Checkout lanes at grocery stores are all the same. Behind the rows of gum and breath mints are America's most delicious impulse buys: tabloid newspapers.
Angelina Rejects Brad!
Did Britney's Hubby Cheat?
Slater's Stripper Obsession Drove Wife Away!
Lisa Marie Presley Engaged!
You've thumbed through them. You might have even bought one and gawked at photos of Janet in a thong, Jack with his paramour, and Dubya with his pair o' twins. Maybe you've even tested one of those miracle diets.
For the past 30 years, the epicenter of pay-any-price, play-any-story journalism has been South Florida. The suburban stretch of Interstate 95 from Lantana to Boca Raton has long been known as Tabloid Valley, a place where scandal-, celebrity-, and money-obsessed reporters perfected checkbook journalism between sips of single-malt scotch.
But Tabloid Valley is disappearing. All of the major scandal sheets -- the National Enquirer, Globe, Star, and National Examiner -- have been consolidated into one company, American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, and in the past decade have seen plummeting circulation. Now, the tabloid of all tabloids is packing up. Later this month, the National Enquirer, which came to sleepy Lantana in 1971, will move to New York City. It will leave behind a history in South Florida that includes helping to knock Gary Hart from the 1988 presidential race, breaking the news of neighbor Rush Limbaugh's OxyContin addiction, and receiving a deadly anthrax-laced letter.
Behind it all is a story of unscrupulous journalists, illicit sex, Mafiosi, and a murder-for-hire plot. It's a Shocker!
SCORNED EDITOR BARES ALL!
Iain Calder walks through the study of his palatial, 3,575-square-foot home at Woodfield Country Club in Boca Raton on a late January afternoon. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with, among other titles, Princess Diana's biography and William L. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Calder takes a seat on a brown leather chair and smiles wryly. "We changed the world," says the straight-backed, handsome 66-year-old Scotsman with a head full of gray hair and the genteel mannerisms of British aristocracy.
For nearly 20 years, Calder was editor of the National Enquirer. Fellow journalists and historians alike credit him with shaping the modern American tabloid. In fact, at the Washington, D.C.-based Newseum, Calder is featured among the 100 most influential men in U.S. media history. "I'm right there next to [USA Today founder and former Miami Herald executive city editor] Al Neuharth," Calder says.
Calder owes much of his success to Generoso Pope Jr., the former owner and publisher of the Enquirer, whose outlandish behavior and reputation surpassed even his own newspaper's. Pope's father was Generoso Pope Sr., publisher of the Italian-language newspaper Il Progresso and one of the most influential men in New York City. Among his close friends was Mob boss Frank Costello, whom Generoso asked in 1927 to be the godfather of his son.
At 15 years old, Generoso Jr. was put in charge of Il Progresso, managing the newspaper's general operations. In 1952, the 25-year-old Pope went on his own, buying the New York Evening Enquirer, a once-popular mainstream newspaper whose weekly circulation had dwindled to just 17,000. As the story -- or legend -- goes, Pope borrowed the $25,000 down payment from the Mafia and quickly transformed the renamed National Enquirer into a blood-and-guts tabloid.
Organized crime bankrolled Pope's first few years. Among the possible reasons for the Mob's charity: The Enquirer was the only newspaper that published scores from weekend Italian soccer matches, which created a highly profitable gambling racket in New York's Italian-American community.
While sensational journalism was nothing new in Manhattan -- the place where Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst fought it out, tabloid-style, in the late 19th Century -- Pope's Enquirer was unique for its gratuitous use of violence. A classic headline from the Enquirer's gore days screamed: "A Violent Cannibal Kills Pal & Eats Pieces of His Flesh."
This was the Enquirer that Calder first knew. A precocious young man from Slamannan, a small Scottish mining town, Calder landed his first newspaper job at age 16 at the 1,500-circulation Falkirk Sentinel. Journalism was hardly a calling for Calder. He figured having his byline in the newspaper would increase his chances with the ladies. "My 16-year-old male glands were demanding attention," Calder wrote in his recently published memoir, The Untold Story.
