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A Tangle for Inquiring Minds : Television: The National Enquirer, often accused of journalistic improprieties, cries foul over CBS’ profile of the paper on ’60 Minutes’ Sunday.

Some conflicts simply invite spectators to sit back and enjoy the fray, so fittingly suited are the combatants--Godzilla vs. Rodan, Truman Capote vs. Gore Vidal. Count among them the current clash between journalism’s two titans of the sensational expose, “60 Minutes” of CBS and the National Enquirer of the grocery store check-out line.

No doubt lots of people would relish seeing the National Enquirer--"the National Rag” to many a burned celebrity--squirm under the tight focus of a “60 Minutes” investigation. And “60 Minutes” detractors might be cheered to hear that the Enquirer has accused the CBS broadcast of improper journalistic practices, including the use of allegedly stolen material, for its piece on the Enquirer being aired Sunday night.

The Enquirer has been made nervous enough that it has hired a well-known private eye to track the source of the material that landed in “60 Minutes’ ” hands. And adding an element of intrigue is the tale of one of “60 Minutes’ ” main sources, a print reporter whose own article on the Enquirer appeared earlier this week in Los Angeles magazine, that he was allegedly harassed by the detective, and that his phone may even have been tapped.

The Enquirer says that its detective has harassed no one, and that its lawyers have only tried to dissuade “60 Minutes” from airing a “false story.”

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At the heart of the friction is the Enquirer’s legendary system of sourcing--its super-secret list of individuals who are paid for juicy tidbits used by the supermarket tabloid, mostly in stories about Hollywood celebrities. The tabloid’s inclination toward the provocative and near-incredible angle--Roseanne Barr using voodoo curses, for instance--has made it the scourge of that element of Hollywood most often its subject.

The Enquirer has always defended its veracity, standing on its vast network of paid sources.

But that network of sources is what comes under scrutiny in Sunday’s broadcast, on which Ed Bradley is the correspondent. The Enquirer fears that the segment will try to demonstrate that the publication makes up stories with phony sources.

In a letter trying to dissuade the broadcast from that theme, Michael Boylan, vice chairman of the Enquirer’s parent company, the GP Group, told “60 Minutes” executive producer Don Hewitt that part of the Enquirer’s list of confidential sources had been stolen in the paper’s “war” with a group of celebrities and their private detectives.

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Boylan said in the letter that the Enquirer’s complex system of paying its sources, devised to maintain secrecy, had not been understood by “60 Minutes” and that it sometimes even causes confusion among sources, because they may be asked to get information without being told the full story to which they are contributing.

In other words, it might look like the Enquirer makes up sources to support its stories.

That is precisely the conclusion arrived at by Rod Lurie, a contributing editor for Los Angeles magazine who was interviewed by “60 Minutes” for its broadcast and, like “60 Minutes,” came into possession of a 10-page list of the Enquirer’s paid sources earlier this year.

Lurie’s own investigation into the Enquirer led him to a trail of sources who told him they were regularly paid for information relating to stories they knew nothing about.

While it might seem that the prospect of “60 Minutes” skewering the Enquirer would be a cause for cheer in Hollywood, the impending broadcast has had the opposite effect in some corners of show business, where for weeks many have lived in fear of being exposed as sources for the dreaded supermarket scourge. Publicists, agents, even the occasional celebrity who fed tips to the Enquirer, dreaded the revelation.

But Grace Diekhaus, producer of the “60 Minutes” piece, said that they have nothing to fear. “We weren’t interested in ‘outing’ these people,” she said.

Unlike Lurie, Diekhaus said that her dealings with the Enquirer have not been overtly confrontational, but she thinks the tabloid has gotten itself unduly overwrought. The Enquirer abruptly canceled an on-camera interview, and then asked her to submit questions in writing.

“We don’t do that for the President of the United States, so why do it for the National Enquirer?” she asked.

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Boylan, in an interview, said that editor Iain Calder and articles editor Steve Coz declined to appear on camera for “60 Minutes” because they believed they would either be forced to compromise their sources or would appear too evasive to help their cause. In any event, he said, he believed “60 Minutes” was not interested in the Enquirer’s explanation of its accounting methods, but is after something more sensational.

Diekhaus has another explanation: “The people who poke their nose into everybody else’s business didn’t want anybody poking their nose into theirs.”


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