Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer: You Don’t Wanna Know, by David Bax
In the opening titles of Mark Landsman’s Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer, the last two letters of the word scandalous are highlighted in the colors and style of the United States flag. Unfortunately, Landsman follows through on the threat of that choice; Scandalous is not content to just be a breezy look at trashy journalism but it must also be a statement about the true nature of Americana. And that statement is made with about as much depth and nuance as your average National Enquirer article.
Landsman follows the paper’s lifespan from its early identity as a possibly mafia-backed gore paper that specialized in photos of mangled corpses to its celebrity gossip heyday and finally arriving at its more recent identity as a political propaganda rag. Each of these manifestations, you can be assured, says SOMETHING IMPORTANT about the nation at the time.
Beginning with footage of Mike Wallace—the subject of another 2019 documentary about the line between informing and entertaining—Scandalous repeatedly focuses on defining what journalism is and is not and the ways in which the Enquirer does and does not qualify. The movie works best, in fact, as a cursory overview of journalistic styles and ethics. There are interesting tidbits like the fact the most of the paper’s early reporters were British because that country’s culture of how to hunt down a story was advantageous to the goals of the owner and editors. And then there are more serious topics, like the appropriateness of paying sources for information.
In the manner of nearly every 21st century mainstream American documentary, Scandalous runs through all of this with a showman’s smile on its face, whizzing and banging from point to point with bright colors and snappy editing. Interview subjects sit in front of tacky backdrops of sunny, Floridian suburbia and the score sounds like the theme music to a 1950s domestic sitcom.
Just like last year’s The Front Runner—and with no greater success—Scandalous attempts to describe how we got to where we are today, with facts rendered meaningless, the lowest common denominator catered to and a vile reality show star in the White House. But Landsman frames each episode in this same way, from Gary Hart to O.J. Simpson to Princess Diana. They can’t all be the turning point. The movie is even more disingenuous and obtuse when it comes to Donald Trump himself, telling us (not just suggesting) that he learned from the Enquirer how to play the masses.
This insistence on a simplistic narrative and the further insistence that the viewer not attempt to think for themselves, is a hallmark of Scandalous and of many other films like it. The official story is that the National Enquirer was a mostly harmless, occasionally respectable rag that we’re expected to root for through a series of Behind the Music-esque rises and falls until David Pecker, the movie’s only actual villain, buys the paper in the late 1990s. Ironically, Landsman has the lack of self-awareness to indict Pecker for being one-sided.