Calder worked his way through the ranks of Scottish journalism, moving to the larger Falkirk Mail and later to the 500,000-circulation Daily Record. Then, in summer 1964, he landed a job as London bureau chief of the National Enquirer, then known for publishing particularly gruesome pictures. One photograph that Calder remembers showed a horse's body on one side of the road, its head on the other. "The Enquirer was a really scuzzy paper," Calder remembers. Yet the salary offered was so enticing that Calder proposed to his girlfriend, Jane, and the newlyweds moved to London. Two years later, Calder landed a promotion and relocated, again with his wife, to New Jersey, to serve as an editor in the Enquirer's main office.
By 1969, Calder's third year in the United States, Pope began to change the format of the newspaper from bloody thoroughbreds to human-interest tales in an effort to land the tabloidin heavily trafficked grocery stores. Pope suddenly believed that his newspaper should give readers reasons to hope, not cringe, Calder remembers. "Rags to Riches" became a weekly feature. Health stories appeared more frequently. People who conquered adversity became full-page profiles. "We were selling dreams," Calder wrote.
At the same time, such celebrities as Johnny Carson (three divorces) and Liz Taylor (four divorces) became an essential part of the Enquirer's diet. Most newspapers, scared of the advertising competition television created, ignored or attacked TV. The Enquirer did the opposite. "We said television was good for you," Calder recalls.
The strategy worked. By 1970, circulation was up from 700,000 to 1 million, mostly through grocery stores sales. One year later, Pope bought an oceanfront mansion in Manalapan and moved the paper to Lantana, a small beach town in the middle of posh Palm Beach County, where it operated out of a one-story complex near Dixie Highway and Lantana Road.
It was a good time for the tabloid. Revenue from supermarket sales poured in. Star, based in New York, and Midnight (now the Globe) in Montreal cropped up as cheap copycats. Calder remembers those days well. In June 1973, he was promoted to the top editorial position and began to recruit reporters from Britain and Australia. The tabloid offered wealth and adventure, paying an astounding $100,000 salary for top reporters and sparing no expense in covering stories. When Elvis Presley died in August 1977, for instance, the Enquirer gave 12 reporters a chartered plane and a briefcase filled with $50,000 cash. Its demand: Get the story. The reporters bribed Presley's friends and family members and returned to Lantana with that famous picture of the King lying in his coffin.
"People always said, 'Oh, the National Enquirer -- they make up their stories,'" Calder says. "Well, I gotta tell ya, for $1.50, I could get a story made up. It cost me hundreds of thousands sometimes to do a story. Why pay a guy $100,000 per year and give him credit cards and a chartered plane unless you're really going to go after the story?"
SHOCKING! TABLOIDS EMBELLISH!
Mike McDonough walks aimlessly through the parking lot of the Old Key Lime House on Ocean Avenue in Lantana, remembering the good old days. Twenty-five years ago, this was the place where McDonough, a 68-year-old Englishman with gelled gray hair and blue eyes, would down whiskey after whiskey with his fellow National Enquirer staffers. "I quit drinking 20 years ago," he admits. "That's probably why I'm still around today."
Before coming to the United States, McDonough worked in London for the Sun and Evening Standard, where he covered the "Great Train Robbery" in 1963, when a gang of men robbed 2.3 million pounds in rural Buckinghamshire. Ten years later, Calder recruited him to come to the National Enquirer. He traveled the world as a tabloid reporter and was eventually sacked three times for various reasons -- "all of them justified," McDonough admits. They included not showing up for meetings and embellishing too many details in a story about demons in a small Mississippi town.
"Tabloid journalism is a foot-in-the-door, aggressive, poetic-license type of journalism," McDonough explains. "I don't mean it's completely untrue. Sometimes, it's a bit tongue-in-cheek, but you can't admit that. You know the old maxim: Never mind the facts. What about the story? With tabloid journalism, you have license. I'm not saying you make stuff up, but you play with it, make it interesting."
McDonough leans forward and smirks as cars drive past on their way to the beach. A common example, he explains, is the movie star's lost undergarments. If the misplaced underwear were as-boring-as-your-mama's white cotton, they'd become red silk in the Enquirer. "That's how tabloid journalism works," he says. "Often, you'll be writing a human drama, and if you write the story the way the person said it, it would be bloody boring. So you've got to put a little oomph into it. One of the terrors is that you think the subject will later say, 'No, I didn't say that!' But in fact they go: 'Yes! Oh, yes! Oh, yes, I said that!' You know why? Because you told a good story."
