Over more than five decades as America's original supermarket tabloid, the National Enquirer has chronicled Elvis Presley sightings, two-headed calves, ghastly car wrecks and the many, many ways in which celebrities behave badly. These days, it is angling for something it has never had and never really sought: respectability.
The Enquirer's dogged investigation of former Sen. John Edwards' relationship with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter stood up against Edwards' repeated denials and denunciations of the weekly as "tabloid trash." The stories were not just history making; they could have been history changing. Had the Enquirer's revelations been matched by the mainstream news media at the start of the 2008 campaign, Edwards might have been driven from the race earlier, conceivably altering Barack Obama's path to the Democratic nomination and election. More recently, the Enquirer's pursuit--literally, at times--of Tiger Woods' extramarital relationships paid off in a story that set in motion one of the most widely covered celebrity scandals in years.
The twin blockbusters engendered a wave of admiring media coverage for the Enquirer, an unusual occurrence for a publication that once trumpeted stories like "I Put My Baby in a Waste Basket and Poured Concrete Over Her." The euphoria crested this spring when the paper submitted its Edwards stories for a Pulitzer Prize (it didn't win). "It was absolutely a moment of great prestige," says Barry Levine, the Enquirer's executive editor. "While the mainstream media, at the end of the day, didn't have the guts to let us into their select club, we won in the sense of new respect and new credibility."
Respect? Credibility? Oh, the irony. Throughout its history, from its modest roots as the New York Enquirer to its transformation under its late owner and editor, Generoso Pope Jr., the Enquirer succeeded with excess. Pope turned the paper into a disreputable scandal sheet and all-around guilty pleasure, filled with an enthusiastic combination of the lurid, the tawdry and the wholly preposterous. The Enquirer often bulldozed the boundaries of good taste, running gory photos of Lee Harvey Oswald's autopsy and of Elvis in his casket (the Enquirer's best-selling issue ever).
Now owned by American Media Inc., a tabloid conglomerate based in Boca Raton, Florida, the Enquirer is relatively more sedate these days, the elder member of the vast tabloid media culture it helped spawn. There's no question the Enquirer made a solid case for its journalism with the Edwards and Woods investigations, just as it has with earlier scoops. Among others, it broke the news of Jesse Jackson's out-of-wedlock child in 2001, Rush Limbaugh's addiction to painkillers in 2003 and the existence of O.J. Simpson's book, "If I Did It," in 2006.
But the exceptional doesn't prove the ordinary. It's still hard to take the Enquirer seriously, let alone respect it.
It's not what the Enquirer covers--its stock in trade is celebrity gossip--but how it covers it. In ways large and small, the Enquirer falls short of the most basic reporting and editing standards. It routinely asks its 790,000...