“Scandalous” Documentary Film Reveals the Corrupt History Behind the National Enquirer, Entertains with a point about Fake News
The promotional poster for Magnolia Pictures and Mark Landsman’s new documentary shows off in giant bold letters the alluring tagline, “Sex, Drugs, and UFOs.” Billowing around the words are a bunch of newspaper front pages, each with an infamous headline such as “Flying Saucers Are Real,” “I Saw O.J. At The Murder Scene,” or “Elvis: The Untold Story.”
If one even notices the title of the film printed in smaller letters in enormous tagline’s shadows, one might expect that “Scandalous” is a movie about conspiracy theories or some great national collusion that ties all of these pop-culture headlines together in some absurd way. However, beneath the title on the poster, seemingly hidden, is the film’s subtitle. It reads “The Untold Story Of The National Enquirer.”
For sixty years, the National Enquirer has been an American news source reporting on the latest events in pop-culture gossip, catering their articles to the average everyday American who is voyeuristically intrigued in the lives of celebrities and public figures. As Landsman’s documentary shows, however, the National Enquirer toed an unsteady line between information and entertainment, using borderline unethical or illegal reporting techniques to get the full scoop, and then milking that scoop for all its worth in order to sell more copies.
Living Squarely in a Gray Area and Embracing Ambiguity
Thus, despite the way the film is marketed on the poster, “Scandalous” is not about conspiracy theories, but rather about a single pseudo-news source that changed the game of reporting by promoting stories that were overblown and exaggerated for the American public.
It is actually a strangely relevant topic in today’s world. Obviously, the National Enquirer still exists—James Cohen of Hudson News recently purchased the company—and it probably still partakes in some of the ethical ambiguities covered in the film. On a larger scale, though, today’s political debates regarding fake news give “Scandalous” a timely twist. Did the National Enquirer ever explicitly produce fake news in their articles? Perhaps not. But did they ever overstate certain details and indulge in stories for the sake of gaining readers’ attention? Most certainly. Then again, what newspaper hasn’t?
There is somewhat of a paradox here, for when the National Enquirer bends the rules in order to get a story, it comes off as an egregious affront. At the same time, though, when a more esteemed news source such as The New York Times or the Washington Post goes undercover to retrieve information, they are usually applauded for exercising freedom of the press. Sometimes Steven Spielberg even commends them with an Oscar nominated movie starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.
Perhaps it is the fact that the National Enquirer is not usually publishing stories that are pertinent to the American people’s safety or enlightenment. Exercising freedom of the press may be admired when it is for investigating an issue of national importance, but not so much when it is investigating a celebrity couple’s latest fight. Then, it just comes off as a paparazzi-like invasion of privacy.
For a cinephile, it is also hard to watch a film like “Scandalous” and wonder where the documentary itself falls on that line between information and entertainment. Documentaries, existing somewhere betwixt feature films or news reports, are neither entirely fictional nor restricted to objectivity. Typically, they are didactic in some way, but also artistic and meant to be please the audience to a certain degree. While we are watching “Scandalous” criticize the National Enquirer’s techniques and rhetoric, we may find ourselves questioning what kinds of stylistic choices or intentional omissions Mark Landsman made when curating the film.
The National Enquirer’s history is not all black and white. In their questionable form of journalism, they actually ended up uncovering and reporting on some pertinent information over the years. Do these occasional revelations really justify the source’s tactics? On the other hand, though, do they really need to justify themselves? After all, they do claim to be a newspaper.
“Scandalous” might not be the fake news story that we were expecting right now, and despite the criticism it offers, it may not be entirely innocent or objective in its own right. Nevertheless, it is subtly timely. Enough so that we just might learn something pertinent about journalism, history, and ethics along the way. Or we might just choose to enjoy it as an interesting exposé about a fascinating news source that reported on some of the biggest stories in pop-culture across the second half of the twentieth century. When it comes to watching a documentary film, the choice is up to the viewer.
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