He pushes his small glasses higher up on the bridge of his nose. "I know there's a moralistic argument against this," he notes "But we're not talking Shakespeare here. If you buy a tabloid newspaper, why do you get outraged? It's meant to be fun."
SON ALLEGES MURDER!
On October 2, 1988, Lois Pope found Generoso Jr. -- then 50 pounds overweight and a three-packs-a-day smoker -- lying on the bed in their Manalapan mansion. After being transported to Lantana's JFK Medical Center, a hospital that had for years been one of the primary benefactors of the publisher's charity, Pope died of a heart attack.
What happened after his death proved to be a fitting end to the tabloid king's life. Pope had requested in his will that the Enquirer be sold. His son Paul, then only 20 years old, alleged that his father had intended to bequeath the newspaper to him and that his death was the result of a murder-for-hire plot. Paul signed up lawyers, contracted a publicist, and threatened to write a tell-all book.
But Calder knew the truth. Years earlier, he contends, Paul alleged that his father wanted him to have the number-two position at the Enquirer. Calder asked his boss about the claim. "How could you even imagine I would put Paul into that job?" Pope told him. "Do you think I'm crazy?"
In late 1988, the Enquirer was put up for sale. At the time, the newspaper circulated about 4.2 million copies per week at 75 cents each -- its primary revenue stream.
When news broke that the Enquirer was on the block, the Palm Beach Post published a cartoon of Elvis coming down from space to buy the tabloid.
In reality, the newspaper had as many as six earthly suitors, including Globe publisher Mike Rosenbloom of Boca Raton and French media giant Hachette-Filipacchi, which published Elle and the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s now-defunct George.
Ultimately, a joint venture between investment firm Boston Ventures and Macfadden Publishing, a New York company that sells true-crime books and special-interest magazines, purchased the Enquirer for $412 million. Under Boston Ventures and Macfadden, the tabloid focused more on the bottom line. In 1990, the joint venture bought the competing Star from Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch for $400 million and renamed the combined companies American Media Inc. (AMI).
Pope's extravagances, including a huge Christmas tree erected outside the office every year, were quickly eliminated. Outrageous editorial expenses were curtailed. The company launched two new titles, Country Weekly and Soap Opera News, that piggybacked on the Enquirer's supermarket distribution. In three years, Boston Ventures and Macfadden increased profits from $17 million to $120 million.
Despite the cutbacks, the company oversaw the Enquirer's golden moment: O.J. Simpson's trial for murdering his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. "Nothing has all the ingredients [of a perfect tabloid story]," Calder admits. "But that one had the most you could ever dream about." Using paid sources, including one inside O.J. Simpson's legal circle, the Enquirer repeatedly beat the venerable dailies on the big story.
The newspaper's tactics weren't always ethical -- one reporter, for instance, romanced Nicole Brown Simpson's two sisters to get a photograph of Nicole on a beach with another man -- but its reporting was so good that the New York Times in December 1994 sparked outrage when it attributed information in two news stories to the Enquirer. In fact, one of the tabloid's reporters, Larry Haley, received the 1996 National Association of Chiefs of Police's J. Edgar Hoover Award for uncovering the infamous photograph showing Simpson wearing Bruno Maglis. The picture contradicted Simpson's assertion under oath that he "would have never worn those ugly-ass shoes."
Despite the publicity surrounding the O.J. trial, the tabloid foundered. Seven years after the joint venture bought the Enquirer, circulation had dipped by nearly half to 2.75 million. Mainstream media's coverage of celebrity news, coupled with the paparazzi's alleged role in Princess Diana's 1997 death in a traffic tunnel in Paris, hurt the Enquirer and Star. In October 1997, Calder was fired. That didn't help. Two years later, Boston Ventures and Macfadden put AMI back on the block.
This time, the buyer was Evercore Partners, a New York investment firm headed by Roger Altman, Bill Clinton's former undersecretary of the Treasury, who had resigned after the Whitewater scandal. In May 1999, Evercore paid $766 million and tapped David Pecker, the Hachette-Filipacchi executive who failed in his first bid to buy the Enquirer, to be president of AMI.
