The Boston Phoenix
March 4 - 11, 1999


Enquiring minds

Over the last decade, the country's biggest tabloid has helped transform American journalism. Now it's trying to transform itself. Is this the paper of the millennium?

by Seth Mnookin

LANTANA, FLORIDA -- Roseanne is in her California sound studio, getting ready for some visitors to her daily syndicated talk show. In less than 24 hours, a group of reporters, editors, beauty consultants, and astrologers from the National Enquirer will join the trimmed-down self-described "domestic goddess" for a special taping of The Roseanne Show -- which, as even the notoriously short-tempered host will admit, could be doing better, ratings-wise.

The occasion? Roseanne, less than a decade after she sued the nation's best-selling tabloid over a series of love letters that her then-husband, Tom Arnold, leaked to its staff, is guest-editing the March 2 issue.

"At least this time, I'm working with a magazine real people actually read," says Roseanne, referring to the time two years ago when she guest-edited an issue of the New Yorker. "Plus, the cartoons are funnier."

"Shit," she says. "I mean, who doesn't read the Enquirer? I always have, even when I was suing them."

Roseanne's must-read paper has been going through a transformation. Over the past decade, the tabloid has helped revolutionize American journalism, pushing the boundaries of acceptable mainstream news firmly toward the fringes. The change has been strikingly quick -- and slightly hazardous for the Enquirer itself, which risks being crowded out of its own niche. So for five years or so, the tabloid has been striving to reposition itself, trying to make a case that it is still necessary.

The results aren't clear yet, but investors are betting it'll work -- betting more than $750 million, in fact. Just last month, Evercore Capital Partners paid $767 million for American Media, which owns the Enquirer as well as the Star and the Weekly World News. Evercore, headed by former US deputy treasury secretary Roger Altman, will install David Pecker, a New York magazine publisher, at the head of American Media; the plan is to make the Enquirer and the Star the cornerstones of a new media empire. Executives have already floated proposals for a Spanish-language Enquirer and a Teen Enquirer.

For Steve Coz, the Harvard-educated editor of the National Enquirer, it's all good news. "They're not going to change the Enquirer's content at all," says Coz. "This is fantastic for us. They're bringing a boatload of cash to expand [the paper] and turn it into a launching pad for ventures for the millennium."

To get to the National Enquirer's offices, you take the Lantana exit off I-95 and drive east past a Burger King, a bait-and-tackle shop, a massage parlor, and a pair of rundown Little League fields. The Enquirer building, less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, abuts one of the two train tracks that run up and down the eastern coast of Florida.

Lantana is a working-class community smack in the middle of Palm Beach County. Unlike Boca Raton, a city 20 miles down the interstate where minimum-security prisons freckle the landscape and pink stucco is the building material of choice, Lantana is not a place where rich Northerners come to die. People here buy American, fix their own cars, and get paid by the hour. If this town is known for anything, it is the fact that more Finnish people live in Lantana than anywhere else outside Scandinavia.

The Enquirer's headquarters is a pebble-walled one-story building with emerald awnings and perfectly manicured grass out front. It looks more like the suburban headquarters of an insurance company than anything else: well maintained, even tasteful in spots, but nothing out of the ordinary. You wouldn't guess that this building holds the world's largest celebrity photo archive -- and you certainly wouldn't guess that it's been the seat of a large-scale shift in American journalism.

Steve Coz has been the editor of the Enquirer since 1996. He came here in 1982, a couple of years out of Harvard and eager to explore the world. Although his mother has publicly denounced his choice of careers -- she told a reporter last year that he's too smart to be working at a tabloid -- Coz says he loves his job. On the back wall of his office, directly in his line of vision as he sits at his desk, is a framed collage of four magazine covers. There's Newsweek's November 4, 1996, issue, which has a picture of lesbian couple Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher with the headline WE'RE HAVING A BABY. There's People's cover of June 9, 1997, headlined MEN BEHAVING BADLY; inside, the magazine details the scandalous doings of Eddie Murphy, Joe and Michael Kennedy, Donald Trump, and Frank Gifford. There's Time's June 2, 1997, issue, which has a full-page cartoon of an alien on the cover. And then there's the Enquirer's April 1, 1997, issue, the one that details the confession of Ennis Cosby's murderer. That case was cracked as the result of a tip the Enquirer solicited after Bill Cosby challenged the tab to put its money to a good use.

The heading on the collage reads, WHICH ONE IS THE TABLOID?

"That's great, huh?" says Coz. "That collage has been on TV."

