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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.

By the winter of 1991, the Enquirer's approach to the rape case looked rather more plausible than the New York Times'. Three women--one a doctor, one the medical student Towle had first interviewed and one an attorney--signed affidavits claiming Smith had sexually attacked them. All three said they'd been motivated partly by mainstream newspaper stories that made Smith, a young medical intern, look like a ministering angel.

Like Nicole Simpson's diaries, the affidavits never fully made the transition from the world of gossip to the realm where information really matters: They were excluded from Smith's trial, and he was acquitted in mid-December. Then the Enquirer went on to other things, like boxer Mike Tyson's rape trial and the sexual harassment charges against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas: Tyson Big-Bucks Payoff to Beat Rape Case. Judge Thomas Lied: He Fails Lie Detector Test!

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It's not just the victims of the rich and famous who find a champion in the Enquirer. Last year, John Blosser launched a column called "Deadbeat Dads"; he has since run the mug shots of 25 men who skipped out on tens of thousands of dollars of child-support payments; 22 have been identified and six were jailed. Most of the rest now pay their child support and some even visit their children. "My father used to get up at 4 a.m. to drive a bread truck and support his family," says Blosser, who has won awards from two national child-support organizations. "I look at these bums and say, 'Give me my hunting license.' "

When I read his stories, and others that plead for homes for hard-to-place adoptive kids or for Christmas presents for an impoverished West Virginia town, I think I can discern a social conscience in the Enquirer, the same way I might convince myself I see a halo around the sun when I look at it through half-closed eyes.

But turn a page, and there's the double photo spread of Burt Reynolds without his toupee, or Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart's lap, or a shocked Lyle Lovett coming out of a hotel room with a woman who is not Julia Roberts, and I think again. The Enquirer doesn't distinguish sexual harm from hanky-panky. It operates in the territory where the terms privacy, shame, and boundary invasion have no meaning, where the only limits are those the law defines.

"They're not afraid to go after icons. That's what they're there to do," says Suzanne Braun Levine, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. "As they're heading into the mud, there may be a point in the arc where they're doing the right thing, but that's not where they're going. It's almost accidental."

The idea that mainstream newspapers might be seen as operating in the Enquirer'sterritory also troubles Siegal at the New York Times. "Almost every day somewhere in this country, newspeople are in court claiming their First Amendment standing, even if it's only a matter of getting a freedom of information document released or a court hearing opened," he says. "We come before judges whose opinion of us is conditioned by the behavior of the entire profession. The public perception that we are lumped with the supermarket tabloids under some heading called the 'media' is not a healthy development for our role or our standing in the courts."

Coz admits that while the trial "blackened part of my soul" and increased his cynicism, it certainly has made his life since easier. "It changed a helluva lot of people's perceptions of the Enquirer and made our jobs easier. We have better entree than we ever had."

"I'm not sure the Enquirer has a philosophy," Coates-Dozier says to me one afternoon, "except to give the readers what they want, and that changes every day. Social significance is not our objective. Sadly, there's not a lot of social significance in many celebrities' lives. But the work is exciting and the pay is good. It's more than I ever dreamed I'd be making."

It's a warm Monday afternoon in late June, and the Enquirer's latest issue is atthe checkout stands. Alan Smith has confirmed that Liz Taylor has undergone hip-replacement surgery: Liz' Agony: She goes under the knife for Larry. Craig Lewis has wound up the Marcus Allen story: O.J.'s Guilty, Says His Pal. Why Marcus Allen Refuses to Testify.

By Wednesday, text and photographs of a new issue will be transmitted to six printing plants across the country: Eva Gabor's secret fight for life. Tyson Cheats on Bride-to-be with String of Girls! Jim Carrey Book Bonus: 'Batman' Star's Amazing Rags to Riches Story.

By July, Coates-Dozier will be competing with a New York Times reporter on the Hugh Grant scandal, and Eva Gabor will be dead.

I ask Coates-Dozier why she became a reporter, and I don't hear what mainstream reporters often say--about giving voice to the voiceless or being a necessary force in a democracy. The closest she comes to idealism is allowing that she loves to catch celebrities cheating on their wives. "Somebody has to be there for the women," she says.

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