When the National Enquirer Pounces, Sales Jump--and So Do Its Critics

Times Staff Writer

Once again, the National Enquirer has caught the nation's eye, doing things its way.

The Enquirer's recent publication of photos of Donna Rice and Gary Hart frolicking in the Bahamas demonstrated that the mass-circulation tabloid is still pursuing its own distinctive, flamboyant approach to the news.

The Enquirer's latest coup is thought to have pushed its circulation up to the vicinity of 5 million for the week. And with its frequently eye-catching brand of journalism, there are still a few things Enquiring Minds want to know:

- Is this any way for a newspaper to behave?

- Why are so many readers attracted to the publication, which claims the largest circulation in the nation?

- Does it perform a useful--or harmful--service for society?

The answers to these questions come in a variety of shades, from the newsroom enthusiasm of National Enquirer editor and president Iain Calder to the lawsuits filed (and believed settled for substantial sums) by such celebrities as Carol Burnett, Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra.

Calder declined to comment on any lawsuits involving the Enquirer, preferring to discuss what he considered big successes. He also defended the accuracy of his publication.

Asked for his opinion of the Enquirer, Edward Bassett, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, observed that sensational, celebrity-oriented news coverage is hardly new.

"You've got to go back to (William Randolph) Hearst and then jump two generations back to (James Gordon) Bennett to find things that are comparable," he said.

Jonathan Alter, media critic for Newsweek, observed: "I think (reading the Enquirer) is like eating junk food . . . you just get a short buzz off it and you know it's junk. I don't believe most people who read it take it completely seriously. They think it's fun and tastes good and they can get their real nourishment from something else."

Enquirer editor Calder, a 48-year-old native of Slamannan, Scotland, won't discuss where he obtained the Hart/Rice photos--which were subsequently picked up by much of the news media. (Rice later accused her friend Lynn Armandt of selling the photos and story to the Enquirer; unidentified sources claimed that Armandt asked $25,000 for them.) Nor did Calder want to criticize how other publications operate. However, he made it clear that if the Enquirer had pursued the initial tip about Donna Rice flying to Washington to spend a weekend with the would-be presidential candidate--the tip went to the Miami Herald--the logistics would have been handled differently.

Then, he detailed a theoretical Enquirer stakeout that sounded worthy of the CIA, which, incidentally, once employed the Enquirer's owner, Generoso (Gene) Pope.

"If I knew someone were going to be on a plane, I'd have someone on the plane, trying to sit next to them or trying to talk to them," Calder said, speaking by phone from Enquirer headquarters in Lantana, Fla. "I'd also have someone at the airport and a photographer there taking pictures. I would have another person ready to tail that person in a car. I would probably also hire an expert motorcyclist in case the first car were lost.

Checking It Out

"At the house, I'd have several people there in advance, hours before hand, to check out the area. I'd also have photographers there checking it out. You can't go on people's property. You have to be very careful not to break the law."

But, added Calder, you can approach neighbors about renting out their windows. "You say to the people, 'Here's x hundred dollars, can I use your window?' I'd have an infrared camera in the window overlooking the area or a camera that takes pictures in low light. I'd try to have all the people with radios or telephones in their cars or walkie-talkies. If it were a really major story, I'd have an editor on the spot. . . . You have to have a military-style operation."

Still, don't expect to see the Enquirer troops--who once brought readers the contents of Henry Kissinger's garbage--staking out George Bush, Alexander Haig, Jesse Jackson or any other likely presidential candidate. In Calder's view, his readers just aren't that interested in most politicians.

He cited a May 5 Enquirer story in which 60% of people polled in four U.S. cities recognized television's Vanna White from a photo. Only 42% of those surveyed could name the individual in a picture of Vice President George Bush. Though Calder acknowledged the poll was not scientific, he still finds it a useful gauge.

"We wouldn't have looked into Gary Hart if the media hadn't made this into a major news event," the editor said.

Faith Popcorn, trend spotter and founder of Brainreserve, a New York marketing and consulting firm, described the Enquirer this way: "It's hot. It's fun. It's superficial. I think that what people like about it is its high profile, highly personal information. I think they care very little about whether it's accurate or not. It's people's fantasies about the people who are written about."

And, she said, "I don't think anybody takes the National Enquirer seriously."