"What we do today and what the mainstream media are doing -- it's not that different anymore," he says. "We've become a lot more mainstream. And they've become a lot more . . . " and here Coz pauses. "More . . . like us."

Or, as Roseanne puts it: "These days, the mainstream news is following the Enquirer. I read something there, and then six months later, I read it in the New York Times. In the last 10 years, the tabloids have started covering what the mainstream guys are doing, and the mainstream guys are doing all the tabloid crap."

Indeed, Vanity Fair recently dubbed the 1990s "the tabloid decade." But if you had to point to a watershed moment when the lines between the tabloids and the mainstream news organizations became permanently blurred, it would have to be 1987. Not surprisingly, the Enquirer was the catalyst for this breakdown of barriers. In the early days of the presidential primary campaign, the Enquirer and the Miami Herald broke a story about Democratic aspirant Gary Hart's marital infidelities. The Enquirer ran a now-infamous picture of a grinning (and married) Hart on its cover, with Donna Rice perched coyly on his lap. Hart was forced to drop out of the race.

Up to that point, mainstream papers had been squeamish about printing details of politicians' private lives, especially if those details had to do with sex; it is well known today, for example, that scribes and advisers alike winked broadly at John F. Kennedy's very public indiscretions. Today, the question of reporting on politicians' infidelities is a no-brainer.

If Hart's escapades were a coming-out of sorts for the Enquirer, the O.J. Simpson case represented the pinnacle of its competitiveness with mainstream news.

"The Simpson case was a gold mine to us," says executive editor David Perel, who headed up the Enquirer's coverage of the case. "Here was a huge story that occurred right in the middle of our source network. And we nailed it."

This is not empty boasting. Time and again, the Enquirer was the first with major O.J. news. Their reporters arrived at Simpson's Brentwood estate minutes after the Los Angeles Police Department. To get an interview with Denise Brown, Nicole Brown Simpson's sister, Enquirer reporters staked out Nicole's grave for weeks on end, illustrating the tabloid's single-minded -- some would say obsessive -- pursuit of a story.

The Enquirer was the first to report that, five weeks before the murders, Simpson had bought a 15-inch stiletto. And in a scoop that was later cited by the New York Times, the Enquirer reported that a prison guard had overheard O.J. say "I did it" to football-great-turned-minister Rosey Grier.

The tabloid's biggest coup of all is memorialized by a large framed picture that hangs on the wall of Perel's office. It is a picture of O.J. Simpson walking across the end zone before a Buffalo Bills game, one foot in the air, wearing a pair of Bruno Magli shoes. These were the same brand and style of shoes that investigators determined were responsible for footprints at the scene of the murder. The same brand and style of shoes that Simpson denied ever having owned.

"To get that photograph, we worked backwards and figured out all the football games O.J. had worked [as a television commentator] over the past couple of seasons," Perel says. "Then we just found lots of photographers and asked them to look through their photo archives." They unearthed a picture that Simpson's criminal prosecutors had overlooked. "There's no question the shoes were the single most important piece of evidence in the case," says Dan Petrocelli, who represented Ron Goldman's family in the civil trial against Simpson.

Emily Yoffe, who writes the "Keeping Tabs" column for the online magazine Slate, got turned on to the Enquirer as a result of her Simpson obsession. "I was an O.J. fanatic," she says. "And there was just no way that you could follow that trial and not read the Enquirer."

More than just legal and journalistic insiders noticed; indeed, the Enquirer began getting kudos from folks who generally look down on the tabloids. In 1997, Steve Coz was named one of Time magazine's 25 most influential Americans. "At a time when the press is drawing fire (rightly or wrongly) for everything from stalking Richard Jewell to bringing hidden cameras into grocery stores," the Time article read, "the National Enquirer is on a roll. . . . In stories ranging from the Dick Morris scandal to the JonBenét Ramsey murder case, the Enquirer and its fellow tabloids have been out front, while much of the mainstream media follow."

The Enquirer now uses the Time piece as part of a four-page press release, a package titled "Accurate and respected -- that's today's National Enquirer." The release includes quotes from Ted Koppel ("I've developed a healthy respect for the men and women of the National Enquirer") and the New York Times, which praises the tabloid's "aggressiveness and accuracy." And those are just some of the articles the Enquirer has been generating over the past couple of years: a 1995 Miami Herald headline read, MAINSTREAM PRESS GRUDGINGLY PRAISES ACCURACY OF ENQUIRER; six months later, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a lengthy article that wondered, "When the respectable press chases the National Enquirer, what's going on?"

