Joe Dirt: The man behind The National Enquirer tells all.

Pin it

Joe Dirt

In the ’70s and ’80s, the National Enquirer went from a negligible gross-out rag (circulation: 700,000) to a major news source for over six million readers. Under the leadership of editor Iain Calder, who emigrated to New York from Scotland in 1966 to work for the magazine, its malaise-stricken staff was transformed into a hop-any-fence, bribe-any-source battalion of reporters. Calder pioneered a new kind of journalism that placed celebrities inside the twenty-four-hour fishbowl of surveillance that we take for granted today. Hairdressers, bartenders and siblings were bribed with wads of cash. Fake priests giving last rites were outfitted with tiny hidden cameras.

The upshot was thousands of stories of varying veracity, and while the magazine certainly dropped the ball many times, they also ran several mostly accurate scoops that any paper would have killed for. They coaxed the confession from John Belushi’s drug dealer that led to her conviction for manslaughter. They discovered crucial clues in the O.J. Simpson case that the police had missed, and even corrected inaccurate reporting of the case in other major publications. In 1987, the magazines published the infamous "Monkey Business" photo of Gary Hart with model Donna Rice perched on his lap. The photo led to the end of Hart’s presidential bid, which led to the beginning of Michael Dukakis’s, which, one could argue, led to George H.W. Bush’s election — which led to his son’s. For better or worse, the tawdry gossip sheet may have changed the course of history. Calder, now retired and living scandal-free in Boca Raton, spoke to Nerve about how it was done. — Will Doig

Most people assume that celebrities hate the National Enquirer, but actually they’ve often worked in concert with the magazine to put together certain stories.
Sure. They’d work with us behind the scenes, get their faces on the cover, then go to their cocktail parties and say, "I don’t know how that rotten rag got that story." We ran a front-page picture of Michael Jackson sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. We got sent the picture by one of his representatives. He said, "He sleeps in there because he thinks he’s going to live past one hundred." I looked at the picture, and I said, "That looks like Michael Jackson, but I can’t tell if it’s really Michael Jackson. This guy is probably sending us a phony picture." Sometimes people would try to catch us on various things so they could say, "Look, the Enquirer is false!" So I said, "Send me another picture where I can really see it’s Michael Jackson." Well, a few days later I get another picture of Michael. He’d climbed back into that box and got his picture taken again.

And you ran it.
We ran it, under two conditions from Michael’s people: it had to be front page, and we had to use the word "bizarre." Because that was his shtick at the time: Michael is bizarre. So we ran it with the story. We said "bizarre." The whole bit. And it sold very well. Then Michael went on television and said, "How did they get that picture? Yes, I was in there, but I don’t sleep in it, blah blah blah . . ."

Above, Iain Calder; below, the infamous photo of Elvis Presley’s corpse.

Did that annoy you?
We weren’t angry in the slightest. At our height in the mid ’80s, when we’d come out with a big story about some star sleeping with his children’s seventeen-year-old babysitter or something, they’d come out and say, "This is not true, we’re going to sue them!" Meanwhile, their PR people are like, "All right! We made the Enquirer!"

What do you think of the newer celebrity magazines like Star and Us Weekly? Did the Enquirer lay the groundwork for them?

Of course. You could make the case that the Enquirer single-handedly created our celebrity culture. The Enquirer did two things. We were the first to break into supermarkets. When I first visited America in 1965, you could go into a supermarket and all you’d see was TV Guide and a couple of magazines that the stores had started like Family Circle. The second thing was, we discovered TV. The print media hated TV because it was stealing their advertisers, and so they blasted it. They were like, if you watch The Beverly Hillbillies, you’re a cretin. So we did stories from psychologists saying things like, "Watching TV is good for your kids." You know, if you make sure they’re watching the right programs and taking these messages from Father Knows Best and blah blah blah. And people felt good when they read that. The other print media was making them feel guilty. So our circulation was zooming, and others followed suit. Time took their "People" column and turned it into People magazine. The New York Times started Us magazine — I bet you didn’t know that.

