The National Enquirer: “All the News That’s Unfit to Print”
By catering to America’s growing thirst for sadism, the National Enquirer has become the nation’s best-selling weekly newspaper.
My wife and I recently moved to a farmstead high in the mountains of Sussex County, New Jersey, a pocket of old-fashioned rural life almost unblemished by the 20th century. The area has, according to official statistics, more cows than people, and quaint country stores are the center of each town’s social life. The dirt roads are probably the worst in the state—the ruggedly individualistic farmers refuse to vote for improvements that would raise their taxes. It is, in short, a pastoral and bucolic world. But when we walk into any of the quaint country stores, we inevitably find, next to the local newspaper, a copy of the National Enquirer, a tabloid whose 32 pages arc regularly given over to descriptions of horrible murders and hideous mutilations.
Throughout all America, as a matter of fact, the popularity of the National Enquirer is nothing short of amazing. In the past 12 years, publisher Generoso Pope Jr. and editor Carl Grothmann have pulled off a stunt almost unique in publishing histoy. When Pope took it over in 1952, the National Enquirer had the same stale, sex-and-scandal formula all its competitors had, and was languishing with a circulation of 25,000. So feeble were its finances that employees‘ weekly paychecks occasionally bounced. Then came the change. Sadism replaced sex. Patricide was given precedence over pin-ups, ax-murders elbowed aside Hollywood adulteries, blinded babies took over the space once allotted to Bikinied blondes. Today the Enquirer has the largest circulation of any weekly newspaper in the country—a fat 1,150,000.
Having found its readers, the Enquirer must now hold them, and that means a grim, ceaseless search for new—and, if possible, more grisly—abominations. Reporters on some of the most respected papers in America have learned that the Enquirer is a marvelous source of additional income. When any especially gruesome news item crosses their desks, they lift out the photos considered too repugnant for their own family paper, rewrite the story, and rush it to Gene Pope’s House of Horrors in New York City. (Enquirer rates are higher than average, and $300 for a one-page item is not unusual.) Other “stringers” may not even be in the news business. An intern in San Francisco takes a camera along on ambulance calls and peddles the Enquirer the more unspeakable shots.
Not that the Enquirer deliberately appeals to the hard-core deviate market. Some publications do, of course, and will even allow deviates to put into their columns personal ads like “Docile young man, white, 22, wishes to meet Amazon-type woman experienced in discipline,” or “Distinguished, scholarly man wishes to meet young woman with one arm amputated.” Such ads are taboo on the Enquirer.
The appeal of the Enquirer comes from stories like the following, taken from recent issues:
MINCE-MEAT MURDER: POLICE FIND BODY CHOPPED INTO 1000 PIECES
MOM HELPS 3 SONS KILL THEIR BRUTAL DAD
PARENTS HELP DAUGHTER BEAT HER HUSBAND TO DEATH
HE BUTCHERS WIFE AND 3 KIDS TO KEEP HIS ATTACK ON DAUGHTER A SECRET
DEAF MAN TRIES TO REGAIN HEARING BY CHOPPING OFF WIFE’S HEAD
CLUBS HIS CRIPPLED GRANDMA TO DEATH WITH HER CRUTCH
HE’S SUCKED INTO A ROARING JET ENGINE, LOSES HIS RIGHT HAND AND SKULL, IS SHATTERED—BUT HE LIVES
Usually these stories arc accompanied by regurgitatingly realistic photographs. CLUBS HIS CRIPPLED GRANDMA TO DEATH WITH HER CRUTCH, for instance, included an unlovely close-up of Grandma’s face after the crutch had worked her over; SUCKED INTO A ROARING JET ENGINE had a shot of the hero grinning and waving his stump cheerfully at the photographer.
Clearly, the Enquirer’s aim—probably unconscious—is to attract those people who happen to have a lot of repressed hostility in their emotional make-up. These are the people who shout “Jump!” encouragingly to would-be suicides, who yell “Hit ‚im!” whenever they hear the squeal of tires, the people who relish Mickey Spillane, who rush out to see movies like Psycho, Strait Jacket, and Lady in a Cage, who watch gory TV shows like The Untouchables and Thriller. Whatever produces their hostility—frustration, anxiety, or self-contempt—the fact is that for these people the Enquirer is manna from heaven, because for only the 15 cents it costs they can see lots and lots of blood flow, numerous arms and legs chopped off, eyes gouged out, faces mutilated—and all, of course, with no danger of retribution whatsoever.
