Thursday, March 01, 2001

The Hartford (CT) Courant: Tabloids Turning Mainstream

By MARY K. FEENEY; Courant Staff Writer

It's no big news when the National Enquirer splashes celebrity scandal across its cover. But when the tabloid scoops the mainstream media on national stories twice within several weeks, editors and reporters snap to envious attention.

The Enquirer broke a story in January about Jesse Jackson's illegitimate child (and another in the Feb. 27 issue about an additional affair). Last Friday, it printed the blockbuster that Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, Hugh Rodham, received (and then returned) $400,000 for his help in two presidential pardons.

Enquirer editor Steve Coz was featured Sunday on CNN's ``Reliable Sources'' with Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz, and the tabloid was featured in Kurtz's media column the next day. Several major news outlets, including USA Today and Salon.com, paid homage to the newspaper, which recently dished the dirt on the Anthony Hopkins-Martha Stewart romance.

But instead of admiration, perhaps the more appropriate emotion might be embarrassment.

``The thing is, the so-called mainstream media has a long history of having their cake and eating it, too, by allowing the so-called tabloid press to do their dirty work, investigating and putting stories out in the marketplace that mainstream media feels is beneath them,'' said Burt Kearns, former executive producer of ``A Current Affair'' and ``Hard Copy'' and creator of the tabloid news site www. tabloidbaby.com.

The Jackson story is one example. The Chicago and Washington media knew about it but didn't report on it.

``There are some stories they don't want to break. The Jesse Jackson love-child story was a totally legitimate story,'' Kearns said. ``Here was Jackson counseling Clinton during Monicagate, and setting the spin for the rest of the country as to how to behave. ... But they [the mainstream media] felt it was beneath them.''

At the same time, the mainstream media has been lurching toward a tabloid sensibility. So the Enquirer's recent exclusives are, in a way, doubly humbling for the traditional press, which finds itself reluctantly casting nets in the murky waters of gossip and getting whupped by its most notorious purveyor.

``On the other side, the National Enquirer is often the publication that gets it right. All of a sudden they were getting scooped by this trashy publication that was read mostly by ladies in trailer parks,'' said Jeannette Walls, MSNBC gossip columnist and author of ``Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip.'' Whether you approve of their methods, Enquirer reporters are skillfull and aggressive, and the paper has 25 people ``who fact-check stuff up the wazoo,'' Walls said.

The Enquirer is, in a way, a victim of its own success.

Walls said the trend toward tabloidism all began with the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, a moment when newspapers and magazines realized that to ignore Elvis was to lose readers.

``As more mainstream publications went tabloid, they started eating away at the National Enquirer readership. The more publications covering this turf, the less need there was for the National Enquirer,'' Walls said.

When the O.J. Simpson story broke, every news outlet was chasing it.

``It was sort of horrible for the folks at the National Enquirer trying to elbow aside The New York Times and ABC News. The sort of story that would have been exclusively the National Enquirer's turf was now in the mainstream media,'' Walls said.

As tabloid news osmosed into newspapers, television and the Internet, circulation at the Enquirer fell from its peak of about 6 million after Elvis' death (when the idol in his coffin graced the front page) to roughly 2.1 million today. Unlike many other publications, the Enquirer depends heavily on newsstand sales (19 percent of its circulation comes from subscribers, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures from June). And most issues are not fat with ads from major companies.

Now it appears the Enquirer is repositioning itself to recapture some of that circulation, with increased attention to political scandal.

In his CNN interview, Coz said that while the Enquirer has broken major political stories in the past (including those involving the Donna Rice-Gary Hart affair and Lewinskygate), it is ``walking in the direction of mainstream journalism in that mainstream journalism spends a lot of time and energy covering Washington. And between that and Bill Clinton, Washington politicians are now celebrities.''

``We are putting a big, big push on Washington, and we have two stories in development right now,'' Coz told Kurtz.

Coz, asked whether checkbook journalism figured in the Jackson or Rodham stories, replied that it was not ``the driving force. We do pay for information. In this particular case, the payments were not made to anybody that was a principle source.''

In an interview with USA Today, Coz said that many reporters grease the skids by buying dinner for sources. ``We just skip the dinner,'' he said.

For the great majority of journalists, paying for information is a line that cannot be crossed.

``There's a very big difference between paying cash to sources for information and the practice of reporters picking up the tab at dinner when they talk with their sources,'' said Robert M. Steele, a senior faculty member and ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute.

``I do believe that anytime we pay sources, we create at least the perception of an eroded credibility,'' Steele said. ``And it raises natural questions as to whether people are giving information for their own purposes that is tainted by motives that include financial gain.''

Kearns and others said that viewpoint may be a little naive today.

``I think that's great when you're blowing dust off volumes in an ivory tower. But right now, news information is a product, whether you're on Page One of the Washington Post or being featured on '60 Minutes.'''

And the Enquirer hasn't been alone in offering incentives for news.

``I think the mainstream press has paid for news for a long time in ways they will not acknowledge. '60 Minutes' has a long history of paying for stories, but they hide it. They will pay the lawyer [for a source] as a consulting fee,'' said Walls.

Payoffs aside, the Enquirer has gained a measure of respect for breaking the stories and is probably being read in more newsrooms than ever. But will it ever, or should it ever, change its spots?

``I think the National Enquirer can do great work, but it's very hard for any publication to reposition itself,'' Walls said. ``The National Enquirer is kind of synonymous with sleazy tabloid journalism, whether or not it deserves that label ... .

``It's a little bit like saying you're a clean wrestler, but that's not going to do you any good,'' said Walls.