But now it seems like movie stars are the most popular cover choice again with the new celebrity magazines.
No, no, no. It’s still television, it just happens that movie stars are on television now. People are watching DVDs and things. These movie stars have become television stars. It’s all about what people watch in their homes.

It seems to me that the biggest difference between the Enquirer and its newer, glossier progeny is that the Enquirer did serious reporting and the new magazines mostly run photos and captions.
Almost nobody is really breaking stories anymore. At the zenith, I had sixty incredibly great reporters making more money than the people at the New York Times. I had a thousand stringers all over the world. My budget in the late ’80s was $18 million, which I’m guessing is $40 million today. I’d say the budget of most of these magazines today is under $10 million. If there was a major celebrity on a major show, I had tipsters in place. They might be a sister, might be someone working in her agent’s office, at least three or four people on the set watching what’s going on — all tipping us off. We had infiltrated Hollywood. We had spies everywhere. And if something happened, we’d get four phone calls within ten minutes. But it cost a lot of money.

The Enquirer has always taken heat for paying sources for information.
Every news organization pays its sources in one way or another. When the tobacco story broke, 60 Minutes wouldn’t pay the sources for coming on the show. Heavens no! What they’d pay them was a "consulting fee." That’s okay. If someone called you and said, "I’m calling to tell you something." And you say to them, "Why are you telling me this?" And they say, "It’s for the good of the country," you’d think, there’s something wrong with this. But if they said to you, "I’m telling you because you pay the most money for information," well okay. Now I know where you’re coming from.

But how can you be sure their information is accurate and they’re not just feeding you lies to get the money?

I still have to check it out. I still have to put reporters on it. When Lisa Marie Presley was having Elvis’s first grandchild, Star and People bid $500,000 for the first picture. [Lisa Marie] hated us because we had run the picture of Elvis in his coffin, so she wouldn’t sell it to us for any price. Their only problem was, one of her top security guys happened to be an Enquirer reporter. Took us three months to infiltrate, of course, and it cost a lot of money, but we ended up with a better front-page picture than People magazine, who had paid $500,000 for the picture. That one took several months, but infiltration can be as simple as putting someone in a black jacket and sending them to a wedding as a food server, and having them take pictures. You’d hide the camera inside his clothes, and he’s got a remote from his pocket: click click click.

A spy camera!
Of course it was a spy camera. Now, sometimes it doesn’t work. When we were trying to get that photo of Elvis [in his coffin], we dressed a guy up as a priest and sent him in to look at the body. He had a spy camera through a little hole in his jacket, and we tried to take pictures, but it didn’t work. They were watching too closely. But that was only one of fifty things we tried, and we eventually got the picture. It was like being in the CIA.

From top: a classic Enquirer "human interest" story; the Michael Jackson photo that spawned the enduring urban legend; an issue from the 1980s featuring Cary Grant, Michael Jackson and Michael J. Fox.

You wrote in your book, The Untold Story (2004), that if not for you coming over from Scotland to edit the Enquirer, George W. Bush might not be president today.
There’s no "might" about it, really. I mean, I do say "might" in the book, but it’s an absolute.

In that sense, would you say that the Enquirer has changed the course of history in a similar way as, say, the Washington Post did with Watergate?

Ah, come on now. I’m not going to put myself in the same boat as the Washington Post. But I would say we totally changed media, and there’s no question that if I hadn’t come over to America, George Bush Sr. or Jr. would never have been presidents of the United States.

What was the secret of the Enquirer‘s wide appeal?
I looked at the Enquirer as a forty-year-old woman who lived in the Bronx or Boise, Idaho. My boss was Missy Smith in Kansas City. She had a pretty tough life and a family and was a pretty good person who worked and kept a house, and at the end of the day when her husband was watching Monday Night Football, what did she want to do? She wanted to cuddle up with the National Enquirer. And she would get hope. She’d get information about medical stories — our medical stories were better than anyone else’s, better than the New York Times. She’d get human interest. We made her angry, we made her sad, we made her happy — all the gamut of emotion. And that was the secret of the Enquirer — the emotion of the story. The closest thing today is Bill O’Reilly. He makes people emote. It has almost nothing to do with politics.

