How the Tabloids Scoop the Big Boys

Poaching Papers Exposed

By Adam Pitluk

tabloid.gif FOR YEARS, Americans have regarded supermarket tabloids as scandal sheets featuring three-eyed aliens and radioactive children to be read on grocery store lines. Despite this patronizing attitude, any serious reader of the straight media should know that these days, when any one of the big three—The National Enquirer, Star and Globe—claims to have a national political scoop, especially if it combines the libidinous with the political, it is no longer possible to ignore them.

For one thing, they are now all owned by the same relatively respectable media company, American Media Inc. According to Sam Schulman, managing director of DeSilva and Phillips Media Investment Bank in New York, the Enquirer has a weekly circulation of 1.54 million (1.18 million newsstand), Star has 1.2 million (954,000 newsstand) and Globe has 532,000 (487,000 newsstand). Collectively, the three major tabloids account for almost 3.7 million weekly readers, which translates to a lot of registered voters.

Yes, American Media’s tabloids are sensational and gossipy. The National Enquirer, Star and Globe have different looks, styles and writers, but besides being under the same corporate umbrella, all three have something else in common: the dirt on politicians that their investigative teams dig up turns out to be right more often than not. They are demon truth-seekers even though their newsgathering ways may offend more traditional journalists.

This is nothing new. Starting seventeen years ago, the tabs began to scoop the mainstream press, and in at least a half-dozen cases have broken stories that have influenced American politics in significant ways.

It all began in 1987 when Gary Hart was derailed as front-runner for the 1988 Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As many people remember, he challenged the press to follow him if they didn’t believe his denials of extramarital activity. (“If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored,” he said). Most people believe that it was The Miami Herald, which staked him out and discovered his overnight motel dalliance with party girl Donna Rice, that broke the story. The Herald did what it said it did, and ran the account in a May 10, 1987, article titled “The Gary Hart Story: How It Happened.” But the Enquirer is also widely credited with providing the definitive evidence of the accusations: their photographers caught him philandering. The tabloid sent photographers to Hart’s Washington townhouse, where they snapped shots of him and his mistress, and down to Miami, where they shot a photo of the 29-year-old model sitting on Hart’s lap alongside the headline “Gary Hart Asked Me to Marry Him.” (The Enquirer paid a friend of Rice’s $25,000 for the picture.)

The photo sent shockwaves through the industry, and the Enquirer’s credibility rose a notch. According to Barry Levine, assistant executive editor of The National Enquirer, they got the story by paying “a rather big check” to a friend of Donna’s.

The result: Hart dropped out and Michael Dukakis went on to win the nomination and lose the election.

Five years later, in 1992, the Enquirer’s sister, Star, went after a sitting president when they introduced the world to beauty queen Gennifer Flowers. She stood in front of a blown-up cardboard banner of the February 2, 1992, Star cover story, headlined: “My 12 Year Affair with Bill Clinton. Dems Lied to America, Says His Former Lover.”

The result: The president and the first lady went on “60 Minutes” less than a week later, and on national television, Bill Clinton seemed to deny the accusations but conceded that his marriage had had some trouble spots in the past. Thus did the story evaporate into the ether, where it more or less remained until 1998, when Matt Drudge surfaced the Monica Lewinsky story.

In 1996, Star caught Dick Morris, the controversial Clinton consultant, with his pants down. Literally. They photographed the strategist with a call girl in a Washington hotel room and ran pictures in September 1996 alongside the headline: “White House Call Girl Scandal. Clinton’s Top Aide Leaked Prez’s Secrets to Hooker.”

The story cost Morris his job. Once again, the mainstream media jumped on the tabloid’s reporting, and this time they gave due credit. The straight media had learned a lesson: tabloid journalism may be sensational— sensational as hell, truth be told—but it ain’t always erroneous.