Back in 1952, when Pope purchased The New York Enquirer, he wasted no time in filling the paper with what it studiously avoids now: sex and violence. A headline such as "Passion Pills Fan Rape Wave" was commonplace in what Pope has referred to as "the gore era."

By the late 1960s, however, sex and violence had been toned down if not altogether removed, with the paper increasingly being sold at supermarket check-out counters.

Lurid topics simply did not sit well with the broader audiences the Enquirer wanted to reach. Even today, Calder said, there are many stories considered "too hot, even for us."

Celebrity gossip remains a regular feature in the 65-cent paper. And stories on government waste, ghosts and haunted houses, successful people who never went to college, predictions of psychics, life-threatening accidents and heroic rescues, honest people who find and return large amounts of money, former fatties, ideas for saving money, medical advances and a wide assortment of self-help/pop psychology tips are standard fare.

The shifts have paid off. Though circulation in recent years hasn't matched levels recorded in the 1970s, it's still high enough for these words, written in capital letters, to appear on every cover: "LARGEST CIRCULATION OF ANY PAPER IN AMERICA."

Observed sociologist Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University, when asked for his opinion: "The Enquirer simply continues the tradition of the early yellow press and reaches those people who have a need for titillation rather than information . . . . Anybody who reads the Enquirer carefully would realize that they take liberties with facts, but the readership doesn't care."

Calder maintains that stories are throughly checked for accuracy ("We have a real tough research department headed by a former Time magazine bureau chief") and that lawyers are frequently consulted to assure that the publication is acting within acceptable legal and moral standards.

"You've got to be very careful. It (methodology) has to be morally OK. And legally OK. We bounce these things off lawyers," he said with great certainty. "They're pretty careful."

But not always careful enough. Along with dramatic stories, the Enquirer is also known for equally dramatic lawsuits filed against the paper by those it has covered.

In the last few years, the paper has been sued by and reportedly reached out-of-court settlements with Burnett, Carson, Sinatra as well as Tom Selleck, Richard Pryor, Shirley Jones and a number of others. In nearly all the cases, the amount of money paid by the Enquirer to the celebrity for dropping the suit was not disclosed.

'Very, Very Angry'

Perhaps the best known of these cases is the suit filed by Carol Burnett.

"I got very, very angry," the comedienne told a Los Angeles County Superior Court in 1981, describing her reaction to a 1976 gossip item which said that Burnett was loud and boisterous at a Washington, D.C., restaurant. The item also reported that she argued with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, that she spilled a glass of wine on one diner and had giggled rather than apologized.

"It (the item) portrays me as being drunk," Burnett claimed in court. "It portrays me as being rude. It portrays me as being uncaring. It portrays me as being physically abusive. It is disgusting and it is a pack of lies."

In 1981, a jury awarded Burnett $1.6 million in damages. But that amount was later reduced to $200,000 by an appellate court. Burnett then decided to seek a second trial, contending that she deserved more than $200,000. But in 1984, like many of those who followed her with suits, Burnett reached a private, out-of-court settlement with the Enquirer.

Lately, some of those who have claimed to have suffered severe emotional distress as a result of Enquirer coverage haven't been so fortunate in the courts. Last year, for instance, the California Supreme Court dismissed a suit brought by television producer Arthur Fellows and his wife against the tabloid.

Out With His Wife

In the lawsuit, the Fellows couple disputed an Enquirer item which stated that Arthur Fellows was "steady-dating" actress Angie Dickinson. Fellows maintained that the Enquirer's photo of Dickinson and himself had been taken when he and his wife Phyllis stepped out of the restaurant Spago--in a group which included Dickinson. The Enquirer item, he claimed, wrongly made him look like an adulterer when, in fact, he had been married for a long time and had never dated Dickinson.

Though an appeals court upheld the Fellows' suit, the California Supreme Court dismissed it in 1986, ruling that the plaintiff in an invasion of privacy lawsuit must show actual financial harm--not just embarrassment or loss of reputation.

Win or lose, Newsweek media critic Alter expressed concern that the Enquirer's free-wheeling style "can sometimes give other journalism a bad name. . . . That's where I think it's harmful. Not that it does anybody a lot of harm to read it. But too many people think of the press in this country as monolithic, that it's all of a piece. The National Enquirer will do something that crosses a line and everybody else will get blamed for it in terms of public credibility."

