It was the equivalent of a print soap opera of our pop culture lives, telling our national story of scandal and vice on every supermarket checkout display every week. You could not be an American without knowing that Elvis was sighted repeatedly after his death; that Nancy Reagan ran the White House through her Astrologer; that Gary Hart’s presidential candidacy had been derailed by his Bimini yacht jaunt, or that JFK’s mistresses were still coming forward with their sordid tales 50 years after his assassination. It was juicy; it was fun; it was bad for you in that good schadenfreude kind of way.. until it wasn’t.
Just released in theaters, and available for streaming on demand on Amazon and a few other platforms is Scandalous: The Untold History of the National Enquirer, a pretty riveting documentary that chronicles the 60 year-history of this favorite supermarket rag from its start as The New York Enquirer to what we all knew and loved to hate.
The National Enquirer was started by Generoso (Gene) Pope Jr., son of a mafia-made man who ran Il Progresso, the Italian newspaper in New York City. He bought a local rag and changed the name from The New York Enquirer to The National Enquirer and filled the first editions of his paper with sordid police photography of murder and betrayal and the gore mag sold pretty well.
But Gene Pope wanted to reach even more readers, and as supermarkets swept into the nation in the 50s, he knew blood and guts wouldn’t sell in the local A & P, so he abandoned the gore for celebrity gossip, telling his reporters that he was going for “Missy Smith in Kansas City” who wants to know that Liz Taylor has the same problems as she does.
The documentary pivots from various points of view of the paper’s reporters, one of whom was former book editor Judith Regan, who always said she learned her pop culture trade at The Enquirer. The film rapidly draws you through the paper’s high points such as the coverage of Elvis Presley’s death (where they were able to get a photo of Elvis in his coffin by paying his cousin to take it) right through its best moments, such as breaking the Gary Hart affair and how The Enquirer started to get a grudging bit of respect from real journalists as the century turned.
But the paper was sold to David Pecker in 1999, and with that purchase politics came into The Enquirer’s newsroom, partially because politicians had become celebrities, and also because Donald Trump had made himself into a politician. His juicy divorce from Ivanna had been a great story for the magazine in the 90s.
In the past, the paper’s dubious approach to scandalous coverage included the practice of finding dirt on a celebrity and failing to run it in exchange for “inside” stories– the documentary says this started with Bob Hope’s many affairs, as well as Bill Cosby’s, but the practice mutated to what Ronan Farrow would call “Catch & Kill” during the Trump presidential campaign as was seen with the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal affairs.
David Pecker was forced to sell the paper in April of 2019. Once an important influencer in American pop culture, The Enquirer had a circulation of over 2 million in 2000. Today it’s about 150,000.