The National Enquirer seemed to have stumbled on journalistic gold as it began the year by breaking two of the biggest political stories of 2001: Jesse Jackson's love child and the six-figure fee that attorney Hugh Rodham, Hillary Clinton's shifty brother, earned after helping secure a presidential pardon for a client. On March 1, National Public Radio, the aural indulgence of sophisticated media consumers around the country, invited Enquirer editor Steve Coz to be a guest on Talk of the Nation, the popular chat show that NPR touts as "known for intelligent and thought-provoking discussion."
"Steve Coz, you're a pretty serious guy," host Juan Williams allowed. "Tell us a little bit about who you are as the editor of this paper. How old are you? Where did you go to school?"
"I'm a Harvard grad," Coz replied, "I'm 43 years old. Been with the Enquirer since the '80s."
"Hang on," Williams interrupted. "You went to Harvard?"
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, Williams' other guest that day, cautioned Williams and his listeners not to underestimate the Enquirer or its employees. "We in the establishment press, who once had the luxury of looking down our noses at publications like the National Enquirer, now have to take them a little bit more seriously," Kurtz admitted.
At the time, the mainstream media was buzzing about the unlikely entrée of the Enquirer -- best known for its breathless exclamation-point-punctuated stories on Hollywood scandals -- into the domain of "respectable journalism" with its stories on Jackson and the Clinton pardon. In his March 1 radio segment, Williams mentioned the blurring of the lines between tabloids and mainstream outlets -- a well-worn concept mainstream journalists have pondered ever since Gary Hart dared reporters to catch him engaging in extramarital monkey business in the mid-'80s. But in 2001, the convergence of the tabloids and mainstream media developed a new wrinkle. In the past, the establishment press was the one moving in the direction of tabloid coverage. This time, however, it was the Enquirer invading the turf of the Washington Post.
Coz says venturing into politics was a natural progression for his publication, which long ago abandoned stories on Elvis sightings and alien abductions in favor of celebrity gossip. Like other media outlets, the Enquirer has been adjusting to an increasingly fragmented market. The tabloid's circulation has dropped from 5 million readers to 2.1 million readers over the past two decades. So while daily papers try to attract more readers by dumbing down their coverage, the Enquirer has adopted the converse business strategy: Attract new readers by offering a more substantive yet still entertaining product. "In recent years we've focused more on politics as the politicians have become celebrities," Coz explained to NPR listeners. "That's what's driving our investigations now."
The paper, of course, has a unique form of fuel to drive its journalistic investigations: money.
Coz and others at the Enquirer freely admit they paid a few sources on the Jackson love-child and Clinton pardon stories. But unlike with the Star's Gennifer Flowers fiasco -- which later turned out to be far more accurate than Clinton or his spinmeisters originally admitted -- cash for trash didn't ruin the credibility of the Enquirer's revelations about Jackson and Hugh Rodham. While the Enquirer hacks cut a few checks, they got their money's worth. Among the materials the Enquirer obtained: a copy of a $200,000 wire transfer to Hugh Rodham's law firm. Because the facts were indisputable -- both Jackson and the Clintons immediately confirmed the accuracy of the stories -- the New York Times and other papers of record had no problem following the Enquirer's lead and running the stories.
So is checkbook journalism a bad thing if it buys the truth?
"It depends on how important that truth is," says Ben Bagdikian, dean emeritus of UC Berkeley's graduate school of journalism. Something of great national importance could justify cutting a check, he says. But most of the time, Bagdikian cautions, the source selling the info is prone to exaggerate in order to justify a higher price.
William J. Drummond, another UC Berkeley journalism professor, notes that sources always have ulterior motives when leaking a reporter a juicy tip -- incentives from floating a trial balloon to screwing an enemy. That motive isn't always clear to readers of even such upstanding journals as the New York Times.
"There's a motivation for everything someone tells a journalist," says Drummond, who earlier this year created a freshman seminar on tabloid journalism. "I don't applaud checkbook journalism, but at least then I know what the motivation is -- it's getting paid."
Drummond subscribes to a notion gaining currency in academic circles these days -- that there's no difference these days between the mainstream press and the tabloids. He suggests that tabloid TV news shows like Hard Copy and A Current Affair have disappeared because their in-your-face methods and flashy presentation were co-opted by mainstream news magazines like 20/20 and Dateline.
In reality, though, the establishment press has not adopted all of the reporting methods of the tabloid press. Most "responsible" news organizations have strict rules against paying sources or, conversely, letting a source even pick up a dinner tab.
But the events of 2001 brought home the all-too-real possibility that responsible news organizations will now have to compete with tabloid reporters holding a fat money-clip. If sources know they will ultimately get coverage in the mainstream press after a tabloid breaks a hot political story, why shouldn't they first go to the publication that will pay? Drummond predicts that such a pay-to-play environment "strengthens the hand of the Enquirer" over nonpaying Beltway competitors. Given the current hypercompetetive media market, how long can ethical mainstreamers keep their checkbooks closed? Already, as Coz gleefully points out, TV news magazines like 60 Minutes have essentially crossed the line by paying sources "consulting fees." And what better place than the Beltway to skirt an ethical borderline?
"We're in Washington, DC," Coz told the Boston Globe earlier this year, "and we're surrounded by lobbyists. Everybody has his hand out."
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