Sensational, Shocking Tabloid Run by Harvard Grad!

For a few months recently, the National Enquirer added a two-word prefix to its name on the cover: it was "The New National Enquirer.&quot...

For a few months recently, the National Enquirer added a two-word prefix to its name on the cover: it was "The New National Enquirer." The weekly supermarket tabloid, which can boast the largest newspaper circulation in the United States at 2.5 million, was indicating that it had reinvented itself. Though its pages continue to lure readers with splashy color pictures of celebrities and even more colorful stories, the Enquirer has taken a new direction under Steve Coz '79, who became its editor in 1995. "We're focusing on news gathering, investigative news reporting," says Coz. "Yes, the Enquirer had a rich tradition of alien abductions, Elvis sightings, UFO stories. We are breaking out of that mold now. There's still work to be done in changing the public's perception of the Enquirer. We're in the middle of an uphill battle."

One milestone in that battle came with the paper's aggressive coverage of the 1994 O. J. Simpson murder case. Long before the mainstream media, the Enquirer had reported extensively the charges of wife-beating brought against Simpson in 1989, and when its reporters arrived at the murder scene, not far behind the coroner's deputies, they had leads and sources already in hand. Months of digging unearthed an Enquirer exclusive: a photo of Simpson wearing the Bruno Magli shoes he had denied ever owning. The Columbia Journalism Review called Coz and David Perel, who ran the Enquirer's Simpson coverage, "the Woodward and Bernstein of tabloid journalism." The New York Times acknowledged, "The Enquirer has probably shaped public perceptions of the [Simpson] case more than any other publication. In a story made for the tabloids, it stands head and shoulders above them all for aggressiveness and accuracy."

Accuracy, of course, has always been a touchy issue for tabloids, which as a group have probably published more fiction than some literary quarterlies. Since tabloids focus heavily on the private lives of celebrities--celebrity news makes up about two-thirds of the Enquirer's editorial mix--they are constantly on thin ice with regard to lawsuits. Carol Burnett sued the Enquirer over a 1976 article that implied the comedienne had been tipsy in a Washington, D.C., restaurant; Burnett's parents had been alcoholics and she had done ad campaigns against alcohol . She eventually won a $1.6 million judgment, later settled for a reported $200,000. "That was definitely a black eye," says Coz. Clint Eastwood won a case in 1991 against the
Enquirer, which had published an interview with the actor after buying it from a British agency; Eastwood asserted that he never would have given the Enquirer an interview, and that the interview itself was fictitious.

Lawsuits are expensive; hence, Coz says, the Enquirer now verifies its stories at four levels. First there is the news-gathering level, which may use multiple sources, depending on their quality. "If a celebrity calls us up and says, 'I'm divorcing my wife,' then one source is reliable enough," says Coz. "If a celebrity is not cooperating, we may need to get five or more sources." Then there are four levels of editorial scrutiny, after which the research department "painstakingly checks every fact to be certain there is nothing wrong with the story," says Coz. Finally, lawyers from Williams & Connolly, the Washington law firm of the late Edward Bennett Williams, vet every page of every issue. President Clinton's personal lawyer, David Kendall, is part of the oversight team. (As this issue went to press, there were no lawsuits pending against the Enquirer.)

Coz explains that plaintiffs' motives can also go well beyond setting the record straight. "Celebrities will use the legal system as part of their publicity machine," he declares. "Sometimes they threaten to file a lawsuit in order to get media attention and regain control of the publicity arena. The celebrity publicity machine is a $2-billion industry--it has become a power base in its own right. They are trying to create a celebrity image to sell--a hero, a mom, a girl-next-door, a trustworthy person. The spin machine works hard against anything that pokes a hole in that image. We are trying to pierce that image to get to the reality, trying to present the straightest dope we can get, the unspun story. We are pretty gutsy, aggressive reporters--we will go right up and knock on a celebrity's door. We will pull out all the stops to get the best information."

The Enquirer pulls out not only stops, but checkbooks. "We make no bones about the fact that we pay for information," Coz says. They sometimes pay handsomely indeed: the tabloid's reporters located Nicole Brown Simpson's housekeeper before the police did, and gave her $18,000 for an exclusive interview. Paid sources are often chauffeurs, maids, bartenders, catering staff--people who earn modest wages, but get to observe the peccadilloes of the famous at close range. Though Coz acknowledges that checkbook journalism can encourage embellishment, he also argues that it is not that different from some practices of the mainstream media. He mentions a couple named McReynolds who played "Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus" for four years at holiday parties in the home of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, whose unresolved murder has remained a tabloid staple for years. The New York Times paid the couple to write a freelance article about the Ramseys, Coz says--"Whereas we would pay them to be sources. That's a pretty thin line to draw."

Coz does draw a few lines of his own, and not always thin ones. In 1997 he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times decrying the entrapment of sports broadcaster Frank Gifford by an agent of another supermarket tabloid, the Globe. The paper paid a former flight attendant to entice Gifford into meeting her in a hotel room. "We've chased down the cheating spouse, we've tried to get the telling pictures, we've reported the news," he wrote. "But we've never created the lover....Tabloids don't need to orchestrate events."

He also asserts, "We backed away from that whole genre of paparazzi years before the Di thing," referring to the aggressive European photographers who attempted to get pictures of the Princess of Wales on the night a drunken chauffeur crashed the limousine carrying Diana and her companion, Dodi Fayed. Coz articulates the Enquirer's anti-stalkerazzi policy: "We do not buy pictures from photographers who endanger celebrities or themselves, or who use extreme physical harassment." In fact, he turned down photos of the crash scene --offered to the Enquirer for $250,000--and went on television to explain, "There's a difference between observing celebrities and hunting them down."

Coz grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts, outside Worcester, and attended Portsmouth Priory, an all-male, Benedictine-run, prep school in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. At Harvard he concentrated in English and once wrote for the Independent. After college he traveled for a couple of years, doing some freelance writing. In 1981, the Enquirer invited him south (its headquarters are in Lantana, Florida) to interview for a reporter's job.

The Enquirer's founding publisher, Generoso Pope, had bought a small New York newspaper, the New York Enquirer, in 1952 and transformed it into the National Enquirer, whose circulation reached an all-time high of 6 million for a 1977 issue featuring a picture of Elvis in his coffin. In the 1970s, many of the reporters were Britons who had learned the tabloid trade in its capital, London's Fleet Street. In the 1980s, however, Pope started hiring more Americans, often young college graduates. "America was getting more tabloidized in the 1980s, so Americans could fit in more easily," Coz says, recalling that, "when I arrived, there were four other people from Harvard on the staff."

Coz's rookie reporting year put him on the road for 11 months, doing what the paper calls "noncelebrity" journalism. "It was fabulous--just an extension of the travel I had been doing, but now the Enquirer was footing the bill," he says. "I saw slices of Americana, like a Texas town of 300 where the major focus of life was cockfighting. I met an 80-year-old man who lived in a ramshackle house with a 12-foot alligator." After only one year Coz became an editor and has remained with the paper ever since.

In 1997 Time named Coz one of the "25 most influential people in America." Despite such accolades and a job with proximity to an army of celebrities, he retains the common touch. He is married to the Enquirer's head photo editor, Valerie Virga, and for fun likes to go boogie-boarding with their three young children. As a youth, perhaps the only sign of his future career was that during prep school and college, he subscribed to the tabloid New York Daily News. When asked about his journalistic heroes, Coz mentions only one, a choice that could not be more mainstream. "Walter Cronkite," he says, "for his straightforward manner."

~Craig Lambert

 
Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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