In Essays, Innovation

I spent a week in the mid-1980’s auditioning for a job as a staff writer at the National Enquirer.

The very thought that I’d even try was a shocker to people who knew me; after all, the newspaper specialized in stories about three-headed babies and alien abductions, liberally interspersed with exposes of celebrities having three-headed babies and getting abducted by aliens (or being aliens themselves).

The salary it offered would top $80,000, though one friend explained that the money was so good because it would be the last job I’d ever get in journalism. I was more curious than anything else about the entire deal, and since the paper would buy my airplane ticket and cover my expenses, I just couldn’t say no.

Back then, the National Enquirer was headquartered in Lantana, Florida, which covers little more than two square miles about a 15 minute drive south from West Palm Beach. It was known for little other than hosting the world’s largest decorated Christmas tree, which was sponsored by the tabloid’s founder.

I remember getting off the airplane from New York and thinking to myself that I’d landed in some untamed, and potentially uninhabited jungle.

So while the taxi rides and motel were unmemorable, the paper’s office was actively forgettable: I’d imagined a newsroom like the Washington Post in All The President’s Men, but it felt more like a cross between a college study hall and an insurance company office.

Writers sat at IBM Selectrics and typed away, working off of interview or research notes that had been submitted by the paper’s field staff of reporters, stringers, and paparazzi. I remember some senior person made a point of explaining that the source material the writers worked from had been checked for accuracy and vetted for legality and, perhaps not surprisingly, was therefore actually pretty tame and uninteresting.

It was up to the writers to turn it into tabloid gold.

So an intriguing detail about person or place in a crime report could be elevated to the lead. The lack of a fact could be spun any which way, as if the absence of proof of something shocking meant the shocking possibility that proof might somehow turn up (or had been purposefully hidden). Simply recasting certain facts could make them far more entertaining.

The other writer candidates and I received a handful of the reporter notes every day, and had to gin up stories which would then be assessed by the editors and, if they passed muster, thrown into contention for an upcoming issue. My greatest accomplishment was to take Sly Stallone’s offhand comment that he sometimes felt his original Rocky script had been divinely inspired, and spin the headline “Stallone Admits Holy Ghost Writer.”

I don’t know if anything I wrote ever ended up in the newspaper. I flew back to New York after my week in Lantana, and never heard from them again.

Being being a hack wasn’t as much sinful fun as I’d thought it would be, and it taught me that I really did need to care about what I did for a living. I’d always known it intellectually, but I left Lantana with a visceral and permanent inability to produce crap for money.

I also learned that yellow journalism was far more insidious and potentially damaging than I’d ever imagined. The National Enquirer specialized in walking right up to the legal edge of falsehood and defamation, which still allowed it to regularly publish things that weren’t true by any everyday definition.

I never saw a single story that even hinted at a political purpose; instead, each week…for decades…it further eroded its readers’ ability to separate fact from fiction, discern right from wrong, or grasp even the basic facts of history and science.

Today’s news about its political machinations are deeply troubling, but I can’t help but think it pales against the slow, incessant damage the National Enquirer has done to public discourse in America, and how so many other media outlets have followed its lead.

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