Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer

Apr 05, 1978 - Boca Raton, Florida, U.S. - National Enquirer Publisher Generoso Pope oand copy of the photo of Elvis Presley. Pope died at 61, GENEROSO P. POPE JR., the millionaire owner and publisher of The National Enquirer, suffered a heart attack yesterday at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and was pronounced dead on arrival at the J.F.K. Medical Center in Atlantis, Fla. He was 61 years old. Mr. Pope, whose father founded Il Progresso, the New York City Italian-language newspaper, bought a weekly newspaper, The New York Enquirer, in 1952 for $75,000. It had a circulation of 17,000 copie A gore-soaked tabloid, whose publisher had mob connections, was ultimately involved in helping install the President of the United States. This story, worthy of James Ellroy, is at the heart of the documentary Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer. Aesthetically, the movie is both cold and cheesy, a weird combo platter. Various interviewees (Carl Bernstein is probably the film’s biggest “get”) sit in lonely, swanky rooms or in dimly lit bars, and the interviews are broken up by vintage news footage — grainy film stock, bleary video. It’s ugly, but then so is the subject; director Mark Landsman means to show that the tabloid that’s been an unavoidable patch of the American cultural wallpaper for much of our lives has left a mostly corrosive footprint wherever it has stepped.

Or stomped. By 1997, the Enquirer’s reputation as a ghost haunting the closets of celebrities was so entrenched that the paper went through a period of disfavor following the death of Princess Diana. The paparazzi who chased Diana to her death were not working for the Enquirer, but the association was made anyway — the paper was a synecdoche for all other intrusive tabloids. (For what it’s worth, the paper’s then-editor Steve Koz made a performative violin solo of refusing photos of the wreckage and called on other tabloids to do likewise.) Before then, the Enquirer had actually been gaining a rep as an unexpected source of hard-nosed journalism during the O.J. trial. But the sacrifice of Diana at the altar of enquiring minds that wanted to know seemed to shame, for a while, the supermarket gobblers of tabloid burgers.

What Scandalous makes clear is that the paper, for decades, reported all the news that was printed to fit — it was custom-made to slake the public thirst for lightweight squalor. The Enquirer’s original goodfella-in-chief, Generoso Pope Jr., gradually shifted the rag’s angle from sub-Weegee shock-horror to “Why Jackie/Liz/Oprah is as miserable as you are, Jane Q. Public.” That formula held for a long time, until, in those more innocent times when such a thing could still happen, Gary Hart was captured on film with Donna Rice on his lap and his political career was generally acknowledged to be toilet-bound. The Enquirer’s vampire fangs had drawn a new kind of blood, and it liked the taste. Bill Clinton found himself similarly drained. But all along, in Scandalous, we also hear about stories Jane never saw — contemptible behavior by Bob Hope, Cosby, etc. We’re told that the Enquirer kept mum about certain stars in exchange for access. That will take on grim relevance later, when what Ronan Farrow has recently exposed as the “catch and kill” mechanism (he’s in the film briefly) was employed to keep Donald Trump’s mushroom out of the pages of America’s favorite tabloid. Hillary stared zombie-eyed and pallid from many an Enquirer cover, contrasted with the insensate orange vigor of the MAGA who would be king. The paper that had followed America’s lead was now leading America.

That was under the jurisdiction of Trump pally David Pecker, who has since sold the Enquirer, after the paper’s attempted sliming of Trump foe Jeff Bezos backslimed. Today the paper sits in its usual point-of-purchase slot, itself zombie-eyed, a mewling wisp of its former robust ghoulishness. It continues to harass celebrities and the Royal Family just like the good old bad days of 1985, but having ended and expedited presidential dreams, where else can it go? It seems a spent force. And yet the hunger for the Enquirer’s stock in trade remains, only it’s filled elsewhere. For what is Fox News if not tabloid journalism at its slickest and most dangerous, speaking to an audience of the fearful and incurious? The network’s serpent-in-chief, Rupert Murdoch, of course slithered from the brackish waters of British supermarket rags. As James Ellroy knew, America is a tabloid country, and so Scandalous is not just a movie about that thing Grandma reads at the hairdresser’s. At its “best” and worst the paper is a souvenir from our national shadowland; we want to think we’re better than the Enquirer but we kind of know we deserve each other.

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