Who knew that the crappy tabloid headlining stories about UFOs, Bigfoot, and celebrity discomfiture would one day change US history?
“Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer,” Mark Landsman’s ebullient and profoundly depressing account of the 60-year rise and fall of the tabloid, starts with Mafia money. Generoso Pope Jr., whose “godfather was the Godfather — Frank Costello,” as one interviewee points out, took out a no-interest loan from the mob to start what he hoped would be the most-read newspaper in the world.
One day he got an inspiration after he drove past a gruesome accident scene where a large crowd had gathered. That, he figured, is what readers were looking for. He then filled his pages with graphic deaths and heinous crimes and the circulation climbed to a million.
But Pope wanted more, so he expanded his distribution from city newsstands to supermarkets in the growing suburbs. He dropped the gore and targeted housewives with lurid celebrity gossip and weird tales about extraterrestrials, the paranormal, and medical oddities. He lured in Fleet Street journalists with exorbitant salaries and expense accounts. The paper’s reporting and reputation improved, and the readership grew exponentially.
But then, as one reporter recalls, something unsettling happened. She had written up a solid, salacious story about Bob Hope’s philandering. Instead of being pleased, Pope was disapproving. He said readers didn’t want to know such things about a beloved celebrity — as if that wasn’t the reason they read the paper in the first place. He killed the story, but let Hope know he had it. From then on Hope was always available for an exclusive interview.
Thus began the policy that would become known as catch-and-kill. The paper would get the rights to a damaging story and file it away — to protect some and to extort others. Kind of like J. Edgar Hoover with 20 million readers.
Meanwhile, the Enquirer had become a pop-culture juggernaut. Alluring headlines about Oprah, Arnold, and Michael Jackson titillated the masses. They published a photo of Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart and his lover and realized that politicians could be celebrities, too. Their coverage of the O.J. Simpson case dug up incriminating evidence that the prosecution missed. In a rare misstep, they featured a sordid story about Princess Di in an issue that came out the day she was killed. Her limo had crashed while fleeing the paparazzi and everyone blamed the tabloid press, the Enquirer especially. Fans of the beloved royal were furious and at a press conference George Clooney denounced the Enquirer. Then it all passed. Business as usual resumed.
Some celebrities didn’t mind the publicity. Like Donald Trump, who would use a fake name and call in tips about his own love life. The connection between Trump and the Enquirer intensified after David Pecker took charge and the paper took a dark turn. It abandoned all pretense to nonpartisanship and became a tool for Trump’s interests, promoting him, catching and killing damaging stories, and smearing his enemies — most notably, of course, Hillary Clinton. How large a part the Enquirer played in Trump’s victory is unknowable, but its impact on journalism is incalculable. As Carl Bernstein puts it, the Enquirer ushered in “not just a bad time for the press, but a bad time for the truth.”
As often happens, hubris brought about a fall. When Pecker tried to extort Jeff Bezos — the billionaire founder of Amazon, owner of the Washington Post, and Trump’s bête noire — with an exposé about an affair, the stunt catastrophically backfired. Bezos called their bluff, inspiring a New York Post headline that the Enquirer itself might have envied: “BEZOS EXPOSES PECKER.”
Landsman gets the inside scoop from several Enquirer alumni, all of whom share entertaining anecdotes about the extremes they were willing to go to for the goods, not all of those extremes being ethical, legal, or factual. Especially illuminating are the elaborate, ingenious, and expensive stratagems employed for a photo of Elvis in his coffin and for a confession from the woman who gave John Belushi the drugs that killed him.
But those alumni are less sanguine about the paper’s dubious impact on today’s politics and journalism. “How did we get a tabloid subject [to become] president of the United States?” asks one. “Do I have any shame about this? . . . What can I say. I was a journalist.”
“Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer” opens at the Kendall Square Cinema on Nov. 15.
In Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone’s astonishing, moving, though occasionally hokey “The Elephant Queen,” Athena (all the major players are named in this heavily anthropomorphized nature documentary), the 50-year-old matriarch of the title, heroically leads her herd through drought-stricken wastelands in search of water and food. But as in Disney’s “The Lion King” the supporting cast almost steals the show. Like the determined dung beetle (or “Dung Beetle” as narrator Chiwetel Ejiofor calls him, evoking the nomenclature of “Wind in the Willows”) whose slapstick run-ins with would-be dung thieves are as well-choreographed as Buster Keaton gags. Or “Turtle,” whose ecstatic rictus and orgasmic cries while going shell-to-shell with his sweetheart may have earned the film a PG rating.
Schtick and schmaltz aside, “The Elephant Queen” achieves an epic sweep, visual sublimity, and tragic poignancy. After watching these magnificent giants grieve over their dead or persevere over adversity it’s hard to understand why someone would want to shoot one and hack off its tail for a trophy.
“The Elephant Queen” can be seen on the Apple TV app on iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch, Mac, and other platforms, including online at tv.apple.com.
Designs for living
If anyone has ever said a bad word about Ralph Lauren you won’t hear it in “Very Ralph,” Susan Lacy’s profile of the designer and fashion brand. From Audrey Hepburn’s effusive introduction when he received the Council of Fashion Designers of America lifetime achievement award in 1994 to the platoons of stars honoring him at his 50th anniversary show in 2018, the paeans of praise are non-stop.
And well deserved, for Lauren started out as a poor Bronx kid named Ralph Lipshitz with dreams of someday making it big. He designed some then-unfashionably wide ties and sold them to Bloomingdales, came up with the inescapable Polo logo, expanded into men’s and women’s fashions, and ultimately put his name on everything from furniture to footwear, in a multi-billion dollar international enterprise. In the film he describes a creative process that draws on everything he likes — western regalia, 1930s Hollywood movies, posh English drawing rooms, roller skaters, and whatever else Lauren sees as an essential part of a well-appointed, ideal life like his own. He’s lived the American Dream and transformed it into merchandise so everyone else can live it too.
“Very Ralph” debuts Nov. 12 on HBO and will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, and affiliate portals.
Go to itsh.bo/2NloqEf.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.