Editor Calder didn't wish to discuss his legal victories and, instead, dwelled on coups scored by his reporters.

One of his favorites is the Enquirer's all-out effort to get the scoop on Grace Kelly's car-crash death. As he recalled, the paper rushed about 25 people--several on the Concorde--to Monaco. And the key to the Enquirer story turned out to be the gardener who found Kelly's body while she was still alive; he was signed to an exclusive story deal for $15,000. Standard Enquirer procedure after such an individual is signed is to get the person out of town so that he or she cannot speak to other press members, said the editor.

"We would have flown him anywhere in the world. If he wanted to go to Tahiti, we would have sent him there. But he wouldn't move. So we flew over two reporters whose only job was to baby-sit him for two weeks, answering his telephone and his door."

Liberace's Death

Calder also appeared to relish remembering how one of his reporters covering Liberace's death in Palm Springs earlier this year "managed to get hold of two amateur radio buffs and got them to tap into the frequency of the security guards' walkie-talkies. They heard what was being said (by guards) to foil the Enquirer reporters."

But did that information help the story? Did the reporter get into the house? And if so, by what means?

"I'm not prepared to say that," said Calder. "If I tell all our tricks, that means I can't pull them again."

One trick Calder is semi-willing to discuss is the paper's widespread use of inside sources who are paid to reveal even the smallest details of celebrity behavior. But he won't talk about the amount of those payments or even their range.

"We make sure we have inside sources, people who will tell us if (a star) sneezes," he said, noting that many of those sources are located on the staffs of popular TV shows. "You pick almost any star on a television program, if something unusual happens in their lives, we'd know about it."

Armed with such tips from sources, the paper was researching the rumor that Liberace had AIDS for six months before it reported it, Calder said. (He acknowledged that the Las Vegas Sun beat the Enquirer on the Liberace/AIDS story, but added that the Enquirer was the first national publication to run it.)

Sales of 5 Million

That issue turned out to be one of the Enquirer's more successful issues--in terms of sales--in recent times. It sold about 5 million copies, roughly 500,000 more than usual, according to Calder. The final count on the recent Hart/Rice issue dated June 2 isn't in yet, but Calder predicts it will sell a similar amount.

But it's not expected to sell as many copies as the paper's all-time best seller, an issue after the death of Elvis Presley. That edition featured a cover photograph of Presley in his coffin ("Elvis at Peace") and had an estimated circulation of about 6 1/2 million copies back in 1977.

Los Angeles free-lance writer Peter H. Brown was one member of the Enquirer team working on the Presley death story and readily admits that he "bribed a clerk to get a copy of Elvis' will for the Enquirer."

"I got into Elvis' house the same way," said Brown, referring to another bribe. "With the Enquirer you do what ever you have to do to get the information. Then you have to verify it. I have a lot of respect for them. They're the hardest place I ever worked for. They require more verification than anybody else. Yet they step over these gray lines sometimes."

Like many stories told among journalists--or fishermen--sometimes the best ones are the ones that got away.

Phil Darlington, a Petaluma, Calif.-based journalist who worked for the Enquirer in 1975, remembered spending two weeks choreographing the arrival of phony extraterrestrials in a little town in Texas known for its UFO sightings. "The premise was that two extraterrestrials would walk into town and receive the big Texas howdy," recalled Darlington, adding that after the Enquirer's prank was revealed, the town would receive an award for its hospitality and a story about the caper would be published.

"I was assigned to arrange this to happen. I called up some costume makers in New York. I called up an electronics man who could make these very strange noises--strange by 1975 standards. We decided to hire two midgets from the stunt man's local in Hollywood. They were very muscular midgets because they each were to be carrying 85 pounds of body armor.

"There was to be a plane flying the night before to shine colored lights on the town. Then we'd have people from the Enquirer phoning in the sightings of UFOs so the town would be ready. I went to see the National Enquirer people about insurance because a lot of things could go wrong. A finance guy said, 'Go ahead. We're covered.'

"The midgets looked over the situation and backed out. There was no way that they were going to walk into a town and get shot."

Calder, who was the editor at the time, could not recall the idea or even imagine wanting such a story. But he did speculate that if he'd been supervising the project, it wouldn't have been lost "for a reason like that."

As Calder put it, "If I'd wanted the story, I'd have gotten new midgets."

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