Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the National Enquirer graced nearly every grocery store checkout line in America, its lurid headlines just as innocuous a part of the shopping experience as Juicy Fruit gum or a pack of Skittles. In those days, the magazine seemed like the news equivalent of that checkout aisle candy—not sustenance but not dangerous. But just as a diet consisting primarily of sugar can have dangerous long-term health effects, the sensationalizing of the news via Enquirer headlines was a direct contributor to the slow decay of American media.
First, the Enquirer made way for talk shows, like Geraldo and Jerry Springer, where men and women who looked and sounded like news anchors dedicated hours to filling American living rooms with scandal. Eventually, America’s growing appetite for the sensational would birth 24-hour “news” organizations like Fox, where it became normal to shout unverified conspiracy theories into the ether or present a panel of guests who screamed soundbites so loudly over one another it was impossible to make out any salient debate points.
Yet every reporter who ever worked at the National Enquirer is a better journalist than I. This was not a thought I had ever entertained until I watched Mark Landsman’s documentary Scandalous—about the rise of the Enquirer and the tabloid’s lasting impact on the way America gets its news—and then spent two days speaking with former Enquirer reporters Judith Regan and Barbara Sternig. Either could have gotten me to confess to conspiring with Ukraine to hide Hillary’s server, had we stayed on the phone 10 minutes longer.
Regan and Sternig are so good at their jobs that, when speaking with them, it’s easy to forget that their tremendous ability to elicit information wasn’t used to break stories like Watergate. Instead, their unerring skills were mostly used to spin and amplify salacious details until a story had grown so unwieldy it was impossible to tell fact from fiction. The National Enquirer helped normalize news stories like Hillary’s emails—situations that become completely blown out of proportion through exaggerated or outright false information. In Scandalous, Landsman attempts to trace the history of the Enquirer from harmless grocery store confection to Donald Trump’s personal propaganda machine, a path that lowered standards for all news outlets and convinced many Americans that they couldn’t trust the news.
From the outset, Enquirer founder Generoso Pope Jr. hired a slew of crack investigative journalists with either Harvard journalism school training or backgrounds in British tabloid reporting, which was historically much more tenacious than that of its American counterparts. According to the documentary, his family’s mafia connections made him able to pay his reporters salaries and offer perks, like private jets, that most journalists had never dreamed of. For the first time in America, Pope was hiring first-rate investigative journalists to report “soft” news, tailored to an ideal reader he called Missy America. Missy America, much like myself, was interested in celebrity gossip, medical oddities, the supernatural, and true crime.
The results were staggering. In its heyday, every issue of the National Enquirer sold millions of copies, but the real genius was Pope’s distribution plan, which got the news right where we could see it in the grocery store checkout line. Whether or not customers bought it, the contents were disseminated through headlines and teasers; its articles skimmed when lines were too long. The Enquirer gave Missy America access to celebrity that went beyond the polished, posed press releases and canned PR statements of fan magazines, offering glimpses of stars as they “really” were, warts and all. But while the Enquirer was changing America’s relationship with the news and celebrity, Barbara Sternig explained to me that the intense reportage was also changing the ways that celebrities interacted with the media:
“Celebrity journalism used to be fan magazines in touch with PR departments and everyone would make sure all the stories were nice,” she tells me. “With us, it became adversarial.”
Sternig has lots of stories about the glory days of the paper’s rise: being the only woman in the newsroom, flying on private jets to hunt down reluctant celebrities, booking rooms in their hotels to bribe the staff for information.
As Sternig tells me a story of hiding in a Catholic church confessional for hours in order to sneak into Pat Sajak’s wedding only to be forced to confess to a priest her reason for hiding, I realize that I like her. And I want her to like me. I would tell her anything as she politely asks questions and seems completely delighted by my answers. When she sends a follow-up email to the PR person who put us in touch saying I have a bright career ahead of me, I feel proud of myself—even though I’d gone into the interview specifically to ask her questions about National Enquirer’s direct contribution to our rotten 24-hour news cycle and was so dazzled that I forgot.
