Tabloid throws good money after bad news

August 09, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

Until Michael Jackson was suspected of pedophilia, until thugs clubbed Tonya Harding's rival, until O. J. Simpson was charged with murder, and for that matter, until Lisa Marie Presley married the aforementioned Mr. Jackson, it was easy to dismiss the National Enquirer as the pit bull of journalism, a sleazy tabloid that sank its teeth into only the most tawdry of stories and never let go.

Now that the celebrity news has escalated from the pedestrian to the truly weird and shocking, the National Enquirer has become the paper to beat and to beat up on. Not only is the most famous of tabloids scooping the neophytes, it is doing it with -- horrors upon horrors -- checkbook journalism.

One of the tabloid hands writing those checks belongs to Baltimore native David Perel, supervisor of 20 full-time reporters on the Simpson case for the National Enquirer. Lately, Mr. Perel has enjoyed widespread notoriety as the man who admits with aplomb on "Nightline," "Entertainment Tonight," CBS morning and evening news and in a recent New Yorker piece that he is willing to pay handsomely for eyewitness accounts of events surrounding the Nicole Simpson/Ronald Goldman murders. He even has the chutzpah to say such a practice is nothing to be ashamed of.

"It's not hard to go on television and defend the fact that you got a great story before everybody else did and it's 100 percent accurate. It's that simple," Mr. Perel says.

In July, when the Enquirer became the first news organization to report where the alleged murder weapon was purchased -- Enquirer reporters were aware of the knife in question even before Ross cutlery store co-owners sold their exclusive story to the tabloid for $12,500 -- media observers went ballistic.

In early July, during Mr. Simpson's preliminary hearing, Mr. Perel appeared on "Nightline" to defend his newspaper against such foes as Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who thundered, "This growing trend of cash for trash is really corroding the fabric of American journalism. But worse than that, it's also tainting key witnesses in criminal proceedings."

Disparaging references to checkbook journalism are beside the point, says Mr. Perel by phone from the Enquirer's Lantana, Fla., headquarters. "The people who were bringing up the issue of checkbook journalism are the same people beaten on the story," he says.

The important question is, "Are you reporting your information accurately?" Mr. Perel says.

"It wasn't the Enquirer who reported the bloody ski mask, it was the newspapers and TV stations in L.A.," Mr. Perel says, referring to a false shred of early evidence that got plenty of play. And, he adds, it wasn't the Enquirer that erroneously reported that prosecutor Marcia Clark improperly inspected Mr. Simpson's premises, it was a Los Angeles television station.

Mr. Perel also denies that buying witnesses can skew the justice process by rendering their testimony unreliable. He refers to Ms. Clark, who denied that the testimony of the grand jury witnesses from the cutlery store was tainted because they sold their account to the Enquirer. She was "absolutely right," Mr. Perel says.

"What it is, all of a sudden the rest of the press is on our territory. It's what we do, cover celebrity stories. We have a lot of resources and we cover it well," says Mr. Perel, chalking up the onslaught of criticism to competitors' frustrations.

Mr. Perel also had no qualms about running a risque photo of Nicole Simpson and two close male friends on a July front page. "It's a shocking picture," he says, but part of a "pertinent story" about the late Mrs. Simpson's lifestyle and "about the jealousy that existed when she dated other men."

Was it beyond the bounds of decency to run a provocative photo of a beautiful, dead woman?

"Truthfully, I don't care," Mr. Perel says. "I don't think anybody else here cares. We only care about what our readers think. That's one of the things that sets us apart."

After the double murder occurred, Mr. Perel, 35, typically put in 18-hour days at the paper, which has a circulation of nearly 20 million. "It's a lot of hard work," he says. "I can't say I'm enjoying it. It was a really horrible and brutal murder."

Around the clock

Even between court proceedings, Mr. Perel's reporting team appears to be working around the clock to unearth traumatic tidbits about the Simpsons' marriage. The latest issue features a front page photo of Mrs. Simpson in a bikini and fur coat and inside, a "special Enquirer investigation" on "Nicole's Tragic Secret Life," which is stuffed with remarkable -- and anonymous -- quotes from "family insiders," "sources" and "friends." Some of those sources were paid, some weren't, Mr. Perel says.

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