Media, Politics

Can the National Enquirer win a Pulitzer?

By Branko Brkic 23 January 2010

So you think the National Enquirer is the epitome of media sleaze? Think again. The paper that once set the benchmark for lurid sensationalism may be in the running for journalism’s most prestigious award.

In 2004 Jack Shafer, media commentator for Slate – and, by the way, one of the most respected media commentators in the US – ran a story under the irresistible headline, “I believe the National Enquirer”. The piece opened with Shafer pointing out that the notorious and much maligned tabloid had in fact abandoned its standard fare of “UFOs, bizarre sex, séances, gross-outs, Loch Ness-ish monsters, cooked-up stories, and celebrity gossip” in the mid-1970s, when it embarked on an editorial strategy that focused almost exclusively on celebrities. Why was Shafer sharing this apparently inane piece of information? The answer, while it wasn’t about to impress the professors at America’s best journalism schools, was simple:

Because celebrities of the kind the National Enquirer had decided to go after generally have loads of wonga, which means they can afford to fund libel suits, which means stories about them had better be accurate.

As a born-again truth-teller, the Enquirer of the 1970s had a lot of history to make up for. The publication was founded in 1926 by raging anti-Semite William Griffin, and became a strident voice for American isolationism and fascism in the 1930s and ‘40s, leading to it being indicted for sedition during World War II. In the early 1950s it was bought by Generoso Pope Jr., allegedly with funds put up by the mafia – the deal, reportedly, was that the paper had to run the lotto numbers and refrain from writing about the Mob.

And although from inception the Enquirer was never a publication to let the facts get in the way of a good story, through the late 1950s and much of the ‘60s it redefined the meaning of sensationalist schlock: stories like “I cut her heart out and stomped on it” and “Mom boiled her baby and ate her” were how Pope got the masses as interested in his paper as they were in roadside car wrecks (by 1966, the Enquirer’s circulation had risen to a million).

Which just makes it all the more surprising that someone like Jack Shafer would one day write the following in Slate: “By the time of the 1994 Nicole Brown Simpson-Ron Goldman murders, the Enquirer truth machine had become so good that reporter David Margolick was toasting it in the New York Times for scooping the competition – and applauding it for spiking many of the false stories that appeared in mainstream media.”

Now, it appears, the infamous tabloid may be in line for a Pulitzer Prize. In 2007, when the National Enquirer reported that Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards had fathered a child with his campaign videographer Rielle Hunter, not only did they beat every other news outlet in America, they were practically the only organisation running the story – the mainstream media brands, to their discredit, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) verify the facts.

In August 2008 the Enquirer, which had kept on the story in the face of Edwards’s repeated denials, was partly vindicated. After being knocked out of the campaign race, the former senator from North Carolina, whose cancer-stricken wife had supported him throughout, admitted to the affair on ABC’s nightline. Edwards still denied, though, that the baby was his.

On January 21st 2010, the Enquirer was fully vindicated. In a statement aired on NBC, Edwards acknowledged paternity.

“It’s clear we should be a contender for the [Pulitzer Prize],” Barry Levine, the paper’s executive editor, told the Washington Post hours after the announcement. “The National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid, was able to publish this reporting.”

The Post, which has won scores of its own Pulitzers, wasn’t laughing. “While the Enquirer stories may or may not be prize-winning material – the paper’s most significant disclosures came in 2007 and 2008, and this year’s Pulitzers will honor material published in 2009 – there is no question that the tabloid scooped the rest of the media world,” it stated.

By Kevin Bloom

Read more: Washington Post


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