The lead story of the day for August 17, 1977, according to the New York Times: “BREZHNEV DEPICTS CARTER’S OVERTURE AS A POSITIVE MOVE.” To the left, in the “off-lead” slot, with an equal-sized font: “ELVIS PRESLEY DIES; ROCK SINGER WAS 42.” The CBS Evening News (hosted by Roger Mudd, filling in for Walter Cronkite) led with a long story on ex-president Gerald Ford’s decision to back President Jimmy Carter’s plan to cede the Panama Canal to Panama (which was also at the top of page one of the Times, in the middle). It featured only 70 seconds on the Elvis story.
“The Victorian Gent,” Tom Wolfe’s caricature of the mid-1960s media establishment as politely hesitant to reveal too much about celebrities, was still partially accurate as of 1977. But the scandal sheet the National Enquirer’s four-alarm coverage of Presley’s death, capped by a surreptitiously taken photo of the King in his casket, lit a path to a new age of media centered around celebrity. The thoughts of poor old boring Jerry Ford would no longer occupy anyone’s attention for long. By the time O. J. Simpson murdered his wife and her friend 17 years later, the Times and virtually every other media outlet had learned to accept that overwhelming public interest creates journalistic importance, and they leaped on the story. The Enquirer faded because Enquirer-ism became widespread.
Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer is a zippy, entertaining, cynically funny but also genuinely disturbing look back at one of the most successful newspapers in the history of the United States, one that regularly sold more than 5 million newsstand copies a week. Former Enquirer reporters and editors (among them Judith Regan, who later achieved fame as a publisher) happily dish the dirt on how they dished the dirt. Outside observers such as Ken Auletta, Carl Bernstein, and Maggie Haberman supply valuable additional context, with a minimum of boring discussions about whether the Enquirer practiced journalism. (Sometimes it did, sometimes it ran “TOP PSYCHICS’ PREDICTIONS FOR 1978.”)
The Enquirer’s breakthrough was to import Fleet Street tactics otherwise little-deployed in the United States, notably the practice of paying sources for information. Even the most pugnacious big-city U.S. tabloids (such as the New York Post, where both Haberman and I used to work) don’t do this, although the practice of paying for photos is common. The Enquirer greased so many tipsters working in talent agencies, at hospitals, and at hair salons that it became in effect the Stasi of Hollywood. Or, if you like, it was a salacious Eye of Sauron, staring mercilessly across the kingdom.
It’s all very amusing as presented by director Mark Landsman (who delightfully introduces each journo with one of their press cards, and weaves in cute period footage to illustrate the paper’s glory years). But Landsman also delves into what the paper might have called THE UNTOLD STORY: how the Enquirer began sitting on its scoops decades ago. It buried a major article about beloved comic Bob Hope’s philandering in exchange for turning Hope to its advantage. He contributed softball interviews and bylined stories, knowing that the sword of Sleazeocles hung over his head. Later the paper practiced catch-and-kill for its friends, paying off mistresses of famous men in order to buy their silence. Arnold Schwarzenegger (an important source for the Enquirer’s sister magazines on bodybuilding) was one beneficiary. The current president of the United States was another, and Landsman’s film explains how these cases played out. (Former Enquirer chief David Pecker was granted immunity by prosecutors for answering questions on the scheme but declined to participate in this documentary. Pecker’s company American Media sold the Enquirer to Hudson News America this year as circulation plummeted to less than 300,000).
One ex-employee calls the Enquirer a “protection racket,” noting that this is a Mob tactic, but then again the National Enquirer was, Landsman notes, launched with a $75,000 Mafia loan. Previously the paper had been the sleepy New York Enquirer, which was founded in 1926, but Gene Pope Jr., whose father had owned the Italian immigrants’ favorite paper Il Progresso and become a mob cynosure in the process, forged it into the paper that became the epitome of what became known as the supermarket tabloid, after he successfully carried out a scheme to sell it at every grocery store’s checkout stand.
Toward the end Scandalous reviews 30 years of Donald Trump coverage, explicated by top editors who make it clear that Trump was an Enquirer candidate in more ways than one. There’s a hilarious image of a page that splashes news of Trump’s split with his previous wife Ivana: At the bottom, in small type, we learn that Nelson Mandela has also been freed from prison. “He wanted to use us as a microphone to a different group of people,” explains an editor. In the 2015–16 campaign, Pecker ran nonstop propaganda on the front page (“HILLARY: SIX MONTHS TO LIVE”), weekly providing the equivalent of a Trump campaign billboard every grocery shopper saw. Headlines such as “TRUMP’S 7-STEP PLAN TO DESTROY HILLARY” may have played a larger role in shaping opinions than we all suspected. And what is Trump’s Twitter feed except a series of Enquirer headlines?