Until Caitlyn Jenner displaced it in the tabloid firmament last week, the hottest story in America’s booming celebrity-gossip industry was the revelations about Josh Duggar. The eldest kid on the popular “19 Kids and Counting” reality TV series, Duggar, now 27, was identified in a 2005 police report as the alleged molester of five young girls, including four of his sisters, when he was a teenager.
Unlike the highly orchestrated Jenner story, the revelations about Duggar came from actual journalistic digging. And it came from a somewhat unlikely source: InTouch Weekly, a magazine and Web site not known as a giant of investigative journalism, even within the Kardashian-centric universe it inhabits.
InTouch’s last big splash, so to speak, was in January, when it photoshopped Jenner’s head onto a female model’s body to suggest what he might look like as a woman. At the time, Jenner’s intentions were rumored but unconfirmed, and InTouch’s cover was widely denounced as trashy and insensitive.
Yet InTouch has led coverage of the sordid Duggar story with what looks like solid reporting. Although rumors about Duggar’s past have appeared periodically on the Internet for years, the magazine nailed it by disclosing the police investigation and incident report. It subsequently revealed that Duggar’s father, Jim Bob, waited a year before reporting the allegations to authorities.
Not long after InTouch dropped its first bombshell, Josh Duggar resigned from his job at the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group based in Washington. His parents later acknowledged the veracity of the allegations, and Josh Duggar has apologized for “my wrongdoing.” Meanwhile, TLC, the cable network owned by Discovery Communications of Silver Spring, Md., has put “19 Kids and Counting” in limbo, its return to the air uncertain.
The scoops have damaged the Duggars’ wholesome image, but they have been very, very good for InTouch, which competes against supermarket-checkout titans such as the National Enquirer, Star and OK! as well as Web sites such as Gawker, RadarOnline and TMZ. Most of InTouch’s 425,000 weekly copies are sold on newsstands, and the sensational Duggar headlines have produced a 15 percent bump in sales, at $2.99 per copy. Web traffic has shot up 25 percent, the magazine said.
“This all comes from good, basic journalism,” said David Perel, editorial director of InTouch and its sister gossip-purveyors, Life & Style and Closer. “It comes from being there. It’s knowing where to attack and where to start digging.”
The Duggar “get” is perhaps the highest-profile story InTouch has published since it was launched in 2002 by Bauer Media Group, a magazine and broadcasting conglomerate based in Germany.
The previous biggest story for the magazine, which is based in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., was its 2013 exclusive about the late Robert Kardashian’s diaries. The famed lawyer revealed “a heartbreaking childhood portrait of [daughters] Kim, Kourtney and Khloé and a damning picture,” as InTouch put it, of the Kardashian kids’ mother and his ex-wife, Kris, who later married Bruce Jenner.
The Duggar story came together quickly over a three-week period, said Perel, a veteran tabloid editor who joined the publication in late 2013 after guiding both the National Enquirer and Radar Online. He won’t name the magazine’s sources, but a woman named Tandra Barnfield apparently was a helpful guide.
Barnfield was contacted by an InTouch reporter, Melissa Roberto, earlier this year after Barnfield posted a photo on Instagram of her kissing her wife, Samantha Muzny, in front of the Duggars’ home near Springdale, Ark. The photo — a protest, Barnfield said, of Michelle Duggar’s role in promoting opposition to an anti-discrimination initiative last year — had gone viral.
During their conversation, Barnfield, who lives in the Houston area but has family in Springdale, told Roberto about the police report. “It wasn’t like it was a rumor to us,” Barnfield said in an interview. “We knew all about it. . . . It wasn’t hard to get it. You just had to know where to look.”
In fact, it was a little more complicated than that. Perel quickly dispatched two reporters to Springdale and hired a local law firm to advise the magazine about Arkansas’ open-records law, which enables residents (but not reporters from New Jersey) to obtain public documents.
The law firm filed the records request — and was rewarded with a copy of the original police report several days later. “We got it fast,” Perel said.
More requests and more documents followed, although Perel said the magazine hasn’t got everything it wanted. “Do I have more information on the Duggars in general?” he said. “Yes, I’d say we have some significant things coming out,” though he declined to say what.
Perel and Barnfield both deny that InTouch paid any sources for information, a common if ethically fraught practice among tabloid publications. (Perel, however, acknowledges that his magazine has paid for other stories.)
InTouch’s investigation of the Duggars has drawn the sort of recriminations and controversy that could form the basis of its own tabloid story. The most common line of attack, from Sarah Palin and Fox News, among others: that the stories are part of a left-wing media conspiracy against a family that has been a paragon of conservative values.
Perel has heard that before. When he was editing the National Enquirer, some of its scoops were also dismissed as politically motivated — but from alternating sides. The Enquirer enraged conservatives, for example, when it revealed radio host Rush Limbaugh’s addiction to pain killers. And it took heat from liberals when it revealed the extramarital affairs and out-of-wedlock children fathered by former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The InTouch editor also rebuts claims that the magazine revealed underage victims’ names in its Duggar stories. “In Touch did not name the victims in any of its articles,” he said. “Many people were able to correctly speculate about the identity of four of the victims by the information released by the city of Springdale. The fifth victim’s identity is also known to In Touch and has not been disclosed.”
Celebrity-obsessed or not, Perel cites principles that could govern any newsroom: “We always want to make sure we get the whole story. You always have to be digging for what you don’t know. . . . Our intent has been to simply tell the truth about a newsworthy personality.”