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When the National Enquirer Pounces, Sales Jump--and So Do Its Critics

June 11, 1987|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

Once again, the National Enquirer has caught the nation's eye, doing things its way.

The Enquirer's recent publication of photos of Donna Rice and Gary Hart frolicking in the Bahamas demonstrated that the mass-circulation tabloid is still pursuing its own distinctive, flamboyant approach to the news.

The Enquirer's latest coup is thought to have pushed its circulation up to the vicinity of 5 million for the week. And with its frequently eye-catching brand of journalism, there are still a few things Enquiring Minds want to know:

- Is this any way for a newspaper to behave?

- Why are so many readers attracted to the publication, which claims the largest circulation in the nation?

- Does it perform a useful--or harmful--service for society?

The answers to these questions come in a variety of shades, from the newsroom enthusiasm of National Enquirer editor and president Iain Calder to the lawsuits filed (and believed settled for substantial sums) by such celebrities as Carol Burnett, Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra.

Calder declined to comment on any lawsuits involving the Enquirer, preferring to discuss what he considered big successes. He also defended the accuracy of his publication.

Asked for his opinion of the Enquirer, Edward Bassett, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, observed that sensational, celebrity-oriented news coverage is hardly new.

"You've got to go back to (William Randolph) Hearst and then jump two generations back to (James Gordon) Bennett to find things that are comparable," he said.

Jonathan Alter, media critic for Newsweek, observed: "I think (reading the Enquirer) is like eating junk food . . . you just get a short buzz off it and you know it's junk. I don't believe most people who read it take it completely seriously. They think it's fun and tastes good and they can get their real nourishment from something else."

Enquirer editor Calder, a 48-year-old native of Slamannan, Scotland, won't discuss where he obtained the Hart/Rice photos--which were subsequently picked up by much of the news media. (Rice later accused her friend Lynn Armandt of selling the photos and story to the Enquirer; unidentified sources claimed that Armandt asked $25,000 for them.) Nor did Calder want to criticize how other publications operate. However, he made it clear that if the Enquirer had pursued the initial tip about Donna Rice flying to Washington to spend a weekend with the would-be presidential candidate--the tip went to the Miami Herald--the logistics would have been handled differently.

Then, he detailed a theoretical Enquirer stakeout that sounded worthy of the CIA, which, incidentally, once employed the Enquirer's owner, Generoso (Gene) Pope.

"If I knew someone were going to be on a plane, I'd have someone on the plane, trying to sit next to them or trying to talk to them," Calder said, speaking by phone from Enquirer headquarters in Lantana, Fla. "I'd also have someone at the airport and a photographer there taking pictures. I would have another person ready to tail that person in a car. I would probably also hire an expert motorcyclist in case the first car were lost.

Checking It Out

"At the house, I'd have several people there in advance, hours before hand, to check out the area. I'd also have photographers there checking it out. You can't go on people's property. You have to be very careful not to break the law."

But, added Calder, you can approach neighbors about renting out their windows. "You say to the people, 'Here's x hundred dollars, can I use your window?' I'd have an infrared camera in the window overlooking the area or a camera that takes pictures in low light. I'd try to have all the people with radios or telephones in their cars or walkie-talkies. If it were a really major story, I'd have an editor on the spot. . . . You have to have a military-style operation."

Still, don't expect to see the Enquirer troops--who once brought readers the contents of Henry Kissinger's garbage--staking out George Bush, Alexander Haig, Jesse Jackson or any other likely presidential candidate. In Calder's view, his readers just aren't that interested in most politicians.

He cited a May 5 Enquirer story in which 60% of people polled in four U.S. cities recognized television's Vanna White from a photo. Only 42% of those surveyed could name the individual in a picture of Vice President George Bush. Though Calder acknowledged the poll was not scientific, he still finds it a useful gauge.

"We wouldn't have looked into Gary Hart if the media hadn't made this into a major news event," the editor said.

Faith Popcorn, trend spotter and founder of Brainreserve, a New York marketing and consulting firm, described the Enquirer this way: "It's hot. It's fun. It's superficial. I think that what people like about it is its high profile, highly personal information. I think they care very little about whether it's accurate or not. It's people's fantasies about the people who are written about."

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