Lee Atwater was to George Bush Sr. what Karl Rove is to his son. And when Atwater died, his wife gave a speech to a women’s organization, and she was talking about how he was able to connect with the American people. She said his secret was that he read the Enquirer every week. She said we had the pulse of America. And we did. We got so many letters from people that we had our own zip code. The post office insisted on it.

It must have been tricky reporting on sex scandals when so much of your readership was conservative Middle America.

If you go into lurid sex, even one story in your whole paper, suddenly you’re not in supermarkets anymore, and nine-tenths of the country is not available to you. We did things about sex, but there was no detail. The details might say what the room looked like, the hotel room where they had slept, but what they actually did, the hardcore description, even if we knew it, we would never ever put it in there. In fact, we had problems at one point in the late ’80s because people started wearing things like string bikinis. We used to run these pictures of beautiful ladies in our gossip columns, and the pictures coming in, they were okay for television, but they weren’t okay for us. We had people painting in extra cloth onto the bikinis in the photos! Forty-year-old Missy Smith is going to get very angry because her niece is going to see that. So not only did we not do lurid sex, we had to make sure that everything was okay for the Bible Belt. But that didn’t hurt our circulation because people didn’t buy us for that.

What about when you reported that Rock Hudson was potentially exposing his co-stars to AIDS? Was that dicey in the same way?
The only thing dicey about that was that we had to make sure it was right. Take the Liberace story, for instance. We had two nurses who told us he had AIDS. And we had them on record — not on tape, but on record with two reporters — and they’d given us the full story. And our lawyers — we had the toughest lawyers in America — they wouldn’t let us run that [Liberace piece]. It wasn’t until we learned that one of the Las Vegas papers was going to go with the story in a few days, and the lawyers said, "If they’ve got sources and you’ve got sources, you can go with it."

That [legal scrutiny] was partly the result of Carol Burnett [To date, Burnett is the only person to have successfully sued the magazine for libel]. What we found was that we really hadn’t done our job well enough. She actually did us a favor by telling us, in effect, you guys are not good enough at watching things, and you’d better get better. And we put in a new research department, and she made the Enquirer a better paper.

If the Enquirer is so accurate and carefully vetted, why do people have the perception that it’s a lot of lies?

It’s very, very simple. Two reasons. One reason is that when we became successful, others followed us. Globe. Examiner. Star. And some of them were involved in various libels. And then — our own fault — we started Weekly World News, which was meant to be a parody of the Enquirer. And the only reason we started it was that when we switched to color, we had a printing plant in Florida that we wanted to keep using black and white. Within two or three years, we were selling 1.2 million copies of Weekly World News, and it had the strangest, most stupid stories. Like the Bat Boy is found in the caves of West Virginia. A World War II bomber was found on the moon. Here’s the photograph. They were meant to be funny, but people were reading them and then thinking to themselves, I saw that in the Enquirer. And also, they’d see things in the other magazines, like a two-headed baby in the Examiner, and they’d think to themselves, I saw that in the Enquirer.

The second reason was, these celebrities would go on ET or whatever and say, "This is baloney, I’m going to sue the paper." And of course, they’d never sue us. And even if they did sue us, they would sue us and [the lawsuit] would disappear. Just shrivel into dust. Johnny Carson, when we said his marriage was in trouble — I think it was his third marriage — went on the Tonight Show in the ’80s, waved the paper and said, "My marriage is not in trouble, these people are evil, they’re lying, scurrilous, blah blah blah…" In all the papers, it was major news, saying the National Enquirer made this up. Nine months later, when he was divorced, none of the papers or TV came back and said that the Enquirer was obviously right. I didn’t care. What was I in business for? I’m in business to sell papers. If you want to be a respected journalist, to be honest, go work for the New York Times. You can’t be editor of the Enquirer.