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The Accidental Feminist : If the National Enquirer Proved Nothing Else During O.J., It Reaffirmed Its Surprising Pro-Woman, Anti-Abuse Stance

December 10, 1995|Katy Butler | Katy Butler is a Northern California writer who's at work on a book on the press, gender and sexual violence. Her last piece for the magazine was about a recovered-memory trial in Napa Valley.

Shortly before sundown on the October day O.J. Simpson was acquitted, David Perel, senior editor of the National Enquirer, walked out of the tabloid's headquarters in Lantana, Fla., and went home for Yom Kippur. He stayed home the next day for the traditional period of reflection and atonement--his first quiet day since the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman: He spent hours lying face down on his bed thinking about a woman who would not see her children grow up. He thought about racial division in the country. By evening, he had lapsed into a state of sadness and mental and physical exhaustion. The Enquirer's special collector's trial issue was on its way to the printer. ( Cops Fear Goldman's Dad Will Kill O.J. 14 pages of Great Stories and Photos. ) The story was over, or so it seemed.

When Perel staggered back to work that Thursday, reporter Alan Butterfield, who had been trying for months to procure Nicole Brown Simpson's diaries, told him he might be able to get them after all. By Sunday, through means Perel won't discuss but that may have involved large sums of money, Butterfield did just that. Perel took them home and showed them to his wife. She began reading them and halfway through burst into tears. On Monday, Perel and Butterfield put together a five-page section of excerpts. The research department checked the facts, the rewrite desk did its work and the libel lawyer who often flies in from Washington, D.C., went through the issue with a fine-tooth comb.

The following day, the text and photographs were bouncing off satellites to printing presses in New York, Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Texas and Northern California. And Nicole Brown Simpson's deer-in-the-headlights eyes once again stared from the racks of 250,000 checkout counters. The edition made its way, mostly in women's hands, into more than 3 million homes. \o7 (O.J. beat the holy hell out of me and we lied at the X-ray lab Diary Reveals: Gun-Wielding O.J. Told Nicole to Abort Justin. Inside the mind of a battered, tortured woman.)\f7

Radio stations that a year ago would never have deigned to mention the tabloid'sname read from the diaries verbatim. Newspapers cited them. "Anyone would be proud to run this," said Perel at the time. "This is not 'domestic discord.' This is violence of the worst order. It puts a lot of things in context, and it's selling through the roof."

If the O.J. story ever dies, it won't be the National Enquirer that drives the stake through its heart. After a trial that had sullied almost everyone associated with it, the Enquirer's reputation was still being enhanced. In the 16 months between the discovery of the bodies on South Bundy and the acquittal, it had broken enough O.J. stories to be cited by the New York Times for "aggressiveness and accuracy." The Columbia Journalism Review had called Perel and his boss, Executive Editor Steve Coz, "the Woodward and Bernstein of tabloidjournalism." Trial reporters at America's leading newspapers had ordered subscriptions or hidden copies in their grocery bags and read them secretly at home. It had been featured on "Nightline" and in Time magazine. It had gained thousands of new readers. And I was one of them.

I have been a newspaper reporter for more than 16 years and, until the trial began, I thought of the Enquirer as an impeccable source for news of space-alien abductions and Liz Taylor's latest surgery. My mind changed in August, 1994, when I picked up \o7 Nicole's Secret Life \f7 and read the first perceptive analysis I'd seen of her life of violence and intimidation.

It was a time when many journalists were still using the lukewarm phrase domestic discord or avoiding the subject altogether. Not the Enquirer. Amid erotic photographs of Nicole Brown Simpson wrapped in a silver fox coat, the Enquirer reported that during their marriage, O.J. Simpson had beaten Nicole and locked her overnight in his wine cellar. He had also paid her sister's college tuition, employed her father at a Hertz franchise and hired her cousin and his wife as his gardener and housekeeper.

"The bottom line," wrote Julia Coates-Dozier (in \o7 Why Nicole Couldn't Get Away From O.J.\f7 ) "is that Nicole suffered in silence for years as O.J.'s punching bag because her family was tied to her husband's purse strings."

I wanted to know why the Enquirer was running stories I wanted to read. I wantedto know how it managed to cover a story of gender conflict and sexual crime for a mostly female readership while beating the pants off the mainstream press. And that is why, in early June, I found myself at the Enquirer's L.A. bureau on Sunset Strip, a few doors down from the Armani Exchange and Le Dome.

*

On the morning I arrived, the fog lay so low that I could not see the tops of the West Hollywood hills from the bureau's sixth-floor office.

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