(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Jack Shafer
Feb 27 The National Enquirer got its nosey-parker proboscis bloodied this month after its big Philip Seymour Hoffman "scoop" was promptly revealed to be a hoax.
Only three days after Hoffman died, the tabloid reported that playwright David Bar Katz - the friend who discovered Hoffman's dead body - and Hoffman were lovers. It also alleged that Katz watched Hoffman freebase cocaine the evening before his death and had repeatedly witnessed his friend's use of heroin.
The source for the Enquirer's piece? Katz himself, according to the tabloid. But when Katz immediately stepped forward, denied any such interview took place, denied being Hoffman's lover, denied having watched him do cocaine or heroin, and sued the Enquirer for $50 million, the newspaper retracted the story and apologized. It has now settled with Katz and will fund a foundation that will make annual grants of $45,000 to unproduced playwrights to honor Hoffman. The Enquirer also took out a full-page ad in yesterday's New York Times to state that it had been fooled by an imposter who "falsely and convincingly claimed to be Mr. Katz." The tabloid apologized and has pledged continued support of the playwright prize.
How did the Enquirer get duped? "Enquiring minds want to know," as the newspaper's longstanding motto puts it. Alas, the paper stiff-armed my requests to discuss the Hoffman story, as I suspected it would. I phoned Enquirer Editor-in-Chief Tony Frost to chat and his office referred me to the publication's New York attorney who said the newspaper has no comment.
In the absence of the Enquirer's assistance, maybe we can piece together what went wrong. Grave-dancers that they are, the Enquirer loves nothing more than to make a playpen of the bones of the recently deceased, as long as the recently deceased are or were famous. No more fertile loam exists for stories about the secret sexual practices of celebrities than the Enquirer. In making that charge, I'm not accusing the paper of anti-gay bigotry for attempting to "out" the dead Hoffman. The paper would have likely delighted in publishing a story about the actor bedding four or five women at a time had it confirmed such a story to its satisfaction. It is the unorthodox use of sexual equipment that excites the ideal Enquirer reader, not the use of it per se.
One of the questions I had for the Enquirer was whether it paid the imposter Katz for his story or not. The paper and some of its competitors have long paid for information, putting them at odds with the establishment press that opposes payment. Some TV news network reporters have found paths around this mainstream aversion, paying news sources it is reporting on for photo or videos to tell the story. In 2008, ABC News paid murder suspect Casey Anthony for such archival material. In 2011, NBC's Today deposited money in a college fund for a high school student who was in the news. Filmmaker Errol Morris paid some of the soldiers who were convicted of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib for his movie Standard Operating Procedure.
As I've written before, my objections to paying sources are more practical than ethical. (By the way, I've never paid.) If somebody is going to benefit from the publication of information you possess, why shouldn't it be you? Nobody would flinch if you got Random House to pay you six figures for your story in the form of a book you write.
So why consider it unclean to charge the networks or the newspapers for your material? The practical argument against paying for information is that it encourages gold-digging liars to manufacture sensational and tawdry stories. Also, by monetizing the news sources, it may prejudice coverage in the direction of the wealthy, who could pay for the insertion of "news" into publications by paying the right people, as Richard Keeble writes in "Ethics for Journalists." The last publication in America that would advocate more reporters paying their sources would be the Enquirer, as the entry of new bidders for information would drive prices high.
The Enquirer advertises its enthusiasm for paying on its home page with a flashing button promising "Got New News? We'll Pay Big Bucks. Click Here." Which returns me to the question the Enquirer declined to answer. (Maybe I should have offered the paper money!) Was the Katz imposter paid?
I can only guess. After all, are there any circumstances under which a well-known playwright would have gone to the Enquirer with the story of a famous and now dead actor who was a close friend? It doesn't make sense. If a writer wanted to share that part of his life with readers, wouldn't he pitch it to Vanity Fair, Esquire, or a similar venue, where he could fend off charges of exploitation more easily? If the Enquirer did pay, its reporters, editors, and lawyers must have been very suspicious of the ersatz Katz. He must have knitted them a brilliant mile of very convincing yarn, one that I would pay a couple of bucks to view.
What's the likelihood that the Enquirer didn't pay the fake Katz? However suspicious the selling of the Hoffman story might be, giving it away to the Enquirer would be 10 times more suspicious. Payment has historically been one of the most productive arrows in the Enquirer quiver. Former Enquirer editor Iain Calder brags about its scoops on the O.J. Simpson, Liberace, and John Belushi beats in his autobiography, "The Untold Story: My 20 Years Running the National Enquirer." Paid sources also helped it reel in the John Edwards patrimony story. But maybe the payment of news sources brings with it false confidence. No matter how experienced the Enquirer may have become in uncovering liars who seek payment for their stories, an extraordinary liar is hard to beat.
The Hoffman episode won't cause the Enquirer to miss a beat. As Alex Beam's 1999 Atlantic feature about its legal battles attest, the publication has traditionally weathered its previous journalistic failures by paying out of court settlements, as it did this week. But it should encourage us to read more critically, whether the page is tabloid or broadsheet, whether the source is real or proves to be imaginary. I was reminded of this a few years ago when an acquaintance told me about the tabloid exploits of his friend, Mr. Minor Celebrity.
Mr. Minor Celebrity woke one morning to find his reputation trashed at length by a tabloid journal. His vociferous denials of the charges were included in the story, so my acquaintance expressed sympathy about the libels to Mr. Minor Celebrity, who only shrugged. He explained that the story was airtight and that he knew its source intimately - he looked at him every morning in the mirror. Mr. Minor Celebrity needed money, the publication had money to spend, and the stories were all true, so he confirmed them and took the cash. (Jack Shafer)