To find out what exactly is going on, it helps to visit the Enquirer's newsroom in suburban south Florida. Inside the Lantana office, where a total of about 25 full-time editors, reporters, and rewrite staffers work, Perel is holding court at his desk. A parade of editors, reporters, and photographers walk in with their pitches for next week's issue. Perel, a former markup editor for the Washington Post, is a wiry, intense man. Physically, he's been compared to Sean Penn, although the tabloid editor is decidedly skinnier and, if anything, more high strung.

For the most part, Perel is affable with his charges, but he's hardly indulgent. "Is your shirt untucked?" he asks a long-time Enquirer reporter. "If you're gonna pitch for my team, you gotta look good."

Perel spends much of his day on the phone with various Enquirer correspondents around the country. Around 11 a.m., he does his daily checkup with New York: "And then we always have the drugs to add to the other story. Chase it down . . . whaddya mean, how? Go through the fucking court files! And check out Travolta. Is this like a regular Scientology thing going on, or is it weirder than that?" Here Perel pauses and winces at his reporter's tepid objections to finding out whether John Travolta's recent foray into marriage counseling is tied to his religious beliefs. "Look, what's the matter here? Are you too wimpy to cover this? It's not mean, it's factual. Look, just cover it, okay?" Slamming down the phone, Perel asks for an update on rumors of pending Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston nuptials. "We're holding that. So we got Travolta, Hillary, and Jackie Stallone. Get more, and get back to me."

At one point, Perel asks a visitor to leave his office: "This is too good to even risk losing," he explains. "This is a full-cover, all-out exclusive. You'll know about it soon enough."

Perel's glass-enclosed office overlooking the newsroom is the Enquirer's nerve center, and it also serves as the paper's de facto smoking room. A steady stream of central-casting tabloid types come in for a quick puff on a filterless Lucky Strike and a few words of encouragement.

Watching Perel at work is not unlike watching any other high-powered newspaper editor sweat through the day, except for one thing: the payoffs. The Enquirer, like all tabloids, pays its sources, and Perel isn't afraid to talk money on the phone. "Look, don't go into agent mode, all right?" he purrs into the ear of a source in the professional dirt-dishing business. "We've always paid you good and we'll keep paying you good, so don't try to screw me." Perel rolls his eyes. Slimeball, he mouths, before laying on more of his unctuous charm. "Pitch me a winner, and it'll be worth it."

The tabs not only pay their sources well, they pay their reporters well. A reporter at the Enquirer -- or at the Globe or the Star, for that matter -- makes between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, double what most reporters at midsize dailies earn. Some editors make upward of $500,000 a year. "I used to be young and idealistic," says long-time Enquirer staffer Charlie Montgomery, who once toiled at dailies in New Jersey and Philadelphia. "Then I got smart and went for the money."

Montgomery is a squat, flat-faced, Kojak-bald man who talks like Tom Waits with a hangover. Since jumping to the tabs in the early 1980s, he has done stints at both the Enquirer and the Globe, the Enquirer's crosstown rival. (Five of the nation's six leading tabloids are located in Palm Beach County. The Enquirer shares a building with the Weekly World News; the Sun, the Globe and the National Examiner, all owned by Globe Communications, are located in Boca Raton.)

"We do great work here," Montgomery says, and he looks for support to former New York Daily News staffer Don Gentile, a big man with liberally tattooed arms and wavy, flowing gray hair. "Give me five of our best reporters and give [former Washington Post executive editor] Ben Bradlee five of his best reporters, give us the same information to start with, and I guarantee it -- we'll beat them every time." Gentile snorts and raises his eyebrows. "Well, it's more fun than the Daily News, anyway," he says. With that, Gentile stubs out his cigarette and returns to the newsroom. "It certainly is more fun."

More fun, maybe. But also, these days, more difficult. The closer the mainstream media move toward typical tabloid fare -- full-press coverage of scandals ranging from the dismembering of John Wayne Bobbitt to oral Oval Office ministrations -- the less territory the Enquirer has to call its own.

The Enquirer, like all tabloids, has been in a slow but steady 20-year slide -- after hitting a high of more than five million copies per week in 1978, it has been averaging 2.2 million readers a week for the past year. The decline is a result of competition for its demographically meaty blue-collar audience as TV shockumentaries (When Housewives Go Bad!) and celebrity-based tabloid shows (Extra Hollywood Entertainment Special Tonight!) proliferate.

