Monday, November 11, 2019

Scandalous: The National Enquirer Documentary

Mention of its name might stir nostalgia among those who used to hold it in contempt, just because of it represents a bygone analog distribution model. However, the tabloid journalism it used to practice has practically become the current industry standard. We do not need to feel nostalgic for The National Enquirer, because all of reputable competition have joined it at its scandal-mongering level. With the recent revelations regarding ABC News and the spiking Amy Robach’s Jeffrey Epstein story, it is now clear even the worst practices ascribed to Enquirer happen at entrenched media operations. Current headlines provide quite an ironic context to watch Mark Landsman’s Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer, which opens this Friday in New York.

Generoso Pope Jr. was the son of Pope Sr., the publisher of Il Progresso and a major figure in the New York Italian American community. He was also reputedly mobbed up. According to Scandalous, that is where Pope Jr. went to get money to buy The New York Evening Enquirer, a sleepy New York weekly that mostly covered horse racing at that point. Pope quickly changed the name to reflect his national ambitions and started shifting the editorial focus. Initially, it specialized in an especially grisly brand of crime journalism, but it truly found its identity and its market with celebrity scandals.

The former employees (including Judith Regan) heard throughout Scandalous essentially confirm all our assumptions regarding the tabloid. They very definitely paid for tips and maintained somewhat looser standards for what newsworthy and “true.” Their coverage of Gary Hart and O.J. Simpson get called out as the highpoints in the paper’s history, with justification. However, the Enquirer’s greatest victory could very well be the photo taken surreptitiously of the deceased Elvis Presley on view in his casket.

Of course, Landsman does his best to exploit Trump’s ties to the Enquirer, using various talking heads to allege the paper spiked stories exposing his infidelities and personal misadventures in return for consideration of various sorts. Ironically, there was allegedly a similar arrangement in place for Trump’s sworn enemy, Arnold Schwarzenegger. At one point, Carl Bernstein looks straight into the camera and tells viewers with all due seriousness that there is no greater journalistic sin than deliberately spiking legitimate news stories. So, who wants to ask Bernstein for a comment on the Amy Robach tape?

In fact, this is a completely legitimate question, because Scandalous explicitly suggests spiking stories to protect favored friends and associates is the one thing that really still differentiates the Enquirer from its increasingly tabloidish competitors. The entire field might have followed it into the Simpson morass, but at least there were some things they still wouldn’t do. Yet, now it seems ABC will also kill stories to protect the people it likes—and CBS will fire the whistle-blower who expose it.

Irony has a habit of compounding, does it not? Regardless, it is weirdly entertaining to revisit the eccentricities that once made The Enquirer fodder for comedians, as well as boffo grocery-store lane-blocker sales. However, Landsman never talks to a celebrity about the experience of being the subject of an Enquirer scoop, which is a real oversight. Still, the amusing war stories from ex-staffers keep the energy level up. Recommended for the offbeat cultural history rather than the socio-political analysis, Scandalous opens this Friday (11/15) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.