It looks like a typical tabloid expose: Intimate photos of former football star Frank Gifford embracing a blonde who is very definitely not Kathie Lee Gifford.
But the Globe did more than just publish the pictures: The supermarket tabloid paid the former flight attendant to entice Gifford into a Manhattan hotel room where a video camera was hidden, say sources familiar with the story. In other words, the Globe helped orchestrate the liaison between Gifford and a woman he had not previously slept with.
Even some veteran tabloid warriors were stunned. "There's a difference between reporting the news and creating the news," said Steve Coz, editor of the rival National Enquirer. "It's one thing to catch a celebrity cheating and another to induce or entrap them. Without the Globe, there would be no story here. I'm in the tabloid industry, and this is way over the top. It's downright cruel."
Globe Editorial Director Dan Schwartz dismissed such criticism, saying: "The issue is not what we did, the issue is what Frank Gifford did. . . . If we did something that someone would consider close to entrapment, I'd say so do the police every day in catching criminals. We caught a moral criminal."
Globe Editor Tony Frost would not confirm what one source described as a minimum $75,000 payment to the woman, Suzen Johnson. But, he said, "it's reasonable to expect that on stories like this the Globe does pay for accurate information."
That the apparent triangle involves morning talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford -- whom Schwartz called "a symbol of wholesomeness in American marriages" -- seemed certain to magnify the tawdry tale. Indeed, as the Globe gleefully noted, Kathie Lee Gifford boasted in her autobiography that for her husband, a "Monday Night Football" sportscaster, "cheating is out of the question."
But the Globe's role is also drawing scrutiny. Bill O'Reilly, the former host of "Inside Edition," called the story "an outrage" and said "the reporting should be centered on how this woman set up this guy. I don't think the story is adultery, because that's not a news story unless a public figure is putting himself up as a family-values guy."
After this week's Globe alleged that Frank Gifford, 66, was romancing Johnson, 46, the Gifford family called the story fabricated garbage. The co-host of "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee" complained about a "cash-for-trash society" and said that the Globe might next report that she and Regis Philbin were having an alien baby. That was too much for the Florida-based tabloid.
"Initially we had no intention of using that video," Frost said. "Our hands were forced . . . after the Giffords and their lawyer attacked us and ridiculed our initial story and threatened to sue us. In the face of such strenuous denials and attempts to discredit our information, we had to prove we were telling the truth."
The Giffords have now changed their tune. They said in a statement that "this experience has been as painful for us as it would be for any other couple" and asked "that our privacy be respected at this difficult time."
Next week's issue of the Globe -- "CHEATING FRANK CAUGHT ON CAMERA!" -- will include 10 "sizzling photos" from the videotape, taken on April 30 and May 1 in a $400-a-night suite at the Regency Hotel. One Globe picture was published in yesterday's New York Post.
The Globe article makes clear that Gifford had not previously had an affair with Johnson, although it says he had flirted with her for four years. The piece quotes Gifford as telling her: "I've wanted to do this from the day I met you. You are beautiful."
A source close to the Giffords confirmed that the family is extremely upset over what it sees as the Globe's entrapment techniques.
O'Reilly, who now hosts a Fox News Channel talk show, said that "Inside Edition" prohibited such hidden-camera video on private property. "If I were Gifford I'd do two things," he said. "I'd shut up the wife immediately, and I'd have my attorneys look into . . . charges against the woman and anyone who entered into a business deal with the woman."
This is not the first time the Globe has bedeviled the Gifford family in recent weeks. The Globe was the only supermarket tabloid to run an unobscured picture of the teenage babysitter who allegedly had an affair with Michael Kennedy, the brother of Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy. Frank Gifford's daughter, Victoria, is divorcing Michael Kennedy in the wake of the scandal.
The Globe says Johnson met Gifford on a 1993 flight and that he slipped her his private phone number. They maintained a telephone relationship and once tried to arrange a meeting, the paper says, but it never came off until the Regency rendezvous. "We didn't invite Frank Gifford to that hotel room," Frost said. "He didn't just go once, he went twice."
Globe editors declined to discuss their arrangement with Johnson. Schwartz said the tabloid is still holding back some "X-rated evidence."
"We don't feel we have to explain every detail of how we got the story, just as The Washington Post didn't explain every detail of how it got the Watergate story," he said. "We were extremely close to participants in the story, which you can read any way you want." CAPTION: "We had to prove we were telling the truth," Globe Editor Tony Frost said of the tabloid's use of the Gifford photos.