It's Star Wars on the Tabs

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Located across the street from a Little League ballfield, the concrete block building looks for all the world like an elementary school. For all its innocuous appearance, however, the structure on South East Coast Avenue in Lantana, Fla., is headquarters for the National Enquirer, the most widely read (4 million circulation) and most vilified tabloid ever to grace a supermarket checkout stand.

For years the paper has titillated readers and infuriated Hollywood with high-decibel headlines. But now the tables are turned. Liz Taylor has filed a $20 million libel suit against the paper for alleging that she was habitually drunk and suffering from a disfiguring disease. Also the Enquirer has come under the journalistic scrutiny of Los Angeles magazine and 60 Minutes. Both reports focused on what were described as journalistic irregularities at the Enquirer, including charges that it fabricates sources for stories as a means to circumvent libel laws.

Enquirer editors hotly deny the accusations, lobbing charges of their own that the paper is the victim of a cabal of celebrities. Gavin de Becker, a Hollywood security consultant who counts among his clients Michael J. Fox, denies that there is a conspiracy bin admits that a disgruntled Enquirer employee leaked story files, payment check stubs and other internal documents to him. "All clients of mine are interested in protecting themselves against 'newsgathering' that is intrusive or illegal," says de Becker. "I'll aggressively pursue any information that might be relevant to their safety or privacy.... On the question of whether there is an organized group of people setting out to do some harm to the Enquirer, the answer is no."

For its part, the Enquirer insists that sources who claim they've been paid for fake stories are simply "using the L-word, lying." say its editors, who produce voluminous records to bolster their point. "The Enquirer doesn't pay sources who don't provide information, and it doesn't make up stories," says Iain Calder, 51, the paper's editor since 1976. "Why would we piss away money on phony sources? What would be the point?"

The point, say Los Angeles magazine and 60 Minutes, is to fool lawyers into thinking that someone has spilled real dirt. But no libel lawyer, counters the Enquirer corps, is going to accept a mere check voucher as proof of a bona fide interview. A bogus source, they add, would be a death sentence. "Our stories are well documented," says Calder. "What we write is true."

But not. apparently, always. Of a story proclaiming that "She-Devil Roseanne Puts Voodoo Curse on Her Ex—And It Works!," Calder says, "Look at the picture—she's holding the doll." In fact, according to Barr, the photo was taken at a New York City street festival by an old friend, who, she surmises, sold it to the paper. "I guess my friend needed the money," says Barr. "It's kind of sad when you figure that friends are falling by the wayside for 20 bucks." The Enquirer stands by the story, insisting that it obtained corroboration from a source close to Barr.

Its editors are also quick to refute charges of unethical billing. They righteously defend what many see as the Enquirer's more disturbing practices—a brand of checkbook journalism that rewards anonymous sources for juicy information. A substantial chunk of the $15 million annual editorial budget is spent on approximately 5,000 payments to sources, including $850,000 for stories that go unpublished. "People in Hollywood don't love us" admits general editor Steve Coz. "They love our money."

And there's more and more to love. According to one ex-Enquirer staffer, sources are paid up to $4,000 for exclusive photos, scripts or medical information about hospitalized celebrities. The Enquirer has extended a standing offer of $1 million to Jackie Onassis for her life story. (She hasn't responded.) According to Janet Charlton, gossip columnist for the Star (a rival tabloid owned by the Enquirer's parent company, the GP Group), source payments are now the norm. "I don't feel guilty about paying because it's a highly competitive business. The information is not going to drop into your lap for nothing."

Understandably, high-bucks, high-stakes journalism sometimes results in a somewhat, uh. aggressive reportorial style. According to John Goodman's publicist, Stan Rosenfield, the Enquirer dispatched at least eight teams of reporters to cover Goodman's wedding last year. A local paper reported that two strippers were hired by the Enquirer to make a surprise appearance at his bachelor party but somehow never managed to find the correct address. "We're not going to respond to every charge made by celebrities who don't like us covering their secrets," says Calder.

Perchance the teams of reporters should fail, say Enquirer foes, the paper seems to weave stories out of whole cloth. Last summer the Enquirer declared that Cher had had "A One-Year Battle with a Terrifying Virus"—a conclusion that Cher's publicist. Lois Smith, says was drawn because of a production delay the previous summer, during the actress's latest film, Mermaids. "Cher didn't start the film because the movie was playing bouncing directors," says Smith. "So they came up with this dreaded disease stuff. Everybody gets sick once in a while, but that doesn't mean you have a dreaded disease."

Perhaps the most painful Enquirer episode in recent Hollywood history came in April 1989, when the paper threatened to expose the existence of an illegitimate daughter Roseanne Barr had given up for adoption 18 years before. According to Barr, Enquirer reporter Brian Williams came to her hotel room at 3 A.M. with an envelope containing the girl's name, address and phone number. "He said, 'You know, Roseanne, I have a couple of kids myself, and I really don't understand why you as a mother won't give us an exclusive so you can be reunited with your daughter." And I said. 'If you're a father, I don't see how you can do this to me.' " The paper eventually printed the story, but without Barr's exclusive.

In the face of that kind of onslaught, some stars fight back, if only in minor ways. When L.A. Law's Corbin Bernsen married actress Amanda Pays two years ago, de Becker fed a phony honeymoon itinerary to tabloid reporters to throw them off the newlyweds' trail. More seriously, when actor Paul Michael Glaser learned the Enquirer was planning to break the story of his daughter's death from AIDS, he took the story himself to the Los Angeles Times. Actress Kate Jackson announced her breast cancer to establishment reporters, rather than see an account in the tabs.

Libel suits are rare—they are costly to bring and difficult to prove. Which is what makes Liz Taylor's $20 million suit against the Enquirer so unusual. "There was a difference here." says Taylor's attorney, Neil Pa-piano. "In this case we knew the story was going to appear beforehand, and we wrote a letter warning them that the specific story ('While Doctors Battle to Save Her Life...Liz Boozes It Up in the Hospital") was false, and we told them not to say it. [The Enquirer says the letter arrived after the magazine was on the stands.] In the past some of the stories were half-truths, quarter-truths or innuendo, but in this case we could easily show this was false."

A week later the Enquirer printed "Liz's Beautiful Face Ravaged by Killer Disease"—another story Papiano says is demonstrably false. "They reported she was suicidal, on drugs, had lupus and was hiding out," he says. "Yet five days after she got out of the hospital she appeared at an AIDS fund-raiser in San Francisco."

"We stand by the accuracy of the stories," says Calder. "Our sources on Liz are extremely good."

Did she or didn't she? Inquiring minds who want to know the real truth about Liz may have the chance to find out when the case goes to court. Yet no matter how Taylor's suit is decided, a larger question remains. Does the Enquirer print the truth? Not as long as it pays sources, say antagonists. As security consultant de Becker puts it. "Am I telling the truth or not? When you give people a check for $200, that [integrity] is gone. When the accounting department has more to do with newsgathering than the editorial department, it's a rotten system."

Meanwhile, under siege in Lantana, the Enquirer goes about its business. As editor Calder has been known to say, "I don't give a damn about Pulitzers. I worry about circulation."

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