Those who enjoy media as a spectator sport were treated to quite a show yesterday, when the National Enquirer took the remarkable step of placing a full-page ad in The New York Times.
The page A9 announcement apologized for a libelous story that alleged playwright David Bar Katz and his friend, the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, were lovers and fellow drug-users. A related Times article laid out the back-story, including details of a $45,000 annual play-writing prize, furnished by the Enquirer as part of its settlement.
The fascinating episode raises a host of issues about gossip versus news journalism, the vulnerability of reporters to being deceived, and the ethics and practicalities of paying sources for information.
On February 2, Hoffman was found dead in a West Village apartment, the victim of an apparent heroin overdose. Just three days later, the Enquirer hit the streets with a blockbuster scoop.
Headlined “Hidden Gay Life,” a front page box promised an “exclusive interview with the tragic Oscar winner’s lover.”
The story quoted Katz, a married father-of-four, admitting to a gay relationship with the actor. He also provided an eye-witness account of Hoffman freebasing cocaine the night before he died.
But immediately upon publication, Katz denied both the specifics of the story—the gay relationship, being present during drug-taking—or even having spoken to the Enquirer. He sued for $50 million.
For anyone familiar with the workings of the gossip press, it was an unprecedented development.
Could Katz (who, per the Enquirer’s practice, may have been paid to talk) be lying about being the paper’s source?
Or was it a journalistic blunder so monumental that it could damage a newspaper of even the Enquirer’s dubious standing?
It turned out to be the second one.
For those who sneer at supermarket tabloids—which is probably most people—such dereliction might not be surprising.
But among journalists who seriously cover the gossip and celebrity beat, the Enquirer has enjoyed a reputation for ambitious reporting and enviable accuracy. Call it the supermarket tabloid of record.
True, there have been notable mistakes. The Enquirer paid an expensive settlement in 2008, for example, after falsely claiming that Senator Edward Kennedy had fathered the son of a Cape Cod woman.
But it has been right about big stories from Jesse Jackson’s love child to Rush Limbaugh’s painkiller addiction and Tiger Woods’ menagerie of girlfriends. Most famously, it exposed John Edwards’ relationship (and baby) with Rielle Hunter, a story of hubris and presidential ambition so outrageous that it almost makes “House of Cards” seem plausible by comparison.
So it may have been reasonable to criticize the tabloid for its lowbrow subject matter and ruthless reporting methods—even as it broke stories that riveted the nation—but not its accuracy.
The Enquirer’s published retraction, plus statements by Katz’s lawyer, Judd Burstein, illuminate the reporting of the Hoffman story.
A senior Enquirer reporter went through public phone listings looking for the right David Katz—a not uncommon journalistic practice. He found the wrong man, but was actively deceived by the interviewee, who claimed to have been both the lover of Hoffman and party to his drug taking.
“We were duped into believing the source of this information,” admits the paper. “We are truly sorry.”
Followers of the ambulance-chasing, deathbed-stalking amorality of the National Enquirer might be amused by how hurt the publication was at the betrayal.
Burstein told the Times, “They couldn’t believe that someone would be so callous to say, ‘I’m the real David Katz.’”
It is unknown whether the Enquirer paid the impostor for his information. But it would be in the paper’s best interests if it had.
Checkbook journalism often provokes moralizing, as if money taints the information it buys. And there is legitimate concern that payment could motivate a source to embellish, or outright invent, a more valuable story.
That is why some gossip outlets, like TMZ, will pay for documents like photographs or letters, but not for spoken information.
A senior figure at American Media Incorporated—the Enquirer’s parent company—once explained to me its rationale for paying sources.
“Lying to a reporter is not a crime,” he said. “But when we pay, we make the source sign a contract, promising that the information is true. It protects us and the threat of legal retribution weeds out the liars. If you’re just calling a tip into a newspaper, you can say whatever you want, and the reporter has to take his chances.”
It’s a novel perspective on the relationship between money and truth. But ultimately, not one that could save the Enquirer from its fake David Katz.