Sex! Gossip! Scandal! For over 60 years, the National Enquirer has pumped out salacious, shocking stories, stretching the limits of journalism and blurring the lines between truth and fiction. Mark Landsman’s Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer is the remarkable true story of the most infamous tabloid in U.S. history, a wild, probing look at how one newspaper’s prescient grasp of its readers’ darkest curiosities led it to massive profits and influence. From its coverage of Elvis’s death, Monica Lewinsky, and the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the National Enquirer rattled the foundations of American culture and politics, sometimes using payoffs and blackmail to get its scoops. With rare archival footage and revelations as wild as National Enquirer headlines themselves, Scandalous examines our obsession with the rich, famous, and powerful, and the tabloid that has fed those obsessions for generations of Americans, and changed many aspects of American life, including politics, forever. I sat down with director Mark Landsman to discuss this provocative and wildly entertaining film.
Danny Miller: It’s so fascinating to hear from so many reporters who worked for the National Enquirer. Was it a long process to get them to agree to appear in the film or were they eager to talk to you?
Mark Landsman: “Eager” is not the word I would use, it was very challenging! It all started with the father of a good friend of ours, Malcolm Balfour. We met him for dinner one night and out of the blue he started talking about his career at the Enquirer in the mid-1970s and telling us all these stories about Jackie and Aristotle Onassis and hiring a one-man dirigible to go underneath their boat and other crazy stories like that.
That was during the infamous Generoso Pope days?
Oh yes, that was during the heyday of his ascent. Pope had poached Malcolm from Reuters to come work at the Enquirer, at that time all you would hear in the newsroom were British accents. I just couldn’t believe the stories I was hearing from Malcolm, the spy stuff, the disguises, the enormous bribes. There was so much money flying around those days at the National Enquirer that you were chastised if you weren’t spending lot of money, like you weren’t doing enough to get the story! I was fascinated, and then Malcolm introduced me to some of his former colleagues and we were on our way.
I knew they had tricks for getting stories, but I was surprised to hear how far they went.
Oh yeah. Back then if you weren’t paying off every single person at a hotel were Liz Taylor was staying, you just weren’t doing your job!
And even more shocking to me was that they were also bribing friends and family members of the celebrities for dirt.
Absolutely. A brother or sister, a disgruntled lover, an ex — many of them would sell people out for large sums of money. Even nurses in hospitals. And, of course many hairdressers, valets, and lots of others, anyone could end up on the National Enquirer’s payroll.
I have to say that I especially enjoyed hearing from the woman who worked for the paper: powerhouse reporters like Judith Regan, Val Virga, and Barbara Sternig. As much as an Old Boys Club such newsrooms were back then, it almost seemed like the National Enquirer, for all its outrageousness, gave women opportunities that other media sources did not. Do you think that’s true?
I think you’re right on the money with that. What I heard from every woman I interviewed is that Mr. Pope cared about one thing only — he didn’t care about your gender, he only cared about whether you could get the story. He hired Judith Regan in the early 1970s right out of Vassar. She had no experience as a journalist but he got a sense of her gumption and her chutzpah and he hired her on the spot. He flew her to Florida to be interviewed and then immediately sent her off to try and get Mia Farrow to talk about Frank Sinatra!
And yet, as she says in the film, he never ever looked her in the eye! It sounds like Pope had a lot of quirks but, thank goodness, sexually harassing his employees wasn’t one of them.
I never heard about anything like that but, of course it was a very fluid environment. It was the 1970s and there was a lot of alcohol and drugs. After working hours many of them went straight to the local bars and kept on working, it was like the extension of the workplace.
Did you find with the people you spoke to that there was a bit of defensiveness about their decision to work for the National Enquirer in the first place?
Honestly, no. I don’t think I talked to a single person who had any shame about it. Quite the contrary, most of them thought in retrospect that this was one of the most exciting jobs they ever had, and certainly the highest paying with the exception of people like Judith Regan who went on to become one of the most powerful women in publishing or Shelley Ross who ended up producing Good Morning, America. Most of these people were making triple the salary of other journalists at the time. As one guy says in the film, he was making three times what Ben Bradlee was making at the Washington Post.
You do hear some remorse from the reporter involved in the coverage of John Belushi’s death.
They may have some remorse about certain things that happened, but I don’t think they regretted those decisions in the moment. I think these people had all struck intense Faustian bargains to take jobs at the National Enquirer. I mean, look at that John Belushi reporter, Larry Haley. He came from the Chicago Sun-Times, the very building where Mike Royko and other legendary reporters were working. These were bastions of respectability. To move from there to the Enquirer, you had to be striking bargains with yourself.
I admit I had some really mixed feelings as I watched the film. On the one hand, when you show that clip of George Clooney basically blaming Steve Coz for single-handedly causing Princess Diana’s death, we could all see that this wasn’t fair at all. I had empathy for and was fascinated by all of these reporters in the film. At the same time, though, I could see Clooney’s point and was cheering him on since so much of what they were doing was pretty repulsive and, in my view, has damaged our world.
I hear you. It makes me think of the people on Wall Street at the height of the financial crisis. They’re just going about their jobs and doing things that they probably knew were having some deleterious effects on our society, and yet they kept going, somehow rationalizing it all to themselves. I think it’s similar to how people involved with the Enquirer must look at it. You kind of need to widen the lens and look at the larger system that creates such a huge economic incentive for people to hound someone to the point where their drivers get involved in a high-speed chase in a Parisian tunnel. I mean, yes, the fact that Diana’s driver had lots of alcohol in his system didn’t help anything, but would any of that have happened if there wasn’t such a high premium on getting anything about her? I think Clooney’s indictment of Steve Coz wasn’t fair but he was certainly talking about a context that is real and chilling.
Do you think that episode really affected Steve Coz?
Yes, but Steve is a remarkably resilient guy who is credited with bringing a lot of legitimacy to a paper that never dreamed of or cared about such legitimacy. Coz made that happen by driving coverage on O.J. to a relentless level and insisting that they find proof that Simpson had worn those Bruno Magli shoes. Like a very smart editor at the helm of a very powerful engine, he unleashed all of the resources on it and spared no expense. I think they spent about a million dollars on sources for that, something that no other paper could do. I think they had 20 reporters on the O.J. Simpson story and left no stone unturned.
Was it hard when you were working on this film to decide which stories to include? There were so many other ones important to the National Enquirer that you could have mentioned. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Fawn Hall, John Edwards, and so on.
Yeah, it was hard, we didn’t go into JonBenet at all either. All of them have fascinating aspects to look at in terms of the National Enquirer but we decided to just choose the stories that were seminal turning points for the paper itself because for this film the paper was our character, not the stories or the people in them. What were the stories that changed the paper profoundly and how did that reflect our culture at that time in a significant way?
Got it. Although one story I kept waiting for was Carol Burnett’s successful libel suit against the Enquirer.
I know. That one existed on a card in our editing room for a long time. Maybe it’ll show up one day in some extra features!
Did you ever try to sit down with David Pecker himself? I’m sure you started the film before all his Trump troubles came to light.
Yes, we were working on this before what he was doing with “catch and kill” was exposed in The New Yorker with the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal scandals. But he had no interest in talking with us.
I’m glad you cover Pecker’s repulsive relationship with Donald Trump, though. That seemed to really change things. As several of the reporters said, until then the Enquirer didn’t really take sides. Do you personally think the National Enquirer played a role in Trump getting elected?
I don’t think there’s any metric to scientifically understand how much that influenced the election but think we’d be very naïve to deny the fact that it certainly had an impact.