Like the heads, the stories themselves are presented in an overheated neo-tabloidese, which because of its very crudity can sometimes achieve genuine folk eloquence. Here is a typical wodge, from a May 17, 1964, story in which the Enquirer’s favorite villain, BRUTAL DAD, plays the starring role, this time in an epic called BRUTAL DAD IS SAVED FROM PRISON BY DAUGHTER HE BEAT:
Little Jennifer Bailey looked at the long leather strap angrily held up by the judge in the courtroom.
Then she looked or her father who was accused of frequently and savagely beating her with that strap. A render smile broke over the 9-year-old’s face.
“Daddy!” she cried out. “I still love you, Daddy, and I want to go home with you!”
Sentimentality is, as a matter of fact, a hardy staple in the Enquirer’s repertory. In between the grue, the editors serve up great heaping shovelfuls of pathos. The ideal Enquirer story is not BRUTAL DAD CHOPS DAUGHTER INTO 1000 PIECES WHILE MOTHER DIES OF CANCER, but BRUTAL DAD CHOPS DAUGHTER INTO 1000 PIECES WHILE MOTHER, DYING OF CANCER, FORGIVES HIM. In view of this sentimental streak, it is not surprising that next to BRUTAL DAD the Enquirer’s favorite protagonist is HEROIC DOG, who is always dying in futile attempts to save some boy or other. (Occasionally though, there is a switch, such as [in the Nov, 17, 1963 issue]: DOG TEARS CHILD TO SHREDS, THEN STARTS TO EAT CORPSE.)
The most successful feature the Enquirer ever published was another dog story, which managed to combine horror, sentimentality, and scandal all in one package. This was an expose of the extermination methods practiced by the New York Chapter of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The organization, it seems, kill unwanted dogs by putting them in a decompression chamber, where the withdrawal of air causes the animal, because of its internal pressure, to explode. To get this story, a free-lance writer-photographer team went to the A.S.P.C.A. and posed as television men shooting background scenes for a story about a boy and a lost dog. Returning on a Sunday when only a skeleton staff was in the A.S.P.C.A. offices. the team managed to get sensational photos of dogs in the decompression chamber, in their death agonies. Pope paid $400 for this story, and it was worth it. The mail response was tremendous, including many letters from distinguished professors and scientists either damning or defending the A.S.P.C.A.
Like the A.S.P.C.A. expose, most Enquirer stories are completely accurate (but not the gossip columns—for instance, Olivia de Havilland threatened a Jaw suit because her name was linked with an actor in France when she was elsewhere, and could prove it). Editor Carl Grothmann and publisher Generoso Pope Jr. insist on accuracy, and any free-lance writer who does manage to stick the paper with a fake story is permanently blackballed.
Generoso Pope Jr., is, as one might expect, something of a mystery man. One brother of his, Fortune, is a millionaire who publishes the Italian-language Il Progresso, notorious for its history of support to Mussolini, and another brother, Anthony, runs the Colonial Sand and Stone Company, which is being investigated on charges that it billed the City of New York for $176,599 worth of rock salt the city never got. And both Fortune and Anthony, in 1961, were fined $25,000 for shady financial practices in connection with the Colonial Sand and Stone Company. Lily-white they may not be, still neither of them even talks to the Enquirer’s Generoso, who made the headlines himself 7 years ago because he happened to be strolling along with gangland big-shot Frank Costello on 57th Street when someone attempted to rid New York of Mr. Costello’s dubious presence by ventilating his cranium with .32-calibre bullets.
With such an illustrious background, burly, heavy-set Generoso Pope Jr. could hardly be expected to be eager for personal publicity, or to have sensibilities so tender that National Enquirer stories would revolt them.
For the first few years under Pope, the Enquirer conducted a wild search for a correct formula, switching back and forth between the traditional sex-scandal bit, occasional efforts to corner the deviate market, and gropings toward the exploitation of repressed hostility, which finally became the magic recipe. While the search was going on, Pope was often heard to say, this or that “gimmick is old hat. I won’t waste paper on it. We need something jazzier.”
