An Ethical Enquirer
Interviewing the National Enquirer's Iain Calder

conducted by Elana Zeide

A driving force at The National Enquirer for the past 32 years, former Editor-in-Chief and President Iain Calder has helped shape the modern American media. He joined the Enquirer in 1964 at the invitation of its owner, Generoso Pope. Through an expertise honed in the cutthroat journalism of London and his native Scotland, Calder turned the magazine into a supermarket best-seller and household name. Although he recently reduced his editorial responsibilities under medical advice, As Editor Emeritus and Executive Vice President, Calder still steers the Enquirer with an insistence on journalistic integrity and discipline that would surprise scornful critics. Speaking against deeply entrenched stereotypes about the magazineUs dubious moral principles, Calder tells how the Enquirer is indeed ethical.

YJE: How would you define The National Enquirer? What it is? What is its mission?

IC: The Enquirer is a mixture of news, information, entertainment and really making people feel good about themselves.

I think of a not too young lady working in K-Mart. Her husband is watching Monday night football. She has put the kids to bed. She has cleaned up the house. She has half of an hour to herself. What does she do? She goes to bed, or she goes on the sofa and curls up withThe National Enquirer. What she will find there are ways to make her life fuller.

She will find medical stories about things that may not affect her, but might affect her neighbors. She will find out about who is sleeping with whom in Hollywood. She will find out the kind of gossip that makes her feel empowered, in that she will be able to say, "Did you know that such and such was doing such and such?" Terrific photographs.

She will also find that she will never be challenged by us going to the edge of taste. She won't find naked women in there, she won't find the kind of statements that are going to make her feel uncomfortable, because we are not on the cutting edge.

We are trying to find out what our readers want and we are probably the most successful publication in following our readersU wants. I edited the Enquirer for about twenty-five years until about three months ago, and I never thought "What does Iain Calder want?" It is what does my reader want. I always try to find out what this mythical lady would think about things. The people who work at the Enquirer have to love their readers. They have be empathetic with the readers and give them the kind of stories they want, whether it's Elizabeth TaylorUs divorce or how to deal with a spoiled child.

YJE: So, while catering to the readers, do you classify what the Enquirer does as journalism?

IC: Certainly it is journalismQprobably Americans each week. We are informing them of the kind of things they want to know about. We are the number one weekly paper in America, and we have been for the last two and half decades. You only do that by being successful.

Journalism really is bringing the news that people want to hear to the people. I think we are the old style American journalism which is different than today's, which says that we will decide what the readers want to hear.

If you tell someone something that they don't think is interesting, that is not news. It really isn't news if you say that someone in Lithuania is getting a divorce. You see, I donUt know that person in Lithuania. If you say Liz Taylor is getting a divorce, it's news, because people want to know that. So news to one publication isn't necessarily news to another publication. People have to want to know about it for it to be news.

YJE: Would you disagree with the theory that journalists should educate the public or push their knowledge and values?

IC: Of course the public should be educated - we have schools to educate the public. You also educate the public by just putting interesting information out there. The Enquirer probably educates the public more than most daily newspapers.

I'll give you an example. About 25 years ago I got friendly with a prominent doctor in one of the top medical centers in the United States and we did his stories. He said, "I love getting my stories in the Enquirer because when we come through with a breakthrough in cancer, it usually takes seven years to get through to the average M.D. When you run it in the Enquirer everybody goes to the doctor and asks, 'What about this?' I use your publication to educate doctors all over the country."

Because we tell twenty million readers about such and such, and they call a doctor and ask him about it. If he doesn't know about it, he has to find out, or otherwise he seems stupid.

So we educate people all the time. But we donUt do it for the purpose of education. We are in the business of selling newspapers. So is The New York Times. The best way to do it is to define what the readers want and what is really good for the reader. So they know that there is this little link "almost like a family" where they trust us and have a warm feeling reading us.

There are a number of elitist journalists. However, there are fewer and fewer because the papers that these people are running are going out of business. They said, "We don't care what people want, we are going to tell them what they want," and I think that is the most elitist sort of journalism. It's stupid and it's easy.

A lot of papers have gone out of business because they refuse to understand that the people are a little brighter than they think they are. I remember one journalist saying to me, "Aren't you pandering by giving people what they want?" I said "Well, that's one way of looking at it. But just look at it this way, if people of America have enough sense to decide who is going to be their congressman, to vote for who is going to be President of the United States, donUt you think they have enough sense to know and to vote on what should be in the Enquirer?"

We are a democracy in action. I have an election every single week in the supermarkets. If people don't like what I do, they just donUt buy it. Every single week, I'm out there right in front, everything I do, right or wrong is right out there for people to see.

