Inside The National Enquirer

When you think of great investigative journalism, sensational tabloids don't ordinarily spring right to mind. But perhaps because it does fit into the sensational category, the John Edwards story was broken by The National Enquirer. Kelly Cobiella visits the tabloid … and tells all.

Celebrities caught on camera. Gossip about the famous.

It's a formula that has turned the weekly National Enquirer into the supermarket tabloid of record for anyone who wants to know more - or see more - about the lifestyles, and downfalls, of the rich and famous.

"People say Enquirer is sensationalistic," said editor David Perel. "And I would say I hope it is sensational. When we work a story we'll probably take the most sensational angle and put it in the headline and blast it to catch your attention."

And it does sell papers … about 1.2 million copies a week.

"What is the perfect National Enquirer story?" Cobiella asked.

"A big news event with accompanying photograph; a major celebrity doing something that they said they weren't doing," he said.

Every day, this Florida-based gossip gatherer scours through 20,000 photos, looking for the pictures that tell stories, such as pictures of Oprah. "Because she went on a diet, talked about the diet recently, and these pics indicate it was not too successful," he said.

Bad news for someone famous is good news for the Enquirer, like actor Patrick Swayze, suffering from pancreatic cancer:

"His face looks sunken now where it did not before," Perel noted after examining one picture.

But a tabloid notorious for dishing dirt on the stars is now in the news for uncovering the year's biggest political scandal: the John Edwards affair, a story the Enquirer first began reporting while Edwards was still a presidential candidate.

Perel indicated an issue from December 2007. It was "the first time we named Rielle Hunter as lover and revealed she was 6 months pregnant and got the exclusive photo of her," he said.

The Enquirer pursued the story for months. Then the recent revelation of a secret Beverly Hills hotel rendezvous between Edwards and his mistress broke the scandal wide open. Senior writer Alexander Hitchin was lying in wait on a tip from an unnamed source:

Hitchen was at a hotel: "OK, so it's 2:40 in the morning. And there's a basement lobby, I approached him. And I said, 'Mr. Edwards, Alexander Hitchen from the National Enquirer. Would you like to explain why you were with your mistress Rielle Hunter and your love child tonight?'

"At that point he went white and ran into a restroom. I tried to open the door, and he's pushing and pulling."

"You're fighting with him over the bathroom door?" Cobiella said.

"Ridiculous, ridiculous," Hitchen laughed.

The mainstream media began reporting the scandal only after the former senator confessed to ABC News.

Edwards said the affair ended in 2006 and denied being the father of Hunter's child.

So, Cobiella asked, if this is such scoop, and this was first out several months ago, why didn't others pick up on it?

Kurt Anderson, a media analyst and contributing editor at New York Magazine, said, "That is the sixty-four thousand million dollar question, isn't it?

"The National Enquirer gives the story cooties for all the Times and Boston Globes, the Washington Posts of the world. That is partly because thirty years, forty, fifty years ago, the National Enquirer was very different than today. It is this low-brow celebrity scandal-mongering thing."

That tawdry reputation began back in the '50s under then-owner and editor David Pope. Mike Wallace interviewed Pope for a 60 Minutes story in 1976:

Pope: I was looking for something that would give us instant circulation. And really I used to marvel at automobile accidents, and I'd see the public crowd around and for some reason have a morbid fascination in what's going on. I personally would turn my head; I couldn't stand it. But I knew they were attracted to that.

Wallace: The public was fascinated by gore.

Pope: Right

Wallace: And so, you decided -

Pope: So we gave it to them

Wallace: Huh?

Pope: We gave it to them - in spades.

When circulation stalled, Pope started placing the paper by supermarket checkout counters and changed its focus: sensational headlines, gossip, stories about psychic phenomena, alleged medical breakthroughs.

And some news that just isn't true. The resulting lawsuits against the Enquirer have made news of their own. In 1982 Carol Burnett won a judgment after a false report of being drunk in public.

Just last week there was news of a settlement with a woman falsely reported as having a son fathered by Senator Ted Kennedy.

But contrary to what you might think, the Enquirer's record in courtroom lawsuits is no better or worse than other media outlets. Unknown is the number of out-of-court settlements the paper has had.

"Every newspaper gets sued; It's a fact of life," Perel (left) said. "But, you know, we do pretty well. That's not to say we get everything right. We don't. But you show the newspaper that does, I'll start subscribing to it right now."

And every now and then, the Enquirer manages to break big stories. Their infamous "Monkey Business" photo sank Senator Gary's Harts presidential ambition. They ran the exclusive that Jesse Jackson had an illegitimate child, and found incriminating photos of O.J. Simpson wearing those Bruno Magli shoes which he had denied owning.

"It is a very rare type of shoe," Perel said. "It left the bloody footprints at the murder scene. He said he never owned 'those ugly ass shoes.' That was his famous quote. And nobody could find a photograph [of him wearing them]. We found the photograph."

Like so many other celebrity magazines, the Enquirer pays for photographs, and it's not shy about paying for information, either.

That raises eyebrows - and questions of credibility. And it's another reason, Kurt Anderson says, why most mainstream media outlets ignored the Edwards rumors … and got stung.

"I think this will be a lesson," Anderson said. "I think this John Edwards case will be a moment we'll look back in three, five, ten years hence and say that was one of the moments when the main street media realized that they can't make assumptions about the truth of a story based on where it popped up."

Back in Florida, the Enquirer is still hot on the trail of the John Edwards story; Perel muses over a photo of a hotel room that is missing its bed ("That is truly strange" he said. "I think we'll send a reporter or two over there and nose around and see what we find out."). But even he has limits.

"Stop, stop. I don't want to go there. I do not like it," Perel said to a reporter's suggestion about the Elizabeth Edwards angle. "She's been hurt, she's lashed out."

"So there is such a thing as 'untouchable'?" Cobiella asked.

"Just some places you don't go," Perel told her. "And there's some places I don't want to go. And in this case we really have tried to stay away from that aspect of the story.

"I want to hit the news element of the story. I want to hit the fact that a man running for president had an affair and then lied about it to the American public and, you know, darn near blew up his own political party while doing it."