Unlike the National Enquirer itself, you just can’t make this stuff up.
There is actual videotape of Generoso Pope Jr., the media mogul who bought a New York sports/racing broadsheet called the Enquirer and transformed it into the most-read supermarket tabloid in history, arguing with a straight face that his publication is an antidote to the negativity of the mainstream press. His readers are “searching for something to tell them that there’s a good side to life; everything isn’t bad,” he tells Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.
It’s a rich statement coming from the figurehead of a rag that began its reign by publishing grisly crime-scene photographs, inspired by Pope’s epiphany observing an actual car wreck and the rubberneckers eager for a glance at the gore. Even when it cleaned up its visuals for suitability at checkout counters, the Enquirer valued salaciousness over sobriety, trafficking in stories of alien abductions, human freak shows and the schadenfreude of toppled celebrities — none of which fed Pope’s delusion of positivity in publishing.
But even Pope might be rolling in his grave were he to discover an Enquirer post-2016, in which stories of Hillary Clinton’s looming mortality and clandestine lesbian love affairs shared real estate with North Korean-style puff pieces of Donald Trump’s divine campaign and presidency.
How the Enquirer evolved from influential snuff peddler to middling state-media arm of the Trump Administration is explored in director Mark Landsman’s breezy Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer. Featuring extensive interviews with reporters and editors from the Enquirer’s Golden Age of the 1980s and ’90s, it’s a surprisingly evenhanded account of a magazine that has demonstrably done more harm than good.
Landsman betrays an admiring sense of chutzpah for the paper’s bulldog staff, and the extralegal methods it deployed to get the story — from intercepting mail bound for celebrities to the tacky spycraft of dressing up a photographer in a priest costume to steal a picture of Elvis Presley in his funeral procession. If Landsman seems to appreciate these ethically slipshod professionals a bit too much, we understand why: As compelling raconteurs from the Enquirer’s heyday, they make good copy, and are more entertaining than the mainstream figures Landsman interviews for counterpoints, like Carl Bernstein and his moral hand-wringing.
Even I couldn’t help it: Like certain Enquirer scoops, Scandalous offers irresistible palace intrigue, the “palace” in question being the magazine’s then-headquarters in Lantana. By all accounts, Generoso Pope Jr. was a capricious sociopath who, while flush with cash — when it came to chasing a scandal around the world, reporters’ expense accounts were enviably bottomless — would fire even dedicated writers at will on Friday night “massacres” if they didn’t deliver cover-worthy material that week.
The workplace would improve under the editorship of Steve Coz, who presided over breaking stories that even straight-arrow reporters like Maggie Haberman admit to Landsman qualified as legitimate and important. It was the Enquirer, after all, that uncovered the photo of O.J. Simpson wearing the incriminating shoes that would lead to his defeat in the civil trial against the Goldman family.
The Enquirer broke the story of the extramarital affair that ended John Edwards’ political aspirations — a subject that Landsman, oddly, avoids completely in Scandalous — mirroring its role in exposing Gary Hart’s philandering decades earlier. (With characteristic hubris, Coz takes credit for ushering in the entire Bush dynasty, arguing that by detonating the campaign of the 1988 Democratic front-runner, they changed the course of history.)
All roads lead, inevitably, to Donald Trump, an Enquirer fixture long before he entered politics. The hotelier’s gold-plated love life was catnip to the magazine’s readers, and some of the most fascinating portions of Scandalous explore how, even in the ’90s, the paper courted him, and vice versa. Coz assigned a full-time correspondent to follow Trump’s jet-setting life between New York and Palm Beach, and in a benign foreshadowing to his truth-bending presidency, Trump would call the Enquirer with story tips while disguising his voice, name and persona.
The symbiotic relationship would reach its nadir under David Pecker’s present editorship, which swung the magazine’s formerly nonpartisan muckraking into a defiantly right-wing direction, undermining the scintilla of credibility it had built up with corrupt practices such as “catch and kill,” wherein the magazine paid alleged Trump paramours Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal for their silence.
It’s ironic, then, that a paper that forged its reputation on shining sunlight on the darkest corners of celebrity malfeasance would serve as the president’s chief suppressor of inconvenient truths. By the end of the movie’s journey, the Enquirer has lost Landsman, too.
Not that it really matters: As a cautionary tale of nominal journalism gone awry, Scandalous is unlikely to pierce Trump’s bubble of support in the slightest. The Enquirer may have been printing fake news for 60 years, but in today’s funhouse mirror of partisan media, it’s the other side that’s fake.
SCANDALOUS. Director: Mark Landsman; Distributor: Magnolia; Not Rated; Opens: Today at Lake Worth Playhouse, and Monday, Nov. 18, at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale