I believe the National Enquirer.

Media criticism.
June 11 2004 7:04 PM

I Believe the National Enquirer

Why don't you?

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Almost three decades ago, the National Enquirer abandoned the traditional supermarket tabloid formula of UFOs, bizarre sex, séances, gross-outs, Loch Ness-ish monsters, cooked-up stories, and celebrity gossip for a new formula mostly devoted to celebrities. Striving for the kind of journalistic accuracy that repels libel suits, the tabloid paid many of its sources and scrupulously reported and fact-checked its pieces about Cher, Liz and Dick, Jackie O., Liza, Henry Kissinger, Burt and Loni, and the original Charlie's Angels.

By the time of the 1994 Nicole Brown Simpson-Ron Goldman murders, the Enquirer truth machine had become so good that reporter David Margolick was toasting it in the New York Times for scooping the competition—and applauding it for spiking many of the false stories that appeared in mainstream media.

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One would think that the Enquirer's discovery of accurate journalism would have elevated its reputation. Instead, the tabloid is regarded slightly worse today than it was in 1985, according to a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Respondents were asked to rate news organizations on a 1-to-4 scale, with 1 representing "I believe all or most" of what the news organization says and 4 representing "I believe almost nothing." Only 4 percent of the polled group believed all or most of what the Enquirer says, and a whopping 61 percent believed nothing. Back in June 1985, a similar Pew survey found that 4 percent believed all or most of what the Enquirer said, and 54 percent believed almost nothing.

Compare the Enquirer's survey numbers to those of USA Today's: Fifteen percent believe all or most of what USA Today says, and only 8 percent believe nothing it says (55 percent chose believability values 2 or 3; 21 percent ventured no judgment of the paper). USA Today's overall score is similar to the ones recorded for other mainstream media, such as NBC News, the New York Times, and CNN, to name a few.

The Enquirer's relatively bad rep presents a paradox that is not easily resolved. The Enquirer may overplay stories, as it does in the most recent issue (June 14, 2004) by describing Jessica "Washingtonienne" Cutler in a headline as the center of a "Bush Sex Scandal" when all she's confessed to is having slept with an unnamed Bush appointee for money. But the particulars of the Enquirer story appear to be true. The Enquirer may focus excessively on the exploits of show-biz figures such as Billy Bob Thornton, Lindsay Lohan's father, and Larry Hagman, but if past issues are a guide, the tabloid isn't making this stuff up. And say whatever ugly things you will about the modern National Enquirer, it hasn't staged the filming of an exploding pickup truck like NBC News; it hasn't been taken by a serial liar, as was the New York Times; and it's avoided running preposterous stories about the U.S. government using nerve gas in Vietnam, as CNN did. Had Jack Kelley attempted to place his fictions in the Enquirer instead of USA Today, I'm sure the editors would have found him out.

Yes, the Enquirer tackles mostly tacky and sordid subjects and treats them breathlessly, but if you correct for stylistic overkill, you find a publication that is every bit as accurate as mainstream media. I would, however, advise Enquirer readers to take all anonymous quotes they find in the tabloid's pages with a large shaker of salt. Maybe with a bag of salt. (Of course, I have the same bias against anonymous quotes in the mainstream press.)

Only somebody who 1) never reads the Enquirer or 2) wanted the poll-taker to think he's superior to the tabloid would rank it as low as the poll respondents did. Indeed, as the Pew people told me, respondents didn't have to be readers or viewers of the media outlets to pass judgment for the poll. They only had to be willing to offer an opinion or decline to offer an opinion. (In the Enquirer's case, 18 percent of respondents wouldn't rate the tabloid, a number that is very close to the "no opinion offered" number recorded for other print publications in the Pew poll.)

The insupportably low numbers earned by the Enquirer make sense when you compare them with those garnered by People magazine, Time-Warner's colossus of triviality and inconsequence. Only 6 percent of respondents believe all or most of what People says, and 25 percent believe nothing from it. (Rounding out the numbers, 47 percent chose values 2 or 3; 21 percent gave no opinion.)

People might not be your cup of java, but a human army of fact-checkers and editors labor over it every week, making it as accurate as the phone book. I can understand why the dodgy legacy of the Enquirer might predispose non-readers against it, but what could any reader or non-reader have against People?

The respondents who judged People (and the National Enquirer) so poorly are dead wrong, and the pollsters at Pew (for whom I have much respect) should be taken to the woodshed for having designed a rickety survey. When you gather opinions from people on subjects of which they know little or nothing, you're only collecting interesting garbage.

The Pew poll does, however, cast some unintentional illumination. It shows that no matter how accurate the National Enquirer or any tabloid might become, readers and non-readers (especially) will never forgive it its dubious past, especially if it sticks with the distinctive "trade dress" of a supermarket tabloid—sensational headlines printed in yellow; a red, white, and black logo; glossy newsprint stock. And it proves that folks would rather judge a publication (People) for where it lives—on a supermarket checkout wire rack alongside such deliberately unbelievable publications as the Weekly World Newsand the Sun—than for what's printed inside.

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My sweetheart laughed while habanero peppers burned my eyes bloody. Send your best tabloid headline to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.