And since the late 1980s, this slide has been greatly exacerbated by the mainstream pursuit of traditional tabloid fare. When readers can open the New York Times for their daily dose of tawdry tales, they don't need to pick up the Enquirer in the checkout line. The biggest blow of all (no pun intended) was the presidential sex scandal of the past year -- essentially a series of tabloid stories that the mainstream media not only covered, but covered with so many resources that they consistently beat the tabs at their own game. ("The Enquirer might be able to get Beverly Hills hospital attendants and room-service workers to give them the dirt," says Slate's Yoffe, who lives in Washington. "But White House stewards and Washington insiders are going to go for the prestige.") In the first half of 1998, the months when the Lewinsky story erupted onto the front page of every newspaper in the country, the Enquirer lost almost 20 percent of its readers.

The result has been a prolonged, public, and costly identity crisis for the tabs. "Since the 1980s, with the explosion of the TV tabloids, all this stuff that had been the province of the print tabs started showing up all over the place," says anthropologist Elizabeth Bird, author of the book For Enquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids (University of Tennessee Press, 1992). "And so the tabloids were all flailing around trying to find a way to get their audience back."

At the Enquirer, the solution has been to subtly massage what had worked for so long. Today, the cover of the tabloid touts "The New National Enquirer." Inside the paper, what that means is that the Enquirer, long the nation's premier vehicle for the tawdry, the supernatural, and the bizarre, has been shifting more toward the mainstream -- which is to say it's been focusing on the tawdry and the bizarre and eschewing the supernatural.

The transition hasn't been all that striking, at least not to the untrained eye. What it boils down to is that aliens and Elvis sightings have been pushed aside in favor of a greater-than-ever focus on the paper's bread and butter: celebrity dirt.

"That's an area we can do that other people can't," Steve Coz says. "And that's becoming more and more important, more and more interesting. Celebrities are selling themselves as politicians, as national spokesmen."

"Look at what's going on today," says David Perel. "You have celebrities trying to influence public policy, celebrities marketing every aspect of their life. That's something that needs to be looked at, and no one else is doing that."

Coz is more blunt. "We're all there is,'' he says, "if you want more than spoon-fed crap.''

Indeed, the Enquirer's counterparts in the "legitimate" magazine world -- glossies such as People, Us, and even Vanity Fair -- regularly give their celebrity subjects veto power over cover photographs, and even over photographers and interviewers. The Enquirer, meanwhile, covers the same celebrities by digging through their court records and running photos of them without makeup. In other words, it covers them the way a journalist would.

It's also remarkably accurate. Gone are the days when the tabloid was getting sued every other week; today the paper rarely ends up in court, and when it does it almost never loses. Every issue is vetted by lawyers from the Washington firm Williams & Connolly, the same firm in which Clinton attorney David Kendall is a partner. (During the filming of the Roseanne special, when an Enquirer reporter told Roseanne details about Janet Jackson's husband's drug problems, a Williams & Connolly lawyer shuddered. "I hope they cleared that," he murmured through clenched teeth.)

To Emily Yoffe, the Enquirer's approach represents "a corrective to the huge entertainment publicity machine."

That may sound counterintuitive; indeed, viewing the Enquirer as necessary in any way feels a little bizarre. But Coz, despite his slightly smarmy, publicity-conscious proclamations, has a point, and so does Yoffe: without the tabloids, a whole nation of media-obsessed junkies would go to bed every night convinced that in mythical lands named Manhattan and Los Angeles there are perfect breeds of people who are all young, rich, beautiful, and great in bed. The Enquirer, meanwhile, takes the people we obsess over and knocks them down a peg (or three), and for that it sells more copies per issue than any daily newspaper in the country.

And in a certain way, the system works for the celebrities, too. "Look, being a celebrity, I know how this works,'' Roseanne says. "A lot of times, the celebs are in cahoots. They give the scoops to try and preempt negative stories. You end up in collusion with [the tabloids], and then when it hits the street you act like you're shocked."

"But I think they're pretty fair," Roseanne says. "Or at least they're not wrong. The other tabloids seem to still be making stuff up."

The next day, as Roseanne chats on the air with Enquirer staffers, surrounded by blown-up covers she has graced, she tells Coz, "I hope there're no more secrets in my closet. Because I know you'll find them."

"Our whole promise," says Coz, "is that we'll dish the real dirt.

"People know that if you read something in the Enquirer, it's the straight dope."

Seth Mnookin is a reporter for the Palm Beach Post.

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