National Enquirer Voters

The fading tabloid still has significant influence.

While he’s spent a lot of time in recent years documenting the detrimental effect Fox News has had on American politics, Kevin Drum also points to a less obvious (to me, anyway) influencer.

Back in the day I used to tell people that if they wanted to understand a particular segment of the working class they needed to read supermarket tabloids. Aside from the endless celebrity gossip, the tabs embraced a political view that I’d call not ideologically conservative, but “common sense” conservative. 

That is, it was stuff that ordinary, nonpolitical, small-townish folks mostly considered obvious common sense: Government is incompetent; poor people are lazy; America needs to teach people a lesson sometimes; wokeness is ridiculous. Etc.

That came to mind again when I saw the current issue of the National Enquirer at the supermarket checkout today. Now, these days the Enquirer is more overtly political than it used to be, but tellingly, it still doesn’t bother much with ideology or policy, since it knows that its working class readers don’t care about that stuff. Rather, it focuses on gossipy pieces but featuring politicians instead of celebrities. This week the subject is Joe Biden’s obvious mental decline.

The story inside is about what you’d expect: not even blind quotes, just assertions that “sources say” and “insiders dish” that Biden constantly loses his temper thanks to his “undiagnosed dementia.”

This is politics as gossip, which is something the Enquirer used to have almost to itself. It’s now only one of many, but it’s still useful reading because its audience requires it to be blunt about things instead of just slyly insinuating them. As their motto says, they’re “the only publication with the guts to tell it like it is.”

And this is what its readers are being fed. Fox News may be the standard bearer for Republican agitprop, but there are other sources too. And not just the usual suspects.

A Slate piece from a couple years back notes that the Enquirer‘s circulation is a fraction of what it was in its heyday:

For decades, the Enquirer’s circulation was in the millions. The death spiral, Grove says, began with the advent of the internet. The key distribution spot was no longer in supermarkets—it was on people’s computers and smartphones. “They just never got a coherent strategy to deal with online news,” he explains. “They never really understood it, they didn’t know how to take advantage of it, and that’s principally why they find themselves in the trouble they are in today.”

The internet’s assault on the gossip industry came in two phases. Phase 1 was when online outlets like TMZ started beating the Enquirer at its own game—paying sources, enlisting spies in courthouses and hospitals, and catching celebrities in their worst moments. Phase 2 came when those celebrities turned the tables. Now, Grove says, “celebrities themselves control their own images through their Instagram accounts, which are far more powerful than magazines that are distributed at newsstands and often charge a very aggressive price.”

Despite its decline, the Enquirer managed a few more scoops during the internet era. Perhaps the biggest was in 2008, when it reported that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had fathered a child with his campaign’s videographer. It was impossible to miss the echoes of the way the paper had brought down Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1987, and the way the paper got the story was old-school Enquirer too. After an editor there got a tip about Edwards’ relationship with Rielle Hunter, the paper spared no expense, putting dozens of reporters on Edwards’ trail across the country for 18 months, before one of them confronted him during a late-night stakeout at the Beverly Hilton.

And also tells of the political shift Drum alludes to:

During the 2016 campaign, the Enquirer got its hands on a scoop that presidential candidate Donald Trump had cheated on his wife, just months after she’d given birth, with a Playboy model named Karen McDougal. The Enquirer pursued the story aggressively, paying McDougal $150,000 for the exclusive rights, but curiously, the story never appeared. At the behest of the Trump campaign, the Enquirer did what’s called a catch and kill: It bought the story and then locked it in a safe. McDougal certainly thought it was an effort on behalf of the campaign—which brings us to the second thing that ruined the Enquirer: David Pecker.

“He’s the son of a bricklayer from the Bronx who sort of pulled himself by his own Gucci straps to become a publishing executive,” says Grove. “Basically, Pecker is not a journalist. He has no journalistic expertise. He’s a marketing guy and an accountant. He took that magazine and basically drove it into the ground.”

David Pecker was part of a group that bought the Enquirer in 1999. According to Lloyd Grove, this was perhaps not coincidentally the moment that Pecker suddenly became a person of great interest to Donald Trump: “They formed an alliance, and maybe a friendship, 20 years ago. Pecker would ride on Trump’s plane back and forth to Florida and hang out with the guy and then boast about it to his employees.”

