A new documentary traces the history of the National Enquirer from gore rag to sensational gossip magazine to its central role in the Trump presidency
In February of this year, Michael Cohen, the presidents personal lawyer, testified before Congress that he assisted in burying stories of Trumps affairs. In todays everything-is-on-fire context, the scene barely registers now, but any long-term vision of American democracy would consider it remarkable: the personal lawyer to the president of the United States, a former reality TV star ensnared by campaign finance laws after paying former Playboy models for their silence in the 2016 presidential election. The mind-boggling convergence of politics and celebrity, soap opera and political formality, public and private, money and low-brow titillation would seem unprecedented that is, unless youve followed the story of the paper involved in suppressing stories of Trumps affairs: the National Enquirer, a gore rag turned sensationalistic newsstand staple which has long been at the forefront, for better or for worse, of Americas celebrification of news.
Thats the story covered in Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer, a new documentary on the history of an ethics-blurring American gossip magazine and, by extension, on American celebrity culture, and the issues and storylines that could produce, as one former Enquirer staff member recalls, the goal of a triggering response.
Scandalous traces the literal slash-your-competitors-tires style of journalism practiced at the National Enquirer through some of the biggest and most breathlessly devoured stories of the last several decades: the deaths of Elvis and comedian John Belushi (of which coverage by the Enquirer led a source, perhaps unfairly, to be jailed for injecting drugs), the OJ Simpson trial, the death of Princess Diana and the Clinton impeachment saga. The film portrays a publication proudly putting the service of readers in particular, a tantalizing Page One for the fictional conception of Missy Smith in the grocery aisle of Kansas City or Yonkers or anywhere over journalistic ethics; the paper routinely paid sources for information, built networks on personal betrayal and savaged most celebrities it covered.
Director Mark Landsman was neither fan nor reader during the National Enquirers heyday, in terms of circulation, in the 1980s, or even in recent years. But his interest piqued during the 2016 presidential election, when he found himself baffled while waiting in the supermarket checkout lines staring at the racks of headlines from the National Enquirer describing Hillary Clinton in various stages of near-death or hooked on narcotics, he told the Guardian. The incongruity of the coverage prompted him to ask, what the hell is going on here? But it wasnt until a year later that a chance encounter turned the question into a film pitch. Landsman was having dinner with a family friend when her father, Malcolm Balfour, started regaling the table with stories from his old job back at the upstart tabloid in the early 70s. Balfour, it turns out, was one of the first of the scrappy, ethically dubious tabloid reporters poached from UK publications to bring the National Enquirer some chops.
His stories were kind of mind-blowing: stories of checkbook journalism, unconventional sourcing, bribes, disguises, espionage and all kinds of scurrilous tactics, Landsman recalled.
So Landsman dove into the papers evolution. Starting with Balfour, Landsman tried to arrange for as much access to their world as I possibly could. The network of Enquirer alumni was this very interesting series of dominoes either falling or refusing to fall, said Landsman. With the help of an ace archival producer, Aileen Silverstone, he obtained extensive footage from the papers early years and 1970s newsroom.
Though the National Enquirer itself has existed for over 90 years, Scandalous begins with its modern iteration, when the New York magazine was bought (allegedly with money from mob boss Frank Costello) by Generoso Pope Jr in the 1960s. Pope pivoted the National Enquirer squarely into gore horrific car accident pictures, murder victims blood on the floor but shifted gears with the advent of suburbia. In a stroke of marketing brilliance, he directed the magazine to mirror Americas obsession with celebrities, their weight and diets, and true crime shockers, and convinced grocery stores to stock them in checkout lines. Now an impulse buy with kernels of truth exploded into titillating, if fake-ish in substance, headlines, the Enquirers circulation soared to 5.9 million people a week by 1978; when the magazine put a shadily obtained photo of Elvis Presley in his coffin in 1977, the subsequent cover sold 6.7m copies.