Timid Tabloid Tells Some!

(Note: This essay originally appeared at in 1997 or 1998, we can't quite remember...)

While the high-brows perfect their deflationary leers and all-caps innuendo, and while ABC's PrimeTime Live and other "serious" news outlets flirt with checkbook journalism, the paper that pioneered the modern tabloid genre continues its quest for respectability - and grows increasingly boring in the process. In the weekly's glory days, every issue seemed to spark celebrity litigation. Carol Burnett, Clint Eastwood, Roseanne, Liz Taylor (and her cook), Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, and Eddie Murphy are just a few of the stars who've sued the Enquirer over the years.

These days, however, the Enquirer's more likely to be cross-promoting with the enemy than cross-examining it. In every issue now, B-list celebrities looking for a scandal-free plug are photographed holding a copy of the magazine while professing their love for the "new" Enquirer. The latest edition, for example, features Montel Williams, exclaiming "The Enquirer's reporting is accurate and its credibility is solid…It is the tabloid of integrity!"

In expressing this sentiment, the noted integrity assessor echoes the evaluations of Enquirer fans Ted Koppel and N.Y. Times writer David Margolick, both of whom praised the magazine for its trailblazing O.J. coverage. All the kind words have gone to the tabloid's figurative head, alas. Recently, Enquirer editor Steve Coz, whose Harvard diploma makes him a favorite corporate showpiece, even went so far as to write an editorial for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain decrying the irresponsibility the Enquirer's main competitor The Globe showed in its $75,000 provocation of dormant philanderer Frank Gifford. "Tabloids don't need to orchestrate events," he bleated with hollow aggrandizement. "Those that report news that they've manufactured are lying to their readers."

If the Enquirer wants to avoid such unethical techniques, that's great. (Of course, there are other ways to manufacture the news that the Enquirer has indulged in, such as siccing paparrazi on temperamental celebrities until they attack.) But why is Coz penning such cop-ed platitudes when he should be spending his time breaking new stories to satiate all those inquiring minds out there? It's hard to imagine there was even time, much less the desire, for such trivial P.R. machinations in the Enquirer newsroom of the past. Indeed, original Enquirer publisher Generoso Pope used to maintain a large chart in the newsroom that kept track of how many stories reporter were filing each month; those who found themselves in the bottom third of the ranks too frequently were summarily fired. It was a Draconian policy, but at least it gave the Enquirer a focus it seems to have since lost. As The Globe and The Star break stories the Enquirer now apparently regards beneath its purview, the Enquirer languishes, a remedial version of People that complacently keeps comatose (but popular) stories like the JonBenet Ramsey murder on life-support for months because it knows they're guaranteed to sell a certain number of copies.

A similar complacence infected the Enquirer's recent attempt at TV brand extension, a one-hour syndicated snore called 25 Years of Scandals. The show's set looked like a converted parking garage, audience members appeared sedated and slightly embarrassed to be there. Indeed, they hardly made a peep as Enquirer gossip columnist Mike Walker, a man with the negligible charisma of, say, a Topeka weatherman, recycled moldy stories from the Enquirer's archives. Ostensibly a bid to reclaim a portion of the tabloid audience that cathode copycats have stolen over the years, the disappointingly static special had the unfortunate effect of making the Enquirer look like cable-access amateurs: it simply doesn't possess the TV chops to go jump-cut to jump-cut with the likes of Inside Edition.

Which, in the end, is probably a blessing in disguise. When it's done right, gossip, like horror, actually works better in print than on TV - innuendo and imagination are everything. Coupled with a context-free photo, a few paragraphs of text can almost always say more than a video clip. And print, of course, still permits far more titillation than TV - an advantage the Enquirer should once again exploit. In the magazine's "gore era" of the late '50s and '60s, articles like "Passion Pills Fan Rape Wave" offered the most salacious prose available on the newsrack. Now, compared to the likes of Buzz, Spy, and the New York Observer, amongst others, the Enquirer seems downright prudish.

It maintains this outdated sense of decorum in deference to its conservative readers, but it's a strategy that's looking increasingly oxymoronic. Tabloids should be charged with breaking the bounds of propriety and exposing pop culture mythologies, not upholding these things. And while convincing drab, everyday Americans that pampered TinselTown hedonism only begets misery and self-loathing may merely be a cynical exercise in maintaining the social order, celebrity puff pieces aren't likely to tip the balance of power between ourselves and the stars that increasingly colonize our imaginations either. At least an Enquirer that was resolutely antagonistic toward celebrity culture would stand out amongst all the entertainment magazines that essentially serve as promotional devices for the media monoliths that own them and the movies, TV shows, books, and CDs that they cover.

With a circulation of 2.5 million, and a highly effective distribution system that puts it within reach of approximately two hundred million shoppers each week, the Enquirer is a rare resource these days: it's a news source that earns almost all its revenue from single-copy sales rather than advertising. As such, it has the potential to speak with absolute candor, unencumbered by the influence of advertisers or corporate cross-promotion strategies. That it appears to be sacrificing its traditional impudence in pursuit of respectability is a shame. At a time when good old-fashioned mud-slinging has been largely replaced by the polite (and inconsequential) dishing of dirt, there's a desperate need for those who are willing to get their hands a little dirty in their attempts to make two-faced celebrities - Frank Gifford, are you listening? - come clean.

-- G. Beato

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