Frankly, I think the American public is smart. They don't go for foreign affairs in The National Enquirer because you have The New York Times for that. They come to us for the things that the Enquirer does better than anyone else, and thatUs where it ends.

YJE: So, the key, then, to the Enquirer's success is that it makes people feel good?

IC: I think that is one of the things. People that donUt read the Enquirer really donUt understand what it is about. They think it is all about celebrities. It is a lot about celebrities, but also stories about kids and people who overcome odds, inspirational stories.

We are very strong on protecting animals. We have just shown pictures of some terrible things done for entertainment and there was a huge outcry and we stopped them.

We also run appeals for kids who need help so that even the people who donUt help feel good that part of their family has helped this child.

We have a lot of terrific medical stories on things like cancer and arthritis. The Heart Association approves every single word in every heart story, including the headlines. The arthritis people okay every arthritis story, including headlines and the Cancer Society approves every story on cancer. So our medical stories are arguably the most accurate of any publication in America because nobody else does that.

Stories featuring some celebrity's child who is on drugs may be downbeat for that particular celebrity, but for our readers whose children might be in trouble themselves, when they read that celebrity X, who is rich and famous and seems to have everything, is actually going through the same problem they are going through, some of the readersU letters say that makes them feel better. They think, "This isn't just me being a bad person; even this person with millions of dollars is going through the same thing I am going through."

That makes them feel better. It gives them a feeling of belonging and I think that while the Enquirer gives people vicarious thrills to some extent it also gives them this feeling, RGee weUre not alone.S

YJE: That's certainly different than, say, papers like The New York Times which many people read but complain that all the news is war, bombings, tragedy . . .

IC: I read it as well. The Times is a great paper. The Enquirer is an alternative to that. We do some stories about things that are tragedies, but we won't just do the tragedy story. We'll focus in on the child that survived and how he or she is doing better or the hero who went in and did such and such, so that itUs the victory of the spirit over adversity. That is the way we go after our stories.

YJE: Popular opponents would have it that you sit in the rooms here and make up things.

IC: The Enquirer spends sixteen million a year on editorial, a huge amount of money. We can make up stories a lot cheaper than that, I have to tell you. We donUt make up any stories; I mean nothing.

Now I am not talking about tabloids in general. Some tabloids have been known to do that kind of thing. The Enquirer does not do that, never did it, and I donUt think ever will do it as long as I am around.

We have a team of very, very good journalists. We have stringers all over the world who go after stories. We almost never get sued. People say they are going to sue us, but then it turns out later that the story was right, and they were just trying to use it for public relations. And every single story is checked by Williams and Connelly, perhaps the top law firm on libel in America.

They look through every story. Not only the finished story, but the type written notes, the first draft, the second draft. If they think it doesnUt look right, they have the right to talk to reporters, editors, and if they say itUs not going in for any reason, it doesn't.

Does that mean we donUt ever get anything wrong? Absolutely not. You try to disprove a story if you can and if everything seems to be right, you go with that. Have we made mistakes? Yes, we've made mistakes. You tell me any paper that hasn't made mistakes and I'll tell you it's a lie.

For example, The Washington Post had a young lady a few years ago named Janet Cooke who won a Pulitzer prize, and thenthey had to admit that it was totally fabricated and she had to give back her Pulitzer prize. Bob Woodward actually approved the story. That doesn't mean that Bob Woodward is not a good journalist; he is a fine journalist, but reporting is basically trusting people you think are reliable when you interview them. You check it out, check it out, check it out and then you go with it. Then if you're wrong, you apologize.

We spend enormous amounts of energy getting stories right. The New York Times said that we were impressively accurate on the O.J. Simpson story. Ted Koppel ran a very very complimentary piece on how we got our stories. The Arizonian and The Chicago Tribune did pieces on us they said that not only were our stories of O.J. Simpson accurate, but that we didnUt run the stories a lot of other people picked up on that later turned out not to be true. We ended up just getting wonderful publicity on O.J. Simpson.

The difference was that we were working along side people from The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Los Angeles Times, so they saw the stories, they knew what the truth was and they were able to judge what we were doing. But if we do a celebrity story, the LA Times and The Washington Post aren't along side us, they donUt know whatUs right, so if Elizabeth Taylor says this is not true, they take her word for it, when in fact we were right. That is what we do for a living.

A number of the smaller ones that sell half a million will make up stories, but theyUre not going to sell a lot. If we say such and such is going to get divorced, and weUre always wrong, people wonUt buy it. Our readers know that we are accurate and we are right more often than almost any other paper. We are very proud of that. The people that criticize our people are people who never read the Enquirer, donUt understand the Enquirer and donUt want to.

