By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Pecker's AMI continued and, in some cases, increased the intensity with which lawyers reviewed potentially libelous stories prior to publication. Pecker wanted to eliminate the reputation for fabrication that had been fostered under Pope. Most newspapers, including this one, use lawyers to vet only the most sensitive stories. AMI's attorneys review everything. "The lawyers mark off every word," Lambiet says. "They vet every single word. Does it work? I was there three years, and I never got sued."
That doesn't mean the tabloids aren't sued. Among those who have filed libel claims against AMI in Palm Beach County Circuit Court are Cody Gifford, the 9-year-old son of Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford; and former Democratic Rep. Gary Condit. Neither has been successful. Yet.
NEWSPAPER ATTACKED! AMI IN RETREAT!
On September 19, 2001, AMI received a mysterious letter. GlobePhoto Editor Bob Stevens, a 63-year-old with poor vision, held the envelope close to his face to read the print. Stevens had no way of knowing it was laced with a lethal dose of anthrax.
Thirteen days later, on October 2, 2001, Stevens checked into a hospital with fever and disorientation. Three days later, he died. An autopsy confirmed that he had inhaled anthrax. Federal, state, and county authorities quickly closed AMI's offices.
On October 19, 2001, the Enquirer ran a story headlined: "BIO-TERRORISM: THE FLORIDA ANTHRAX ATTACK ON ENQUIRER HEADQUARTERS."
Pecker, often vilified for being cutthroat, spent the following days consoling his staff of roughly 700 people as they stood in line for antibiotics. After operating out of diners and temporary locations, Pecker in December 2001 found a new home for AMI at T-REX Technology Center in Boca Raton. Palm Beach County forked over $40,000 to entice the company to stay.
"Pecker was the Rudy Giuliani of publishing," Lambiet says. "We never missed a week of publishing. Some other magazine would have folded. But it was never a question for AMI. Having worked in daily newspapers, I can tell you that a lot of those people would have run home to mama."
But AMI didn't recover. The company sold its anthrax-infected building to Boca Raton real estate investor David Rustine for just $40,000. (The Globe had purchased the building for $1 million in 1983.) In September 2003, the company laid off 70 workers despite reporting a $35.4 million profit. Pecker hired a new editor at Star, former US WeeklyEditor Bonnie Fuller, and moved its operations to New York, giving the magazine a $50 million face-lift that included glossy paper. AMI also raised the cover price from $2.19 to $3.29 to offset the additional costs. The new Star hopes to compete with the more respectable US Weeklyand People.
The moves haven't yet succeeded. The National Enquirer, whose cover price has risen to $2.95, has, since 1997, seen circulation decline from 2.7 million to 1.4 million. According to AMI's most recent quarterly earnings report, newsstand sales declined 7.2 percent across the board in the quarter that ended December 31, 2004. At the same time, AMI reported a $281,000 loss on $129 million in revenue. The company attributed the loss to redesigning Star into a glossy magazine. AMI hasn't highlighted the fact that, despite the glossy paper and the move to New York, Star's single-copy sales have declined from 1.14 million per week in 2002 to 920,313 in 2004.
Tabloid Valley is vanishing.
Pecker announced last month that the National Enquirer will follow the Starto New York City and finally abandon Palm Beach County in an effort to rejuvenate that tabloid as well. "The changes put our reporters right in the middle of the action," Pecker said in a statement. The new Enquirerwill debut April 11 and include columns from reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith and Debbie Frank, Princess Diana's former astrologer.
After AMI announced the Enquirer's move, the Sun-Sentinel, recycling the Post's joke from 1988, ran a cartoon of an alien waving goodbye to the Enquirer.
A former AMI staffer who now works for US Weekly dismisses the Enquirer's relocation as a desperate maneuver. "American Media," he says, "is a dying company."
TABLOID VALLEY STRANGLED!
On a sunny February afternoon, Mike McDonough points across the railroad tracks in Lantana to a squat, brown, cement-block building near Dixie Highway. In that office building, McDonough used to walk through the halls and tell his National Enquirer colleagues about traveling through the Amazon and chartering a whaling vessel to the South Pole.
Once, in 1973, Pope sent him to Key West to search for riches with treasure hunter Mel Fisher and a psychic. They fished out a large gold chain. On another occasion that same year, Pope ordered McDonough to the remote Robinson Crusoe Island off the coast of Chile. Seeing the place on a map, McDonough chartered a plane and spun a yarn for the Enquirerabout finding Daniel Defoe's secret retreat.
"Not everyone can do tabloids," McDonough says matter-of-factly. "Someone might say, 'Oh, that's a great story,' but it isn't. There's a particular news sense to tabloids, a little nose that says, 'No, that's not right. '"
There aren't many Tabloid Valley veterans left these days. Even fewer retired with the opulence of Woodfield Country Club resident Iain Calder. Brian Hogan, a daredevil Australian who became one of Tabloid Valley's best-known reporters, spent the last few years of his life as a diabetic, one-legged cabbie in Lake Worth. Until his death in October 2004, Hogan passed out business cards that read, "Taxi Driver and Fabricator." Peter Burt, the Enquirer reporter who became famous for bribing a source inside O.J. Simpson's legal camp, enjoyed the life of a Palm Beach socialite and real-estate agent until a month ago, when sheriff's deputies arrested the 38-year-old on Lake Worth Beach for trying to solicit oral sex from what he believed were two girls, 14 and 15, over the Internet.