Pope’s continuous search for “something jazzier” led, in those early years, to a rapid turnover
of editors, some of whom lasted only a few months. In 1955 he found a man with a suitably “jazzy” outlook, a tall and lanky ex-bomber pilot named Carl Grothmann, who has been editor of the Enquirer ever since. Between his bombing missions in Europe during World War II and in Korea, and his subsequent career with the Enquirer, Mr. Grothmann seems to have been intimately connected with violent death all his adult life. Like those other celebrated ghouls, Boris Karloff and Charles Addams, Grothmann is said to be personally a shy, reserved, and kindly man, tenderly devoted to his Japanese wife and two children.
When I myself attempted to interview Grothmann, he hemmed and hawed and finally announced that he wanted to see a copy of Fact before speaking to me. The next day he informed me he saw no advantage in being profiled in Fact, and declined to co-operate in any way with this story. What techniques Grothmann has used with other reporters I don’t know, but this is the first profile of the Enquirer to reach print.
Actually, Grothmann does not seem to have much reason to shun publicity. Almost every ex-employee that I have found speaks highly of him, and of the rest of the editorial staff of the Enquirer as well. It is not true that the headlines are written by a low-grade moron grunting and gibbering like Bela Lugosi’s characterization of Igor the Hunchback in the Frankenstein movies. Pope himself graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Grothmann from Colgate University, and the others have distinguished journalistic backgrounds. One staff member was formerly employed by the New York Times.
Lil Primack, the Enquirer’s former librarian, even speaks with genuine warmth of Carl Grothmann’s “integrity” and his devotion to accuracy. The Enquirer’s accuracy, however, is probably in part a sop to the consciences of the staff: It shows that they are “responsible journalists” and not just sensation-mongers. Such reassurance is badly needed, judging from the ex-employees I spoke to. All, without exception, insist that the Enquirer’s material is no worse than what can be found in contemporary movies, TV, and fiction; all immediately add that they, personally, find this material distressing, “… but, after all, a job is a job”; and all comment that, as long as there is a market for such material, somebody is going to supply it.
I myself telephoned the Enquirer offices and complained that I had found my 12-year-old son immersed in “your gory newspaper.” I couldn’t get through to Grothmann, but I spoke to his secretary:
Secretary: Well, the Enquirer is put out for adults. Unfortunately, young people do buy it sometimes, but we have no control over that. It’s up to the newsstand dealer.
Q: Do you find that many young people are reading your publication?
Secretary: Well, yes, unfortunately quite a few do. We do get occasional complaints.
Q: Do you think this is the right kind of material for an adolescent to be reading?
Secretary: Well, we don’t publish anything indecent. There’s no rape or sex. That’s all carefully edited out. I do admit that some of our stories are gory … but that’s what sells.
Some of the Enquirer readers must share the defensiveness of its staff, since the weekly edition is mailed in plain brown paper. On the other hand, the typical reader seems blandly unaware of the nature of what he is enjoying. Last December one chap wrote in to say that he collects pictures of auto accidents and has been told that this means he is a “nut.” He asked what other readers thought. Next week, a kindred spirit wrote back. “If you are a nut, then I am, too. I’ve collected over 5000 so far.”
No pollster has ever done an in-depth profile of the the typical Enquirer reader, but it is safe to assume that the majority are not exactly upper-class intellectuals with warm, wholesome personalities. Paper and clipboard in hand, I myself went out to a newsstand in the wilds of Times Square to do a little first-hand research.
For a while, I took up a position where I could watch the people who examined the Enquirer. Most of them, I found, were secretive. Many sort of sauntered over to the paper, gave it a glance, moved on, and a few minutes later—when there was no one around—rushed back, plopped down their 15 cents, and scooted away.
I was able to catch up with a young Madison Avenue type speeding away from a newsstand with a copy. He had wrapped it around a small package he was carrying, making sure that only the back page was showing. When I accosted him he actually blushed with embarrassment, and seemed to be trying to think of a polite way to brush me off.
Q: Do you buy it regularly?
Q: Why did you today?
A: I Don’t know, I saw a picture of Errol Flynn.
[That weeks front page headline was ERROL FLYNN GAVE ME A LOUSY REPUTATION, SAYS HIS SON.]
Q: This is the first time you’ve bought it?
A: Yes, first time.
Q: Would you want your children to read it?
A: I don’t know, I haven’t read it myself yet.
