THE UNTOLD STORY

My 20 Years Running the National Enquirer

By Iain Calder

Miramax. 314 pp. $24.95

Iain Calder reports that not long after the death of Lee Atwater, the raffish and often unscrupulous political consultant, "his wife told a Republican meeting that her husband's uncanny ability to stay in touch with the average voter came from a surprising place -- what she called 'his religious reading of the National Enquirer.' He considered our supermarket tabloid 'the pulse of America.' " Perhaps so, though what this says about the pulse of America could provide years of work for the best medical authorities in the land.

Calder calls the Enquirer "our" tabloid with good reason, since for two decades he was its editor, presiding over the weekly regurgitation of the magazine's formula, "a groundbreaking, irresistible blend of celebrities, health, self-help, UFOs, predictions, quizzes, cute photos, and -- most of all -- human interest stories." Whether the Enquirer really is "irresistible" surely is, with all due respect to Calder, in the eye of the beholder, but of its success there can be no doubt. It is true as well that the Enquirer has had an enormous influence on the media -- newspapers, magazines, radio and, most especially, television and the Internet -- and that it must be taken seriously, whatever one's opinion of the diet of "gossip, news, hopes, dreams and, above all, emotion" that it dishes out with mechanical efficiency.

It is commonly assumed by many of us in the traditional press that the Enquirer is cynical to the core, edited and written by smarty-pants wiseguys (many of them, like Calder, imported from England) who privately condescend to their supermarket readers, about three-quarters of whom are women. But after reading "The Untold Story," that assumption must be reconsidered. The book's title is almost wholly inaccurate in the sense that Calder delivers precious little in the way of "untold" inside poop about the Enquirer -- and what he does deliver isn't interesting -- but in a deeper sense it's right on the money, for it reminds us that to write or edit for the mass popular market you have to have the popular touch.

That is Calder's untold story. He may be a tough, hard-bitten Scotsman who cut his journalistic eyeteeth in the tabloid wars of Glasgow and London, but he is as fascinated by the tabloids' raw material as the most goggle-eyed reader. Utterly without irony he tells us that the Enquirer's "editors and reporters kept bringing in great stories" and then cites chapter and verse: "LIZ'S NEW LIVE-IN LOVE IS A 4-TIME JAILBIRD . . . AND SHE DOESN'T KNOW IT" and "Lisa Marie Presley was two months pregnant when she married Danny Keogh."

Calder just can't get enough of this stuff, which surely explains why millions of Americans just can't get enough of the National Enquirer. When the Enquirer ferreted out the information that Liberace had AIDS, Calder breathlessly writes that "this was major world-exclusive material." When Roseanne Barr faced off against her husband, Tom Arnold, the Enquirer flooded the zone -- as we journos say these days -- at what Calder calls "one of the most extraordinary celebrity showdowns in history." Again, utterly without irony, he writes: "Whenever my guys pulled off an exclusive this big, I couldn't help but puff up a little with pride. Where else could Americans get stuff like this?"

Well, nowadays they can get it just about everywhere. The National Enquirer has dragged digging for dirt from the outskirts of journalism into the mainstream. After an Enquirer reporter dug into Henry Kissinger's garbage, after the Enquirer got its hands on a photo of Donna Rice atop Gary Hart's lap aboard the Monkey Business, after Enquirer reporters ran rings around everyone else on the O.J. Simpson case -- after the Enquirer thumbed its nose at the smug old traditionalists in the press box, they had little choice except to climb down into the mud and start wallowing.

As something of a traditionalist myself, though I hope not an unduly smug one, I tend to View With Alarm this development, but it's one of those seismic shifts in American culture that are most unlikely to be reversed. Yes, it still is possible to find serious reportage and commentary, but the preoccupation with celebrities is all-pervasive, and so, too, is gossip. The sex lives of politicians are as susceptible to journalistic inquiry as the sex lives of movie stars, and the line between legitimate reportage and keyhole-peeping is crossed with merry impunity. If it is true, as Calder says, that "the Enquirer exists because celebrities do stupid things they later regret," then much the same can be said of the rest of the press.

It's useful to be reminded by Calder's memoir that the Enquirer wasn't always the marginally respectable, semi-mainstream publication it has metamorphosed into over the past quarter-century. When he joined its London office in 1964, the paper was filled with blood and guts. Its founder, Gene Pope, believed that the mass readership wanted "a gore tabloid, with such memorable headlines as MOM USES SON'S FACE AS ASHTRAY and I CUT OUT HER HEART AND STOMPED ON IT."

The Enquirer sold -- as many as a million copies in the mid-1960s -- but it was still a marginal operation. Not until Pope moved its office from New York to Florida and put Calder and his Scots friend Bill Dick in charge of editorial operations did things begin to change. The formula cited above was devised, and the decision to sell in supermarkets -- revolutionary at the time -- was made. Saturation coverage of Jackie Onassis "really boosted circulation," and the death of Elvis Presley, with the notorious coffin photo on the cover, produced "a 6.7 million total sellout, our highest-ever sale."

Pope died of a heart attack in the fall of 1988. The Enquirer was put up for auction and bought by Boston Ventures. Calder remained an employee in various well-paid jobs until 1997, when he was let go because management was not "completely satisfied with [his] contribution to the operating cash flow and general development of the company." He was surprised but doesn't seem to have been bitter; indeed he claims that retirement has been "like a release from prison." Now he just smells the roses, or whatever it is that high-octane journos do after they're put out to pasture.

Calder's memoir is occasionally amusing, infrequently revealing and surprisingly flat. He says it originally weighed in at twice its present length, and one can only shudder to think of all the newsroom ephemera that was excised. He may have put out a punchy publication, but when it comes to his own story he can be long-winded and more than a little hypocritical. After going on at length about the Enquirer's top-to-toe coverage of Jackie O, he laments the indignities to which she was subjected by the notorious paparazzo Ron Galella and piously intones: "He had had his fifteen minutes of fame, and I'm just sorry it was purchased by invading the personal space of Jackie and her kids."

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