The National Enquirer has been a supermarket staple for decades. In “Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer,” director Mark Landsman explores the paper’s beginnings as an allegedly mafia-funded enterprise into a gory murder rag, then its evolution into a sensational tabloid covering all things sex and scandal.
Landsman first became interested in the paper after having dinner with a friend’s father who worked at The National Enquirer in the 1970s and hearing his wild stories of its heyday.
“His stories were incredible,” Landsman said following a screening of his film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series in Los Angeles. “He’s a phenomenal raconteur. And as he kept talking about the tactics that they employed and the sort of blurred lines of ethics, I began to get really intrigued.”
With the help of the aforementioned family friend, Landsman contacted dozens of former employees, some of whom eventually agreed to be interviewed about the work they did at the tabloid and some of the unconventional and ethically questionable methods they used to chase stories. (Those methods allegedly included accepting hush money payments to acquire potentially damaging stories about public figures — like Donald Trump — and squash their release in a practice known as “catch and kill.”)
“The people who who are on the screen are people who were actually willing to tell their story and wanting to tell their story,” Landsman said. “It was really fascinating those who were still under NDAs that were willing to participate. In the case of Jerry George, who unfortunately passed away a couple of months ago, he was a very brave person. Jerry was actually the first person to go on national television and talk about this whole issue of whether or not there was a safe and what was in that safe in the various offices in the Enquirer. Jerry was very forthcoming in talking about catch and kill, his role in catch and kill, and I said to him, ‘Jerry, aren’t you worried? Don’t you have an agreement that you signed?’ And he said, ‘You know, I’m a substitute teacher and I drive a cab. So what are they gonna do?'”
Tony Brenna, a former National Enquirer reporter interviewed in the film, said that the stories he reported for the paper were all true, but they were pushed to the brink of what could be consider the truth, sensationalizing details to make them more salacious.
“There were a number of different stories that we took different approaches to. Some stories were absolutely 100 percent true. Other stories were pushed, as we used to call it, and the editors would push us to sensationalize the story a lot more than it actually was,” he explained. “I’m sorry to say on many occasions, I did that. It was a strange place for me to work because I had come from the London Daily Telegraph. I was their United Nations correspondent, I was also BBC reporter as well. And suddenly being [funneled] into scandal journalism was quite a change of pace.”
Brenna and the rest of the Enquirer staffers interviewed in the film reminisced about the halcyon days of unlimited expense accounts and lavish travel in what they called the best job in the world.
“We were very, very well paid — three times the salary of journalists at other newspapers. My average year I would be going to Russia, I’d go to the Philippines, I’d go to back to Europe. There was no limit to the stories that we were able to do. I had never worked for a newspaper that was so free with cash and expenses,” he said. “And we all had a great time. I mean, we went all over the world and lived it up. So it was a lot of fun.”
In addition to the employees, Landsman spoke with journalists from The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and more — making for a lot of footage to work with.
“Our average interview was like four hours long, some went as long as six. In many cases with some, some of the people we interviewed twice. So you’re talking about 10, 12 hours of material — a lot of time,” Landsman said. “With some people, like Ian Calder, it was sort of like an Aikido match where you’re sitting there with him and just kind of smoking him out until he would talk. With others it was just a lot more fluid and easier.”
“Checkbook journalism, yellow journalism, this is not something that the National Enquirer invented — William Randolph Hearst, I mean, we can go all the way back. People who owned whatever media existed at the time did it because they had power and influence and they used that influence for political reasons, for business reasons. And still do. Why did Jeff Bezos buy the Washington Post? I mean, you should ask yourself that question,” said former Enquirer staffer Judith Regan. “And if you think that most corporate-owned media organizations are not corrupt in some way, then you’re just fooling yourself. Look at Fox News. I mean, Rupert Murdoch has a long tradition of basically buying political influence to get what he wants and to do what he wants. This is this is nothing new. This has been going on for a really long time. And now I’d say what everyone should really be looking at is places like Facebook. Facebook has 45 million Americans who get their news from Facebook. And Mark Zuckerberg has said he doesn’t care if the political ads are fake, absolutely fake. That’s where the real propaganda has gone now, and smearing and lies and fabrications. That’s where it exists now.”
That link is what interested Landsman in the Enquirer in the first place.
“What was really intriguing to us about the Enquirer, of all these different things that Judith is talking about, was that really it was this template for the blurring of lines. And that is what’s really fascinating about it, that here’s this publication that at any given time in America 25 million people were reading and talking about it. It was really the first form of viral media in our modern era,” he said. “It gets very complicated in the mid ’90s when they’re doing reporting that is getting legitimized by people like David Merkel in the New York Times saying that the Enquirer should be required reading in the OJ Simpson case and Steve Coz is one of the 25 most influential Americans on the cover of Time Magazine, and you’re getting this confusing message because in the same paper that has legitimate reportage about Bruno Magli shoes [a story the Enquirer famously broke during the Simpson trial] are articles that are less legitimate.”
He continued, “It’s the concern that people don’t know the difference. So what do you do when you don’t know the difference? And what kind of impact does that have on people’s understanding about what is factual what is not? That was the real question we were asking ourselves: What kind of impact did this particular publication have on people’s perception of journalism in America?”
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.