Take the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader and founder of the Rainbow Coalition. He had twice run for president, and Clinton had brought him in for consultation and protective cover during Monicagate when, in January 2001, the Enquirer struck. The headline: “Jesse Jackson’s Love Child—His 38 Yr Marriage Blows Up Over Secret Family.” A month later, they followed up with: “Jesse Sex Tapes Scandal—Lawsuit Bombshell: Mistress Recorded Everything.” And six months later, after a wide array of media outlets—from The New York Times to New Times—got onto the story too, readers were treated to “Jesse Jackson in New Sex And Money Scandal—Caught Again.” If the Reverend had any plans to return to presidential politics, he changed them.

Most recently, it was the Enquirer that first nailed Rush Limbaugh. The headline: “Rush Limbaugh Caught in Drug Ring. His Drug Supplier Tells All.”

“When we do these types of stories, we usually get blamed by one side or the other of having a right-wing or left-wing political agenda,” Levine says. “I say we play down the middle. We’ve broken news on individuals on both sides of the political spectrum.”

The question, then, is not: do the tabs matter? They do. They have knocked off presidential candidates, embarrassed presidents and their aides, and whenever sex and politics mix they are not far behind. Nor is the question any longer: are they accurate? Although they still peddle more than their share of scandalous rumors, they usually label them as such, and they often get the goods. Finally, the question is not: When will the mainstream media get around to crediting the tabs for their newsbreaks? They already do—and they do it with increasing frequency.

Rather, the interesting questions are: how do the tabloids get their stories, and what ethical issues do their information-gathering techniques raise?

Usually, the story starts with a tip. American Media tabloids pay for exclusive information, so tipsters come out of the woodwork offering up tidbits about celebrities and at times, political figures, all the while hoping their information will be lucrative. Levine makes no bones about it. “When we pay for a story, we do it for the exclusivity,” he says. “We’re a weekly, so we need that guarantee.”

If a tip is particularly juicy, editors will assign either one go-getter reporter or a team of reporters to start digging. They use shoe-leather journalism tactics, yet some reporters are so zealous that what they perform might be described as “extreme” journalism. They knock on doors unannounced, wait outside a person’s house for hours on end, seek out and harass friends and acquaintances to verify a tip, and root through garbage. Indeed, after the Enquirer pawed through the trash of former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger’s Washington house, the city of Beverly Hills, California, passed an ordinance forbidding such tactics.

As the process of discovery continues, editors sift through the facts and background-check the credibility of sources. They also cross-check sources for consistency. In the rare instance that a story relies on a single witness, “We put those eyewitnesses under a great deal of scrutiny,” Levine says. “We make them sign a contract, holding them legally responsible if a story is fictitious. We sometimes give multiple polygraphs to a source in case one expert detects dishonesty.” Once the editors decide the fact pattern is solid and a reporter writes it up, the story is lawyered for libel.

And the pundits are taking notice. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who blasted tabloid techniques in the past, made an about-face after the Enquirer broke the Jesse Jackson story. “The hottest publication in America right now is The National Enquirer, and no one in the establishment press is snickering,” Kurtz wrote in a 2001 column.

A week later, Post ombudsman Michael Getler echoed his colleague’s sentiments. “The nation’s mainstream newspapers can be relied upon not to pay for stories and to uphold the test of relevance in reporting on the private lives of public people,” wrote Getler. “But the past decade has made the relevance test more difficult. Stories about personal flaws from unsavory outlets have sometimes led to bigger revelations.”

In this season of presidential politics, the tabs have yet to make their mark on Bush: They ran a silly story in January 2004 showing scantily clad women who called themselves “Babes Against Bush.” (“Hot Babes Want to Dump Dubya.”)

rush.gif Earlier, in September 2000, the tabloid had featured a story titled “George W. Bush Smeared in Adultery Scandal.” The Enquirer reported that a Playboy playmate came forward with news of an affair with the then-governor of Texas. Try as the playmate did, she could never back up her saga with evidence, and it eventually went away.

Thus far, they have run only two major John Kerry stories, one con, one pro. The con: in late February, the Enquirer ran a cover photo of Kerry superimposed over a picture of actress Morgan Fairchild with the title, “John Kerry’s Secret Life Exposed.” The story, written by Don Gentile, John South and David Wright (the gossip reporter who also broke the Gary Condit intern-disappearance scandal, the JonBenet Ramsey murder and the Laci Peterson disappearance), lambasted the Democratic frontrunner for being a marijuana user, a philanderer, a closet pretty boy—made that way by a plastic surgeon and Botox injections— an anti-Vietnam hoaxster and, perhaps most serious of all, a faux Catholic.

