These days, the National Enquirer is synonymous with “catch and kill,” the notorious practice of buying the rights to a story in order to bury it, and the subject of Ronan Farrow’s most recent book by the same name. If nothing else, you’ve probably heard about the role the tabloid — allegedly at the behest of its longtime parent company, American Media Inc. — played in burying stories about Donald Trump in the runup to his presidency.
But that’s only a slice of this tabloid’s long and salacious history. At the height of its prominence, the National Enquirer reached millions of households across the country, and covered stories that ranged from UFO sightings and celebrity affairs to in-depth reporting on the O.J. Simpson trial. If that kind of sounds like the internet as we know it today, that’s no coincidence.
How did the National Enquirer so pervade our culture that one of its favourite subjects became President of the United States? And when did “catch-and-kill” go from an ethically fraught quid-pro-quo with Hollywood celebrities to a political hit-job? Those are the questions director Mark Landsman tries to answer in a new documentary, Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer, which hits theaters and VOD on November 15.
The film traces the evolution of the National Enquirer from its maybe mob-backed origins as a "gore-rag" owned by Generoso Pope, to its height as a staple of checkout counters in nearly every supermarket in America. Through interviews with former employees, Landsman takes us behind the scenes of some of the paper’s biggest stories, including when they paid Elvis’ cousin to take a picture of the King in his casket.
Some of the recollections are light in tone: Glamorous worldwide travel! Unlimited expense accounts! Muckraking and tenacity! Others, like the story of how two reporters crossed an ethical line in pursuit of a scoop on the woman who sold John Belushi his last — and lethal — dose of heroin, are darker, and smack of regret. But one of the film’s strengths is how it connects that driving thirst for readership and access to Enquirer management killing stories that could damage its relationship with major celebrity draws. Allegations about Bob Hope’s affairs, or Bill Cosby’s predatory behavior, were buried in exchange for continued access to their public-friendly private life. (Both would later come to light.) It’s easy to see how that kind of “catch and kill,” popular during the paper’s heyday under Pope, then escalated for pointedly political use once that became in line with new owner AMI’s agenda.
One of those interviewed is Judith Regan, who was hired by the National Enquirer in 1977 as a reporter and worked there until the mid-1980s before launching a storied and controversial career in media and publishing. Ahead of Scandalous’ release, she agreed to share some of her memories of her time at the tabloid with Refinery29.
Refinery29: Why did you decide to participate in this documentary?
Judith Regan: “I have never tried to hide my years with the National Enquirer. I was always very proud of that experience. I learned a tremendous amount working there about mass-market culture and it's always served me well in terms of understanding popular opinion and the movement of markets in the media. I really loved my experience there, and although it was complex and challenging in the ways that were outlined in the documentary in part, I thought it was worth discussing.”
When you say “in part,” were there elements that the film left out that you think are important?
“My experience there was so varied and so vast to put everything in two hours, but I think [Mark Landsman] captured the essence of Generoso Pope, who was a complex and fascinating figure. He was one of the great entrepreneurs and one of the great success stories in the media business in the last hundred years. By the way, the only thing he probably didn't mention is that ‘catch and kill’ and using press influence for political influence is nothing new. That has been around forever. Yellow journalism has been around for a long time.”
Jumping off that, one of the things that I found most interesting is that so many of the stories the National Enquirer covered are exactly what performs on the internet today.
“Generoso Pope really understood mass-market thinking and everything became the National Enquirer. It started with Barbara Walters doing tabloid-like profiles on ABC News, and slowly but surely as their ratings increased, we slid further and further into tabloid storytelling. The reason we have Donald Trump is that he is a man who truly understands mass-market thinking and knows how to reduce everything to two words that the average person can digest. He is the President of the United States largely because of what he learned by attracting the attention of the tabloids and catering to them. Everything he does is right out of textbook National Enquirer 101 communication skills. He could have been a great reporter for the National Enquirer. He would have been better than I was!”
How did you start working there?
