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Is There a Bit of Good Lurking in Those Evil Tabloids?

September 04, 1996|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The professional hand-wringers are back.

Every couple of years or so--when the mainstream media follow a story that first appeared in a supermarket tabloid like the National Enquirer or the Star--the tsk-tsking begins.

In 1992, the outcry was over Gennifer Flowers' claims of an affair with Bill Clinton.

After that it was the National Enquirer's scoops on the O.J. Simpson case.

And now, it's the Star's expose of Clinton confidant Dick Morris' alleged kinky trysts with a $200-an-hour hooker. (The Star splashed it on check-out stands Monday, although the New York Post published excerpts last Thursday and the story was immediately picked up nationwide.)

Media self-flagellation aside, the continued cross-over of such stories to the mainstream press raises a question: Are supermarket tabloids truly the work of Satan, as critics suggest (even while reprinting the allegations anyway), or do the publications perform an occasional journalistic public service?

"Do they do a good thing now and then?" asks David Krajicek, an assistant professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "That's like asking if Genghis Khan did a good thing now and then."

But other observers concede there are certain jobs the supermarket scandal sheets do well.

*

When the National Enquirer beat its Establishment competitors on several O.J. Simpson stories--including the content of his interrogation by police, details of his 1989 fight with Nicole and a photo of him wearing size 12 Bruno Magli shoes--the New York Times praised the tabloid for its aggressiveness and accuracy.

"From time to time, they do have something you have to check out," says Dick Blood, an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University and a former city editor at the New York Daily News. "But you don't just take their word for it."

Not by a longshot.

Although tabloid editors insist they basically use the same reporting techniques as their more "respectable" cousins--the Enquirer, for example, claims to employ former staffers from the Washington Post, New York Times and Chicago Tribune--they still "miss more often than they hit," Krajicek says.

Consider the Morris-and-hooker story.

Star Editor in Chief Phil Bunton admits the piece hinges on circumstantial evidence, and that the source, Sherry Rowlands, a 37-year-old Washington call girl, received payment for the rights to her tale.

"We do pay money for stories," Bunton says, "but we don't think that taints them because we still have to prove they're true."

In this case, the "documentation" began with a signed check from Morris to Rowlands, his voice on her answering machine and entries from her diary. "None of this proves a sexual relationship," Bunton says. "So we essentially had to catch him in the act."

To do that, the Star took pictures of Morris and his paramour on his hotel room's balcony, first clothed and later kissing and cuddling in bathrobes, Bunton says. "That's as good as you can get. . . . It seemed clear that if she's a call girl, they must have had sex."

From there, the Star decided to take Rowlands at her word when she described Morris' alleged fascination with toe-sucking and his purported phone conversations with Clinton.

"You try to confirm as many things as you can to confirm a theme of accuracy," explains National Enquirer Executive Editor Steve Coz.

But Bunton concedes--and a never-ending spate of lawsuits, retractions and flubs proves--the pitfalls of such methods: "There's always the risk [that a source is making up the rest]."

*

Exactly, says journalism professor Krajicek. "A legitimate paper wouldn't touch the Morris story with a 10-foot pole. But if a sleazy organization like the Star does it, then the rest of us will stand outside and peek in the windows of the Star. . . . It's peeping-Tom journalism . . . [and] I think it brings shame to the profession."

Blood argues: "It is shameful, but it's not going to go away. . . . [Readers] are fascinated by weaknesses and flaws in prominent people. They always have been. . . . If I read something in a supermarket tabloid that had any credibility and was explosive, sure I'd send some reporters to check it out."

But the key word, he notes, is credibility. Years ago, Blood analyzed the Enquirer and says he found that "little real reporting went into it. Everything was from secondary sources: 'The gardener said this' or 'According to a neighbor, that.' "

True, says Bunton. Whereas mainstream media typically need court papers to verify a celebrity divorce, the Star might rely solely on the word of a close friend. "In many cases, we do the same type stories," he says of competitors such as People magazine. "But [we're more] inclined to go with pure unsubstantiated gossip."

Still, it gets results. In recent years, Coz and Bunton note, "respectable" media have chased down numerous stories first reported in the tabloids, from Rock Hudson having AIDS to the royal family's travails.

"I think we're better at doing stories that are what readers really want to read about," Bunton says.

So what's next?

Bunton has hinted at possible sex scandal stories involving Republicans. And Coz says the National Enquirer is always ready to mobilize its troops for dirt behind any hot national topic.

Will the "legitimate" media follow once again? Probably.

When journalism professor Blood was told about colleague Krajicek's criticism of the Dick Morris sex story, he laughed. "Is he saying he wouldn't use that story?" Blood asked. "There's no way he couldn't use it."

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