[All this time he had been waiting for the traffic light to change, and as soon as it did he sped across the street without so much as a “good-day.”]
My next victim was a handsome, well-dressed man in his 50s. As soon as I told him I was doing research about the Enquirer, he began walking away:
A. Oh, don’t ask me, I don’t know anything about it.
Q: But you just bought it.
A: Oh well, I just bought it for someone.
Q: I see. Have you ever read it yourself?
A: No, I just bought it for someone (abrupt exit down subway entrance).
Getting a little tired of embarrassing Enquirer customers, I decided to pick on a few new dealers.
My first subject was an elderly woman with dark red lipstick painted over the general area of her mouth—she was herself reading the Enquirer.
Q: I see you read the Enquirer.
A: (Quickly putting it away) Well, sure, I own the stand, I get it every week. I just had nothing to do, so I looked at it. I don’t read it, I was just looking at it.
Q: Well, I’m doing research on Enquirer readers and—
A: That’s all, I don’t know who buys it. I don’t work here often. You’ll have to ask somebody else.
Q: Well, thank you anyway.
A: Well, I just don’t like to answer questions. You know what I mean?
A: (Young man, late 20s, not too intelligent) Mostly women buy it. All ages. It’s the headline that sells, I sell about 50 to 150 a week depending on the headline. This week it’s not too good. Listen, are those stories true? Like the stories in this one—is that all true?
Q: I don’t know—I’m just from the research bureau.
A: (Man about 60, querulous) When are they going to stop printing this junk? I get more complaints about it than I get customers.
Q: Who complains most?
A: Women. It’s those disgusting headlines.
Q: Who buys it mostly?
A: Young people mostly.
Q: Men or women?
A: Boys mostly. A few women, too. Most of them are regular customers. They buy that garbage every week. You know, I don’t even put it out where you can see it when they have those disgusting pictures on the front page. Every other week I hide it.
Very, very few news dealers share this gentleman’s squeamishness, of course. And if all of them did get together and agreed not to display the paper, the Enquirer would really be headed for bad days. Actually, the basic reason the Enquirer prospers it that it has no organized opposition—no group of Americans has banded together to combat sadism in literature. The powerful Catholic smut-hunting outfit, the National Office for Decent Literature, does not even include the National Enquirer on its list of objectionable publications.
The irony of it is that while social psychologists doubt very much that the reading of prurient literature has any harmful effect on human behavior, they think reading sadistic literature very well may. In the February Scientific American, for instance, psychologist Leonard Berkowitz of the University of Wisconsin describes various experiments he and others have conducted, and concludes that—despite Aristotle’s theory of catharsis—“… the observation of aggression is more likely to induce hostile behavior than to drain of aggressive inclinations,” and this goes “for ’normal‘ people
as well as [for] those who are emotionally disturbed.” Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham has for many years been saying the same thing. Thoroughly disgusted with the current craze for sadism in literature, he has denounced it as “the pornography of violence” and, reversing the usual libertarian position of his profession, has urged police suppression.
It is unlikely, however, that the learned doctor, even with the whole psychiatric profession lined up behind him, could push through legislation against sadism in our entertainment media. Censorship is largely a Catholic monopoly in this country, and the celibate priesthood is apparently much more disturbed by a woman’s nipple than by a photo of a “mincemeat murder.”
Meanwhile, the pornography of violence flourishes. Numerous paperbacks and comic books for years have been cultivation the horror formula, and certainly TV and movies are as gory as ever. A host of shoddy newspapers have sprung up imitating the Enquirer, and many are in the black and getting more so—among them the National Insider, Inside News, Confidential Flash, the Informer, Tattler, Midnight Shocking News, and the National Star Chronicle. As for the Enquirer itself, publisher Generoso Pope Jr. apparently has endless ambition. A former Enquirer newsman told me that a few months back, when he submitted his resignation, Pope called him into his office to try to change his mind. “You know,” Pope said gazing out the window, “that English paper, News of the World, has over 6 million people reading it. We got only a million. England has 50 million people. We got 180. You know what it shows? It shows our potential. Just wait till we start coming out daily—no sweat, no seat at all. We got only a million now, but just you wait. We’ll have 10 million easy. Just wait a few years.”
The National Enquirer: “All the News That’s Unfit to Print”
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in Fact, Volume 1, Issue 4 (July/August 1964).