“It's actually a very funny story. I went into the career planning office at Harvard because I was basically destitute and was looking for any kind of work. They said, ‘Are you here for an interview with the National Enquirer?’ And in true National Enquirer fashion, even though I did not have an appointment and I wasn't there for an interview, I said, Why, yes. We walk into this room. I had this interview with this very charming man, and he said, "You want to come to Florida tomorrow for lunch?" And I'm like, ‘Oh yeah, I'll come to Florida for lunch.’ I was just this student who didn't know how to do anything! I went to Florida for lunch and I'd hadn't met Generoso Pope at that point, but Iain Calder, who ran the Enquirer for a long time, interviewed me.
“He said, ‘I don't care where you went to school. I don't care what your parents do. I don't care where you came from. I only care about whether or not you'll do anything to get a story. If green monkeys could do this job, I'd hire green monkeys.’ I said, I'm your green monkey. So I always envisioned myself as one of those crazy monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. He offered me a tryout because they didn't offer you a job. They would give you a tryout for six weeks, and they would basically throw you into the deep end of the pool and say, ‘You figure it out.’ And those that survived( and not very many did) became reporters. It was the most fun job you could ever imagine.”
Did you ever feel that you had to work harder, be better, or more competitive than the men you were working with?
“I'm not one of those women that actually feels that way. I always felt that I could use my feminine charm to disarm men to get them to tell me their story. I looked like I was 14 when I was 24. They thought I was like a teenage girl, and I would knock on their door and say, ‘Oh, hi, it's Judith and I'm with the National Enquirer. They wouldn't slam the door in my face because I was so sweet and innocent. I was a woman, and back then, there was still some kind of deference to women that doesn't exist anymore. That was the way I got in the door to get people to talk to me. There was a huge stigma if you were associated with the National Enquirer, and you'd have to charm them into talking to you, [which was] easier to do if you're a young woman than if you're a 60 year old, seasoned, hard-ass guy. It was definitely a boys club, and you were not going to be allowed into certain corridors, but I always found my way around.”
You said that you had to be willing to do anything to get a story — what kind of things would you do?
“My favourite stories where the human interest stories. Somebody would be attacked by a great white shark or buried alive, or someone had gone through some absolute earth-shattering trauma, and they would send me. In Ogden, UT there was a pair of conjoined twins who were attached by the head, and they wanted me to get an exclusive interview with the parents at the time of their separation. I went and knocked on their door, and at the time we had unlimited expense accounts. So I was like, Look, I know other people have been here, [but] they made me come here. I'm going to be in a hotel for a month. If you need anything, call me.
“They had no money. They didn't even own a refrigerator. So we just took care of a few things for them. The National Enquirer was like, ‘Offer to buy them a house! Offer them $150,000!’ I did all that, and they didn't want it because they didn't want to take money based on whether or not their kids were going to survive. We became friends. They ended up giving me the exclusive story, and I did a story with that family for years. Even after I left the National Enquirer, I’d go back on their birthday and Christmas. They did survive the operation. They had some damage and they did have challenges, but I ended up doing television pieces about them. We used to call them ‘miracle kids with miracle parents’ because the parents were just so extraordinary.”
Did you have any personal experience with “catch and kill”?
“When I was there, they would get different celebrities, whether it was Elizabeth Taylor or Dolly Parton, and they would make deals with them. In other words, we're not going to tell the real story of what's going on, but we're going to do “Elizabeth Taylor at Home” or [cover] Elizabeth Taylor's birthday, or her jewelry collection. We would trade information in exchange for not doing the scandalous stuff. That was the level of catch and kill when I was there. Because the Enquirer really wasn't into political figures when I was there because they weren't sexy. They weren't considered pop culture icons during my tenure the National Enquirer.”
What do you hope people think about once they’ve seen the film?
“They should think about not just the National Enquirer and how stories have been caught and killed, but how journalism in general these days is so compromised. I think that Americans really need to need to take a look at where they get their information, who's delivering it, and believe absolutely nothing you see on Facebook and Twitter. Take everything with a grain of salt. Unless you experienced it firsthand, be skeptical.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.