Wrote the Enquirer: “[Kerry’s] an admitted pot smoker with an eye for the ladies and has dated Morgan Fairchild, Catherine Oxenberg, Dana Delany and other Hollywood stars. He fooled anti-Vietnam War demonstrators into thinking he’d thrown away his military medals during a protest. He’s had plastic surgery at least once. Although his Irish-sounding name has served him well among many Irish constituents in Massachusetts, he’s actually from Jewish roots.”

The pro: a February headline in the Star read “John Kerry: My Wife Saved My Life.” (FYI: The Star claimed that Kerry’s wife, Teresa, admitted to receiving Botox injections, while Kerry denied the claim.) Kerry, the story said, was given a clean bill of health after a 2002 physical. But being the dutiful daughter of a doctor, Teresa requested that she see his PSA test, which can be an indicator of prostate cancer. The doctors were not concerned with the low count, but Teresa questioned their analysis. “[The PSA test] was still too high compared to where it had been before,” Teresa told Star. After a second opinion, Kerry was diagnosed with an early stage of prostate cancer, the disease that killed his father in 2000.

Actually, the story also contained some gossip. Kerry, Star claimed, had a relationship with President Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis. The story did not claim adultery, nor did it give any additional details other than that the two had been seen together in the past.

Any serious student of the tabs will assume that before the campaign is over they will strike. The only questions are when, and what the sleazy (and probably true) stories will be.

In the meantime, the tabs are cleaning up their act (even if it’s still a little dirty). The career of someone like David Wright, a senior reporter for the Enquirer, encapsulates where things stand at the moment. Of course, he resents it when the big boys get the credit for a story he has broken.

It usually works like this: the Enquirer will come off the presses on a Thursday, and the New York Post gets an advance copy. Then Friday’s Post will relay Enquirer stories, crediting Wright and the tabloid with having broken the news. But then, in Saturday’s papers and subsequently in the following week’s magazines, media outlets will reprint a version of the story, crediting the Post with the find. Fox News is notorious for this sort of poaching. Wright and his colleagues say that one saving grace is when they break a story that is too big to be ignored, all media must bow down and pay homage.

Scoops like the Kerry-Davis story, says Wright, are intended to stir the political waters, and he revels in beating the big boys to the punch. “It’s very gratifying for me,” said the twenty-eight year tabloid veteran. “I work hard and employ old-fashioned journalism to get my stories, like knocking on doors and making phone calls. Too many reporters in the straight media rely on the Internet for their research. I’m out in the field.”

A few years ago, he was dispatched to Colombia to cover a mudslide that had claimed lives and displaced scores of residents. On the way, he met two reporters from The Dallas Morning News. “They looked at me and said, ‘I thought you guys made that stuff up,’” Wright says. “They couldn’t believe that I was actually on the scene!”

Wright says, “I love jumping on a plane at a moment’s notice and flying to, say, Modesto, California, for the Laci story. That’s why I continue to write for the Enquirer.”

That and the money. Tabloid writers are notorious for making big bucks. While none of the tabloids that NYRM spoke to would reveal a reporter’s starting salary, sources close to the tabloids indicated that a cub reporter can make between $50,000 and $80,000 per year, more than double what a newbie mainstream newspaper reporter will make out of the gates.

And after so many years at the Enquirer’s bureau in Boca Raton, Florida, the veteran has decided that there’s no reason to mess with a good thing. Which is why, Wright says, when The Chicago Tribune came knocking not so long ago, he did not open his Louvered door.

They tried to convert him the way rehab tries to set addicts straight: by pandering. The paper told Wright that he is talented, but wasn’t it time for him to pull his socks up and write for a marquee name? “I’m glad I didn’t take it,” he says. “I wouldn’t have the same exciting lifestyle up there.” enddingbat.gif