I don't mind being criticized but, criticize me for something I did, not something you think I might have done.

YJE: What would you say to another popular myth that ethics and the Enquirer are two completely different fields?

IC: I understand that. I think that to a certain extent itUs the oxymoron, right, the ethical Enquirer, right? But thatUs not the case. It depends what you mean by ethics.

We go after stories with the same determination that, say, people on The Washington Post had with Watergate. They hurt a lot of people in Watergate. They used Deep Throat. We couldn't have used Deep Throat, because reporters have to tell us who their sources are. If they are not willing to reveal their sources to our lawyers and to the senior editors, we won't use them.

We just go after different kinds of stories and we do use unusual ways, but it has to be legally correct and it has to be morally correct. But, of course, everybody hinks morals are different.

For instance, when we went into Henry Kissinger's garbage a number of years ago it raised all kinds of "ethical questions."

We found out that he had some secret material that he hadn't shredded and it was good that we got it rather than some foreign spies. So it was a good lesson to him and others not to be sloppy with secrets. It was a heck of a story and I thought it was morally very defensible that we should do that. So, yes, we do things that some other journalists wouldnUt do, but we think the things we do are morally correct.

Anybody making judgments ought to look at when the Ted Koppel came down and spent the whole week going through how we did one issue. At the end of it, he said to me, RYou have some really, really good reporters here. I would steal them in a minute.S His judgment was that we had a team of really fine journalists who really care about journalism.

YJE: So what unusual practices might you use to get the story?

IC: Well, there was a case where Heather Locklear got married. She went on her honeymoon in the Caribbean and we got a call from the manager of the resort. She said that they had this huge fight with breaking chairs and glasses and screaming and that she had had to call the police to calm them down. She said, "and now I am going to throw these people out." The editor put the phone down and told me about it. I said, "Oh no, don't do that. Call right back and tell her we'll give her a couple hundred bucks not to throw them out right now." He called back and said "please don't throw them out."

So we went over there, spoke to the police, spoke to the hotel management, spoke to the people who were next door who saw the fights. Then we went to Heather Locklear and her husband who said, "Everything is okay now, we're still in love, blah, blah, blah. Let's show you." So they stopped and she runs down the beach in her teeny weenie bikini and frolics on the beach with him to show that they ere okay. We said, "Okay, we'll quote you as saying this is your side of it." As we left the manager threw them out. We held on until we could get the story and the pictures, which is good for our reader.

YJE: What about paying sources?

IC: We are very happy to pay sources. In one way or another, all news organizations pay sources. They donUt necessarily give them checks, but if you go on The Today Show and youUre selling a book, the plug youUre getting for that is worth a heck of a lot more than a hundred or two hundred or a thousand bucks fromThe National Enquirer.<> If someone calls us and just says, "I have a story," it turns out not to be true four times out of five and we don't run it. But when we ask, "Why are you calling us?" he says, "You pay money," then we know where theyUre coming from. If the person said, "Well, I think it's my duty to society to report to The National Enquirer," I'd wonder why they had originally called us.

What we're paying for isn't so much the news, it's the exclusivity. For instance, if you come up with an exclusive story and give it to me, it takes a week to get it into the paper, get it printed, and sent out all over the country. If I donUt pay you and four days later you go tell The Washington Post when I am on press, suddenly my news has gone blue cold. So instead I say, "I'll give you a thousand dollars to keep quiet for another week," so that I can be first on the stands with it. I don't see anything wrong with that.

People say that if you pay someone, he may say things that are not true to get money. But people do that without money. It is a journalist's job to check testimony with other sources, to check out the check- able facts.

For instance, there are all kinds of journalistic tricks to find out if someone is telling the truth. If youUre not quite sure of someone and you have a certain fact that you know is right, you say to the source that the story would be a lot better if in fact such and such happened and you can plant that idea. If they then say, "Oh yeah that's what happened," then you know they're lying and you don't use the story.

Is it foolproof? No.

Basically, you use common sense, you use normal journalistic techniques and you find out if something is true. It's the bottom line of the story accurate?

So, we will buy exclusivity and so will 60 Minutes. The networks make these quid pro quo type things, where they say, "If you come on our show, we guarantee that we will plug your book." So whether the payment is in cash or in kind, it isn't that unusual in journalism.

It's the final result thatUs important. You're getting the correct story or not. Whether you pay or whether you don't pay, itUs your job as a journalist to make sure that the story is as accurate as you possibly can make it.

YJE: What do you measure accuracy against?

IC: I said as accurate as you can possibly make it. Truth might be something that you debate. I don't think accuracy is something you debate.

