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A Columnist Comes Clean: Yes, He Likes the Tabloids

In the Criminal Courts Building pressroom the other day, a few of the reporters were saying they had begun buying the supermarket tabloids for information and insights into the O.J. Simpson murder case.

The reporters, who worked for traditional newspapers and wire services, were embarrassed to admit they were purchasing the Star, the Globe, the National Enquirer, the National Examiner and the rest. One said she put the papers under the groceries in the shopping cart before leaving the store.

I shared their embarrassment when I shopped for tabloids. Reporters and editors in the “mainstream media” such as The Times look down on their tabloid brothers and sisters and such headlines as the National Enquirer’s “O.J.'s Women” or the Globe’s “How Cops Framed O.J.”

But they’re probably influential. Because the tabloids are displayed at market checkout stands before they are sold, a huge number of people--many more than actual purchasers--see them. The garish headlines filter into their consciousness and become part of the tangle of facts and fancy that is shaping public opinion about whether or not Simpson murdered his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

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With all this influence in mind, I called up editors at the National Enquirer, the Globe, the Star and the National Examiner. I wanted to know just how they were shaping the news.

“We have decided we want to concentrate on the defense side of the story because in the initial weeks, that wasn’t being scrutinized by you guys or the other media,” said Globe editor Phil Bunton. “His friends were telling us their conspiracy theories, so we decided to explore those. . . . It sold very well, so it has been valuable. There is a large public feeling that he didn’t do it.”

In addition to its “How Cops Framed O.J.,” the Globe hit the supermarkets Aug. 9 with a front page featuring a drawing of a Caucasian man, accompanied by the headline: “This Man Did O.J. Murders!” The Globe’s sister paper, the National Examiner, is similarly pro-defense, said editor Dan Dolan, a tabloid veteran. “There are massive inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case,” he said. “When the American public is forming an opinion, they should know about these things.”

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Another big tabloid splash was the Star’s Aug. 16 edition, headlined: “The Two Faces of O.J.'s Marriage,” with “amazing first photos” of Nicole with a bruised face at a 1982 birthday party for Simpson. “We came up with pictures that showed her the night of (the) party with what a forensic medicine expert said was a carefully covered bruise on her cheek,” said editor Richard Kaplan. “We felt that was visual proof of what was going on.”

Do any of the tabs favor the prosecution? A couple of tabloid editors told me they felt the National Enquirer favored the prosecution, but articles editor David Perel, in charge of the paper’s O.J. coverage, denied it. The Enquirer, he said, is just engaged in an energetic pursuit of the story.

Nine full-time reporters and 11 part-timers--the entire Los Angeles bureau--were assigned to the case. The effort paid off, Perel said, in the paper’s story about Simpson buying a knife at a Downtown cutlery shop. The shop owner, acting under police instructions, denied selling the knife to Simpson, Perel said, but the Enquirer had the purchase nailed down from its own sources. “Our coverage is always L.A.-intensive, so we have already established a source network,” he said.

The Enquirer made the owner a proposition he didn’t refuse: We have the story, the tabloid’s team said. We’re going to run it. But if you tell it, and give it to us exclusively, we’ll pay you. “We paid for exclusivity,” Perel said.

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Don’t get the idea the tabloids print everything. The Globe’s Bunton told me “we discarded several stories that didn’t check out. A cop in Miami claimed he busted O.J. and O.J. had been in drag. He certainly was a cop in the Miami P.D., but we gave him a lie detector test and he went 8.0 on the Richter scale. He was lying through his teeth.”

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When I finished my research, I struggled to make sense of it. I talked to an editor. He said my trouble was that since I was writing for a serious paper, I thought I should be critical of the tabloids. “Your problem is,” he said, “you like them.”

He was right. The tabs remind me of a vanished era of journalism, when reporters and editors were underpaid, undereducated, working-class people whose only goal was to sell papers by giving readers the entertainment and excitement they craved.

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I borrowed a book, “Jack Smith’s L.A.,” by our own Jack Smith, a veteran of those days, when much of the Establishment press operated with the irresponsible panache of the supermarket tabloids. I turned to the story of the Black Dahlia.

“It was ‘The Front Page’ come to life,” said Smith, who was a rewrite man for the Daily News, one of L.A.'s four competing papers when the story broke one January, 1947, morning.

In his first paragraph, or lead, Smith wrote that the nude and mutilated body of a girl was found in a vacant Los Angeles lot, cut in half. His editor offered only one improvement: He wrote that she was a “beautiful” girl. “Our city editor, of course, no more knew what the unfortunate young woman had looked like than I did,” Smith recalled. “But the lesson was clear. On the Daily News, at least, all young women whose nude bodies were found in two pieces on vacant lots were beautiful. I never forgot it.”

Smith was responsible for the name that made the murder famous. A reporter heard that the victim, Elizabeth Short, used to hang out at a Long Beach drugstore. “I looked the number up in the phone book and got the drugstore and talked to the pharmacist,” Smith wrote. “Yes, he remembered Elizabeth Short. . . . They called her the Black Dahlia--on account of the way she wore her hair.”

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“The Black Dahlia! It was a rewrite man’s dream. The fates were sparing of such gifts. I couldn’t wait to get it into type.”

I put aside Jack’s book, and tried again to think of a point to my study of the tabloids, something significant, something that might be quoted in journalism school.

All I could think of was how happy those old reporters would have been to have this double murder to cover.


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