintiffs (American law requires a public figure to prove that a defendant published a statement knowing that it was false, or with reckless disregard for the truth; British courts place the burden on the defendant to show that a story is true).

Thus, actress Kate Hudson won her claim against the Enquirer in 2006 after she sued in London over a story and photos suggesting she had an eating disorder. American Media agreed to pay undisclosed damages and to print an apology in the Enquirer's British edition. It acknowledged that the 2005 story--which claimed that Hudson's mother, Goldie Hawn, had planned to confront Hudson about her weight--was false.

Similarly, American Media settled with actress Cameron Diaz in 2007 after she claimed in London that she had been libeled by an Enquirer article. The story alleged that Diaz had cheated on then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, and included paparazzi photos of Diaz hugging another man. Although the story insinuated the man was Diaz's lover, Diaz and the man said they were merely work colleagues and the embrace was innocent. The settlement's terms, as usual, weren't revealed, but at the time an attorney for Diaz characterized it as "substantial."

Any assessment of the Enquirer's credibility requires reconciling these two Enquirers--the relentless investigator and the frivolous scandal monger. John Edwards' dismissal of the Enquirer's revelations about him as "tabloid trash" was no doubt cynical and self-serving. But it might not have had the intended effect of forestalling further media scrutiny if the Enquirer itself hadn't given off whiffs of something unsavory before. In the end, facts and accuracy matter. Standards and principles matter, too. And not just on the big stories.