Pecker, a 53-year-old Bronx native who once sold used cars and had experience squeezing hefty profits out of such magazines as Car and Driver and Elle, came to the deal with a sordid reputation. In 1996, he had killed an investigative story in Premiere magazine about Planet Hollywood restaurants. One of Premiere's stakeholders had a financial interest in the chain. "[That incident] will probably be on my tombstone," Pecker told Fortune magazine last year. He declined to comment for this article.
In November 1999, six months after taking the lead job at AMI, Pecker orchestrated a deal to buy the Globe, the Enquirer's only remaining competitor, for $105 million, effectively cornering the supermarket tabloid industry. Pecker then moved the combined operation from its Lantana office to the Globe's newer, 60,000-square-foot facility at 5401 NW Broken Sound Blvd. in Boca Raton.
In December 1999, Pecker announced that the Star, which was based in New York, would also move to the old Globe building. Pecker increased paper and print quality at all the tabloids. He also mandated an end to salacious stories. In short, Pecker wanted to make the tabloids respectable.
His plans were ambitious and expensive. During the first nine months of fiscal 2000, AMI lost $12 million. Still, the company controlled 65 percent of supermarket tabloid shelves nationwide. Pecker, who had purchased a $2.2 million house in Boca Raton in November 2000, figured the bloodletting was temporary. He was wrong.
PHOTOGRAPHER BUYS SUBMARINE!
On a breezy February evening, Jim Leggett sits at a tiki bar along the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers. Dressed in jeans and a safari jacket, Leggett sips slowly from a glass of whiskey.
"Let me tell you something about a good journalist," Leggett says in his Glaswegian accent, opening the right side of his coat to reveal two leather pouches strapped to his belt. "You always carry two cell phones." Leggett unbuttons the strap on one, revealing a shiny silver flask of single-malt whiskey. "This one," he says with a smile, "is for emergencies only."
Following a brief stint as a photographer for the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale News, Leggett joined the Enquirer in 1978. Journalism was his second career; his first had been racing motorcycles in Toronto. "I'm probably the only guy that ever immigrated to the United States on a motorcycle," Leggett says. "Later, while in Florida, I'd heard Iain Calder was prone to hiring Scotsmen. I convinced him to give me a tryout."
Leggett failed and was fired. One month later, after another Enquirer photographer was terminated, Calder called Leggett back. "Want to try again?" he asked.
Over the next 20 years, as a staffer or freelancer for the Enquirer and other tabloids, Leggett scaled a hotel wall in the Bahamas, tried to buy a submarine to obtain a photograph of Caroline Kennedy on a yacht in the Caribbean, and slept in the childhood beds of Michael J. Fox and Kirstie Alley.
"Here's a story for you," Leggett says as he grabs his whiskey. It was October 1988, and Leggett and Mike McDonough had both been canned at the Enquirer. They were now working for the competing Star in Curaçao, trying to track down Lisa Marie Presley and her new husband, bassist Danny Keough. The honeymooning couple, they discovered, was staying on a yacht docked at port. They cased the ship. That's when they saw a reporter from the Enquirer walking on deck. He'd somehow gotten aboard. They'd been scooped.
But Leggett had an idea. He knew the reporter was undercover. He and McDonough approached the ship. "The captain comes out," Leggett remembers. "I say, 'Hi, I'm Jim from the Star. We'd like to do a story. '"
"No tabloid reporters allowed," Leggett remembers the captain telling him.
"Well, you've already got one aboard," he replied, pointing. "He's from the Enquirer."
Leggett walked away. A few minutes later, he remembers, the Enquirer reporter came walking down the plank. "Fuck you, you buggers!" he yelled at Leggett and McDonough.
"That's what it was like back then," Leggett says. "It was the swashbuckling days of journalism. You could take your stories seriously, but you couldn't take yourself seriously."
Just as Leggett says this, a balding, goateed man walks on stage. The lead singer of the band playing in the background announces to the crowd: "This one is for Robert. He just came back from The Price Is Right, where he won $20,000 and a new truck."
"See?" Leggett proclaims, slamming his hand down. "I've found more good stories in bars!"
COLUMNIST BOUGHT OFF?
Jose Lambiet is chatting on the phone at his desk at the Palm Beach Post when his cell phone suddenly rings. A 41-year-old, Belgian-born gossip columnist with a shaved scalp and the fast-talking cadence of a teenager drinking his fifth can of Mountain Dew, Lambiet takes the call. "Uh, well," he says, "how 'bout CityPlace?" He pauses. "Noon?" Pauses again. "OK, see you then."