If Sternig made me feel included in the world of Phyllis Diller, Burt Reynolds, and Michael Landon—people whose careers peaked before I was born—I can’t even imagine how the Enquirer must have hit its predominantly female readership who had rarely had anything more than recipes and hairstyles offered to them by the press. The Enquirer created the illusion of being close to celebrities by airing their darkest secrets alongside the unposed, unretouched images we would come to think of as “tabloid photos.” At the time, they must have seemed much more personal and honest than the carefully constructed images presented in glossy ladies’ magazines.
The Enquirer acted as a parasite of sorts, evolving as its hosts adapted: Its reporters were so relentless that they broke our relationship with the news. After that first wave of adversarial famous people, others like Bill Cosby learned how to work with the tabloids to get ahead of stories that would condemn them. Though the documentary doesn’t say the Enquirer specifically had information pertaining to Cosby allegedly drugging and raping dozens of women, it does say that information the magazine had was so juicy Cosby began giving the magazine exclusive interviews in order to keep the story from breaking.
Others didn’t have to be blackmailed to offer the Enquirer access. A younger Donald Trump, desperate for fame, would frequently leak his own stories to the paper, pretending to be an “insider.” When Pope died and the tabloid was bought by David Pecker, Pecker and Trump’s close friendship meant Pecker would “catch and kill” stories like those of Karen McDougal, who was paid $150,000 during the 2016 presidential election for exclusive rights to her story about an affair with Trump—only to have Pecker and the magazine sit on the story, effectively silencing those who could have influenced the election. All the while the Enquirer ran photographs of Hillary Clinton alongside headlines claiming she was “sick” or “drug-addicted” that anyone who went to an American grocery store during the 2016 election would have at least glanced at.
Because of the Enquirer’s station next to bags of Doritos and bottles of soda, along with its obviously sensationalized headlines and images, it’s easy to assume that most people know the magazine is junk. “There are a lot of people who look and don’t discern the difference,” Landsman tells me. As the talented journalists at the Enquirer started using their investigative skills to erode the lines between finding the truth and inventing a story, social media made half-truths and outright lies easily sharable. Sean Hannity, Donald Trump, and the like often cite the Enquirer as a reliable source for stories about Ted Cruz’s father as part of the plot to assassinate JFK, or Hillary Clinton as a secret “sex freak.” Outlandish stories sell, but in order to keep the audience’s attention, the next story has to be twice as big, until news becomes performative speculation meant purely to elict an audience response rather than provide any information.
This adversarial style of presenting non-information as absolute fact happened right before my eyes as a child. How much of that exposure has taught me to believe that there is no limit to the lies our media, politicians, and social media platforms are allowed to tell just because there has never been a limit in my lifetime?
I have invested a lot of my life to thinking deeply about things others dismiss as absurd, from the Depression-era carnival to the Victorian fascination with medical oddities, Gothic novels, and true crime. Perhaps the beginning of that fascination is the checkout line of Covington’s grocery store in Benton, Louisiana, where I first encountered the odd and gory Enquirer headlines to horrifying, yet exhilarating stories that were much more accessible than the dry, factual world of adult news.
Turns out, many of those stories were written or edited by Judith Regan, who told me that some of her favorite stories working at the Enquirer were about the separation of conjoined twins or reuniting a little girl born with progeria with a long-lost mother, the same stories that won me over as a child in the checkout line and fostered a still-existent obsession with the ways the medical community and people in general both sensationalize and dismiss othered bodies.
“Hyperbole has always been a way to get the attention of a mass audience,” she tells me when I ask about the impact of the Enquirer on the current brand of absurdities being peddled to the general public.
But she tells me she’s worried about the role deep fakes and the widespread decimation of outright lies might play in the upcoming election. She seems dismayed when she tells me that 45 percent of Americans get their news from social media (numbers that might be even lower than the actual number) and that 65 million Americans get their news from Donald Trump, which I assume she’s basing on his Twitter following, which is 66 million.
