When Elvis Presley died in 1977, the differences in news coverage were cavernous.
ABC and NBC led their newscasts with the story and had latenight specials. CBS started with a long Panama Canal piece, then did just 70 seconds on Presley. “Our job is not to respond to public taste,” Richard Salant, its news chief, told reporters.
And the National Enquirer? By the time those newscasts started, “there were six Enquirer reporters in the air for Memphis with $50,000 in cash,” said Mark Landsman, director of “Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer,” the fascinating documentary that debuts Sunday (May 17) on CNN.
Photos of Presley in the casket were banned, but a cousin was bribed, tried several times … and finally got the secret shot. That week, the Enquirer sold a record 6.9 million copies.
Some of that sounds like ancient history, in two ways.
On one end, networks (including CBS) now see the importance of pop culture. “We really are children of the National Enquirer,” journalist Ken Auletta says in the film.
On the other, the Enquirer has faded. When David Pecker bought it in 1999, the Statista data portal says, it sold 2.4 million copies a week; 20 years later, the total was one-tenth of that.
But circulation is only part of it, Landsman said. Even unsold, the Enquirer’s front page confronts millions at supermarkets. “It’s essentially an enormous billboard.”
In 2016, that billboard kept blasting Hillary Clinton (“Corrupt! Racist! Criminal”) and praising Donald Trump. The Enquirer even bought the stories of Trump accusers, then never ran them.
Such burying isn’t new. Long ago, reporter Barbara Sternig says in the film, she brought in a story about Bob Hope’s affairs. The response of Enquirer founder Gene Pope: “I don’t think America wants to hear that about Bob Hope.”
Pope also buried a story about a Bill Cosby affair; Pecker did the same for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Trump was another favorite, reporter Larry Haley says in the film. “He would call and give tips about himself” using an assumed name. Two Enquirer reporters were his wedding guests.
“Scandalous” is filled with colorful characters who entered Landsman’s world by accident.
His wife’s best friend, he said, brought her father – Malcolm Balfour, a former Enquirer reporter – to dinner one night. “It was story after story; my jaw just dropped.”
He told of grand adventures … and excesses. “Some of the things we did blurred the line of legality,” Balfour says in the film. Phones were tapped; envelopes were opened and re-sealed.
It was a giddy time, Landsman said, with loose budgets. “If Natalie Wood was flying first-class, there was an Enquirer reporter in the seat behind her …. There was a lot of booze, drugs, glamorous lives.”
The idea was to do anything that grabs attention. UFO’s and Bigfoot were big at first, then royals and stars. Often, people would tell the secrets of friends and colleagues. “Envy was a key factor …. People in your orbit would usually betray you,” Judith Regan, a former Enquirer reporter, says in the film.
One extreme came in 1982, when Haley and Tony Brenna spent weeks befriending Cathy Smith, John Belushi’s drug supplier, They got the desired “I killed John Belushi” quote … which led to a trial and 15 months in prison for Smith. “I felt we had crossed the line,” Brenna says in the film.
Then came the 1997 day when Lady Diana – pursued by photographers – was killed in a car crash. The new Enquirer edition (“Diana sex-mad: ‘I can’t get enough’”) was pulled, but people were angry. “We were blamed for (her) death,” Steve Coz, then the editor, says in the film.
Two years later, Pecker bought the Enquirer. It continued to slide in circulation.
Landsman was able to interview journalism stars, including Maggie Haberman of the New York Times and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, who eyes the Enquirer effect: “It’s a bad time for the truth.”
He also interviewed former Enquirer people, who are into other things, including hometown politics in Florida. Balfour is on the Lantana city council; Coz is mayor of Ocean Ridge. They have sunny settings and great stories about their days of rogue journalism.
– “Scandalous,” 10 p.m. ET Sunday (May 17) and May 23, CNN, barring breaking news