The columnist picks up the other phone. "Nobody will have lunch with me on the island," he explains. "Nobody wants to be seen with me."
And for good reason. An up-in-your-business reporter who's never fit the ride-a-desk-and-report-the-commission-minutes style of daily newspapering, Lambiet chronicles the ups and downs of Palm Beach's wealthy socialites and celebrities in his column "Page Two." Often using unnamed sources, Lambiet can be mean if he dislikes you ("like most women in [Dan] Catalfumo's entourage, Rey also is blond and leggy," he recently reported of the infamous local developer's personal shopper) and downright fawning if you're on his good side ("so smooth, so diplomatic during her tenure," he wrote of former Palm Beach Mayor Lesly Smith).
Lambiet has attitude, so much personality that Sun-Sentinel editors in the late 1990s didn't know what to do with him. He wasn't the type of reporter who would be content covering cops. Instead, the newspaper gave him a column in which he probed and skewered South Florida personalities. One of them happened to be AMI chief David Pecker.
In February 2000, while writing his column for the Sun-Sentinel, Lambiet had heard that AMI employees were angry after the sale of the company and that one day someone had used a key to scratch the driver's-side door of Pecker's '99 black Corvette convertible. Lambiet discovered that Pecker ordered in-house security to investigate a few of his underlings. "David Pecker is set on making Boca Raton the scandal-sheet capital of the world -- but he's rubbing workers the wrong way," Lambiet wrote.
As the columnist tells it, after reading the piece, Pecker proclaimed: "Anyone who can dig up dirt like that should be working for me." Pecker offered Lambiet a lucrative three-year deal for the Sun-Sentinel scribe to become the Star's new gossip columnist. The exact terms are protected by a confidentiality agreement.
"That story says a lot about David Pecker," Lambiet says. "He didn't take my reporting personally. His goal was to go legitimate, and the hires he made were geared toward that. You hire reporters from the daily press, and you make them do tabloid stuff."
Other former AMI employees who asked not to be named claim Lambiet's contract was hush money. "Pecker didn't like what Jose was writing, so he shut him up," a former reporter for the Star contends.
When Lambiet joined the staff in early 2001, the Enquirer, Star, and Globe were still run by old British reporters with tendencies to imbibe and embellish. Pecker began to run many of them out. "A lot of these old guys were doing journalism from barstools," Lambiet recalls. "They were lazy bastards. They were taking the old publishers -- the Popes of the world -- for a ride."
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. Globe Photo 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 Weekly Editor 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 Weekly and 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 Star to 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 Enquirer will debut April 11 and include columns from reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith and Debbie Frank, Princess Diana's former astrologer.
AMI's down-market tabloids -- Globe, National Examiner, and Weekly World News --will remain in Boca. "We certainly did everything we could to keep them in Boca Raton," Mayor Steven Abrams says.
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 Enquirer about 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.
The swashbuckling tabloid days are gone. With the Enquirer headed to New York, Tabloid Valley and the hard-drinking, source-bribing journalists it nurtured are quickly vanishing. Gone also is the catchy way they tried to point out the absurdity of life.
Standing along Dixie Highway, McDonough recalls a story about Peter Burt's father, long-time Enquirer reporter and Examiner Editor Billy Burt. During the senior Burt's tenure at the Examiner in the '80s, the tabloid quoted a farmer who alleged that Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were living together in a remote cabin in Alaska. A British journalist who was in South Florida to research a story about the U.S. tabloid industry grilled Burt about the article.
"You know that isn't true," McDonough remembers the reporter telling Burt.
"We have someone who says it's true," Burt responded. "This rancher, he says he saw them."
"But you know that's not true," the reporter insisted.
"Excuse me! In the New York Times this morning, President Reagan was quoted as saying there were no Contras in Nicaragua. We know that's not true either, but they still printed it."
McDonough laughs, stuffing his hands in his jeans pockets. He still lives in Lantana and works as a freelance writer for several newspapers in England. But he misses those outrageous tabloid days.
"A few years ago, I was riding my bike through Lantana," he says as he trains an eye across Dixie Highway. "I saw a big truck in front of the Enquirer building, and someone was loading up that famous, big red sign. It was just sad, painfully sad."
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