Current events overtook documentary filmmaker Mark Landsman even as he was working hard on his film about the National Enquirer and its controversial parent company, AMI.
“We had already gotten our seed money together and were out filming when the Ronan Farrow stories broke in the New Yorker” about President Trump’s alleged connections to Enquirer publisher David Pecker’s attempts to “kill” stories he bought that were critical of Trump. “And so with all that information, we went to CNN Films, and thankfully, they approved the project,” Landsman said.
Landsman’s documentary, “Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer,” traces the infamous tabloid rag’s arc from its outlandish tales of “Bat-Boy” and other such dubious headlines all the way up through the scandal sheet’s attempts to push then-candidate Trump toward the White House.
Landsman says he wasn’t an Enquirer reader before, but a chance encounter with a family friend, Enquirer reporter Malcolm Balfour, stoked the notion of pulling back the curtain on the notorious publication.
“He’s going on about hiring a one-man submarine to attach a listening device to a boat so they could hear Jackie [Kennedy] and [Aristotle] Onassis” in their most intimate moments, Landsman said of Balfour’s monologue. “Crazy stories of espionage. Crazy unconventional sourcing like talking to someone’s barber or the nurse to check their name at Cedars-Sinai.”
Balfour invited Landsman to sit in on a reunion with many of Balfour’s former colleagues at the Enquirer, where Landsman heard war stories of chasing down Princess Diana and the scandal surrounding the photograph that brought down onetime presidential candidate Gary Hart.
Still, not every day Balfour opened for Landsman was so welcoming.
“Some people were like, ‘who are you, and why would I talk to you?’” Landsman said. “But enough people said yes and then it dominoed.
“And then the story of the New Yorker started to break pointing to a connection between Pecker, AMI and the Trump candidacy. […] We made the decision to not chase the headlines and just tell the story of this publication as the main character, and how it was morphing over time from what it was to kind of what it became.”
“Scandalous” thus employs a sensationalist approach to its subject—perhaps one the Enquirer itself might be proud of. Interviewees’ names splash across the screen, and the editing is achieved in a somewhat-frenzied pace meant to draw us inside the frantic pace of so-called “yellow journalism.”
But beyond the spectacle, Landsman said he felt it important to ask the bigger questions, such as why people would even buy a blatantly false “newspaper” to begin with. In his reporting, he found that the Enquirer finally found its niche in the checkout lines at supermarkets, where they were meant to draw the attention of housewives who were versed on salacious afternoon TV gossip programs.
“I don’t believe that there’s some magic sort of cure-all, or we’re all going to wake up one day and realize the Enquirer is not the same thing as the New York Times,” Landsman said. “I think the onus is on each of us” to become more media-literate.
“It’s an individual act, much in the same way that everybody is responsible for what they put in their body in terms of nutrition,” Landsman said. “It’s no different than the kind of media that you consume.”
At the same time, the connection between what Landsman calls the “devolving” of professional journalism and the rise of “fake news” is undeniable. The National Enquirer is more than partly to blame.
“There’s a fundamentally disturbing thing about making a film [showing] that this publication, among others, played an undeniable role in the devolution of journalism integrity in this country,” Landsman said. “But I also think we’re not in the cesspool right now in terms of journalism. I’m optimistic in terms of the bravery that journalists like Peter Baker or Mike Schmidt” at the New York Times are showing.
“There’s a lot of incredible workers putting their lives and their bodies on the line to ensure fact-based reporting.”
Landsman said he was less interested in being pedantic with his documentary than in inspiring viewers to ask their own questions about the nature of information integrity as well as checking their own biases on what sources they naturally gravitate toward.
“What we’d hope more than anything is that people would step out of their echo chambers, where they are just getting their own views regurgitated back to them or served up in this perfect propaganda,” he said, “and start looking at how they’re consuming the news.”
This includes ensuring that the viewer is able to tell the difference between what is news, what is opinion and what is pure propaganda.
“If it’s not important to them, then what kind of society do they want to live in?” Landsman said, adding that sitting through “Scandalous” doesn’t precisely make for a “comfortable” viewing experience.
Landsman says he is hopeful that the public will become more engaged and more media-literate. At the same time, he says that his look back at how the Enquirer has evolved from pure scandal sheet to a publication that pushed a certain political agenda should be looked upon as a cautionary tale.
“It’s not all a horror story [but] it is a horror story because we have a tabloid president,” he said. “That’s a very disturbing thing.”
“Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer” opens in select theaters Friday.