YJE: Speaking of other publications, the O.J. Simpson story recently jumped from the Enquirer to The New York Times, The New Yorker, and all the rest. How do you think the Enquirer is affecting the mainstream media?

IC: The Enquirer changed the face of American journalism. If you look back to the late 60Us you will find that newspapers were run by people who felt that their job was to control the news. When I came over to this country, I was appalled by how gray and dull the press was.

Then, slowly, television started to come up with real people angles and a lot of newspapers went out of business. The Enquirer was the first general interest magazine to get into supermarkets and shortly after us came Rupert MurdochUs The Star. Then Time saw that we were doing really well and took the people section and turned it into People magazine and got into supermarkets, followed by the US magazine.

So, in the 70's you saw different kinds of magazines follow The Enquirer style. Right about the late 70Us, for example, the Enquirer started the whole practice of putting celebrities on the cover. We were among the first to get Farrah Fawcett on the cover and that sold very well. So, the women's magazines started to change. Lady's Home Journal and McCall's started to put people like Charlie's Angels on the cover.

Then in the 80's, television shows like Hard Copy and A Current Affair started to get into the act and celebrity journalism really worked.

Around about the same time, newspapers started using people columns. If Madonna had existed in 1967, the newspapers would have ignored her. They would have said "This is not news. I don't care what she does."

Now people are using that material, talking about marriages like PrinceUs and Michael JacksonUs, even in papers like The New York Times. Even regular celebrity type stories tend to get mentioned in the daily newspapers.

We led the way and, for better or worse, I think we really changed the face of American journalism.

YJE: Where do you think American media is going now?

IC: YouUre asking the wrong person. I have used psychics in the paper, but I am not a psychic and I have trouble telling you whatUs going to happen next week. I think that if you ask journalists what is going to happen, it's like asking stockbrokers which way is the market going to go; fifty percent will say one thing, fifty something else and probably both will be wrong.

I think that there will still be newspapers and magazines, at least in my lifetime, because even though people see things on the Internet, there are a number of senses and one of them is a tactile sense. People love to pick up a magazine and flip through it and flip back through it.

What I think will happen, though, is that the market will be fragmented in the same way as television because people know what they want a lot more than they did twenty years ago. It is harder and harder for big circulation papers which try to be everybody's answer to everything.

We will be going towards, and here I'm being a little bit funny, a point where left-handed dentists will have a magazine. People will fill the niches which means we will have to find new methods of distribution. That's the next big thing, because supermarkets canUt afford to pay the money for the racks to have Left Handed Dentists in Dayton, so at the moment I'm looking into a new method of distribution. I think one of them is the Internet.

YJE: You spoke about how The Enquirer has changeed journalism. How has it changed the institution of being a celebrity?

IC: I think celebrities, almost by definition, are people who seek the limelight.

You would be amazed at the people who say, "Judge me for my art." When they were unknown, these people would stand on their head for The Enquirer. Once they become famous and rich, they say, "Judge me on my art." Then when they drop off the face of the earth, they will stand on their head for you again to try and get in.

It surprises me that people make their names by being celebrities, not by their acting. They can demand eleven million dollars a movie because they're celebrities, they're stars; it's not in their acting ability. So they want fame but they want to control it on every level.

I don't think celebrity has changed. It was exactly the same thing in the 30Us. The difference then was that very powerful people could control the media and the actors, so that it would have been harder for the Enquirer to get our kind of stories.

Now the celebrities are saying, "We don't want to do that, we want to go out in the streets," and so people see them and they're much freer spirits now than before. With freedom and fame and money comes the price: that The National Enquirer is going to be around.

Many of them really dislike us because if anybody is going to find out that they were cheating on their wife with the babysitter, it's going to be The National Enquirer. It's not going to be People Magazine, it is not going to be US Magazine, it's not going to be Lady's Home Journal.

So in advance they say "Don't believe anything [the tabloids] say, " because then when they get caught they can say "It's onlyThe National Enquirer."

That's okay, because that's their way of using their power and I applaud them for it. That's fine, as long as they keep getting into trouble and giving us good stories.

YJE: What's been your best story?

IC: I don't think there is one best one. The best selling issue we ever had was Elvis and his coffin.

And it was really a wonderful feeling when I saw the pictures of Gary Hart. I couldn't believe he was so stupid as to allow his picture to be taken by us with a bimbette on his knee. When I saw the picture, I knew it would change the course of history. It was a candid picture that ABC News, The Washington Post, anybody would have given their eye teeth for. You still see it in magazines all around the country from time to time.

We have done a number of things like that, a lot of really great stories. YJE

1996 The Yale Journal of Ethics. All rights reserved.
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