“Social media has taken the place of all media,” she says, “and it’s not regulated.”
Scandalous attempts to reexamine the role of the National Enquirer in a country where a recent Gallup poll found that just 41 percent of Americans trust the media. That number is a far cry from the 68 percent of Americans who said they trusted the media in 1972, one year after Generoso Pope moved the Enquirer headquarters to Florida and begin heavily investing in first-rate reporters to create stories that would sell.
Americans say they don’t trust the news, but they’re also more inclined to entertain lies than ever before. Not an hour before I interviewed Regan, I watched a video of three Fox and Friends anchors staring dead-eyed at the camera as Donald Trump was allowed to spew lies for an hour. After a few half-hearted attempts to challenge him on those lies, the hosts just gave up and let him continue, unabated.
I felt I had to ask Regan, as a peddler of misinformation framed as truth, what responsibility those in the media and journalists, in particular, had to combat the spread of lies. Instead of answering, she told me that William Randolph Hearst was famous for faking interviews and how she knew for a fact that journalists at well-respected publications were on the take, getting paid under the table for favorable and unfavorable news items.
“There’s so much corruption in the process,” she says. It is then that I knew I have to ask her a question about her involvement in publishing books like If I Did It, a book purporting to be based on interviews with O.J. Simpson, and How To Beat Trump, a new book by Mark Halperin, who lost his job amid allegations of sexual assault. What I want to ask is about the complicated ethics of giving those accused of doing horrible things a platform to profit, in the case of Simpson, or to slink away from accusations with no accountability or apology, like Halperin.
The problem is, I am not sure I have it in me to hide in a confessional to eavesdrop on Pat Sajak’s wedding or ask O.J. Simpson to hypothetically walk me through how we would have killed two people. Nor am I sure I want to have it in me. “But what about, like, why let the abusers control the story?” I ask her, knowing that I am not doing this the way an Enquirer reporter would have. She demands to know what I mean and I lamely trot out the Simpson and Halperin examples.
“Do you believe in free speech?” she yells into the phone, saying it louder every time I try to answer and attempt to clarify my question. Sometimes she varies it “Do you believe in censorship?” or “Do you believe in the criminal justice system?” When I try to give multi-word answers she screams “Yes or no?”
“It’s more complicated than that,” I answer, to which she cuts me off again, demanding to know if I think that the works of Gaugin should be banned from museums, and if the works of Norman Mailer and Charles Dickens should be burned. I stop talking and just let her yell, scribbling down the repetitive questions.
Just before I ask how her views of free speech correlate to what she’s previously said about Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and the need for better regulation against lies in media—and just before she hangs up on me—Regan demands to know how old I am and the worst thing that has ever happened to me. You don’t have to answer her, I told myself, but I did.
“I had cancer, was in a coma for two weeks after a car accident as a teenager, as a child I lived below the poverty line,” I responded. These aren’t the worst things that have ever happened to me, and maybe I would have kept on trotting out personal horrors if she hadn’t interrupted me to quickly move on. My answers didn’t line up with the narrative she had already formed, so she backed off to end the call on a better soundbite.
“One day you’re going to be accused of something,” she warned, “and you will be innocent, but they will find you guilty.”
I came away from our call so completely, and absurdly, horrified that I had to take my dog outside to calm down. Judith Regan is so good at interrogating sources and hacking out saleable sentences that she had sold me, at least for the 10 minutes it might have taken to move through a checkout line, on my own lurid tabloid story.
It was thrilling. She had National Enquired me.
If Judith Regan were writing this piece she could say that when asked if I believe in free speech I said, “It’s not a yes or no question,” and when asked if I believe in the American criminal justice system I said, “Not really.” The resultant headline—Justice-Hating Jezebel Writer Supports Book Burning—would make great fodder for the attention-grabbing but hyperbolic kind of news that dominates the narrative in our country because it’s so much simpler than the longer, messier truth.