Regardless, the Enquirer‘s paid circulation of roughly 265,00 readers pales in comparison to the 2.1 million who watch Fox News during prime time—which itself is just a sliver of the 18.14 million who watch Sunday Night Football, the most popular show on television.

Still, I suspect a lot of people read the headlines while waiting to pay for their groceries. And, even if most people understand that it’s tabloid hype if not outright bullshit, I can’t imagine that these headlines don’t shape public opinion. Especially since, as Drum observes, they just reinforce “common sense” beliefs.

FILED UNDER: Media, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    I have no idea if this was intentional, but Biden looks sort of like Trump in that photo. He’s wearing a typical Trump expression.

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  2. steve says:

    Out of curiosity, the GOP mangled to stretch out the Benghazi stuff for 4 years. How long do you think they can keep up the Hunter laptop stuff?

    Steve

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @steve: the GOP mangled to stretch out the Benghazi stuff for 4 years

    Heh, gotta love auto correct.

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  4. @steve: A long time, it would seem. And it is the same photos and basics over and over and over.

    If/when the Rs win the House, look for hearings to commence.

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  5. Andy says:

    What’s the evidence that these tabloids actually “shape public opinion?” I don’t see anything presented by you or Kevin Drum except conjecture.

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  6. Gustopher says:

    Still, I suspect a lot of people read the headlines while waiting to pay for their groceries. And, even if most people understand that it’s tabloid hype if not outright bullshit, I can’t imagine that these headlines don’t shape public opinion. Especially since, as Drum observes, they just reinforce “common sense” beliefs.

    People have a very hard time remembering where they heard something, so even if they recognize it as bullshit when they first see it, the bullshit information begins to worm its way in. Especially with repetition.

    That was the point of 112 BENGHAZI!!! hearings, the groomer bullshit, and whatever else the right wing outrage du jour is.

    My brother is convinced Biden is senile. My brother is a low-information voter, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the “low” in low-information refers to quality as much as quantity.

    (My other brother mainlines misinformation because he likes being outraged and feeling superior or something… and the bullshit let’s him feel that. If you can only feel superior to made up pedophiles though, shits gone wrong)

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy:
    All data ingested by people has some effect. It may be very small, but it’s never going to be zero.

    An accumulation of self-reinforcing data – a Tweet, a tabloid, five minutes of Fox News, something your brother-in-law tells you – it helps to form a picture in a vulnerable mind. And all minds are vulnerable to some extent. That’s how propaganda works, and frankly I’m surprised that a former intel analyst would have difficulty understanding this self-evident truth.

    Maybe ask a fiction writer instead? Because see, this is how stories are shaped if you’re a competent writer. Details that are not necessarily on-the-nose, specifics given enough weight to stand out, hints rather than blunt exposition. It’s how you create a character: a clothing choice, a favorite tune, a childhood fear, bits and pieces of data which, taken together, form a character, or advance a plot.

    Bad writers do this by giving a character a drinking problem. Because that’s easy. Take a look some time at how often writers grab an addiction to use as a stand-in for character. Bad writers write in binaries rather than data clouds. I wonder whether good analysts insist on big dotted lines leading from A to Z, or whether they might sift numerous details to form a complete picture.

    Over time every person here in comments – not to mention the headliners – reveal themselves in details, none of which are sufficient in and of themselves, but taken together paint a picture.

    The answer to your challenge is simple: of course it has an effect, and unless you’re less intelligent than you seem, you know it.

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  8. Andy says:

    @Gustopher:

    That was the point of 112 BENGHAZI!!! hearings, the groomer bullshit, and whatever else the right wing outrage du jour is.

    The irony is that the only time I hear BENGHAZI!!! mentioned is from left wing people who continue to complain about it (for the record, I thought the Benghazi hearings were mostly bullshit). I read right-wing sites, and no one talks about Benghazi anymore. Do you realize that by repeating this, you are the one worming this bullshit into people’s minds?

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  9. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    An accumulation of self-reinforcing data – a Tweet, a tabloid, five minutes of Fox News, something your brother-in-law tells you – it helps to form a picture in a vulnerable mind. And all minds are vulnerable to some extent. That’s how propaganda works, and frankly I’m surprised that a former intel analyst would have difficulty understanding this self-evident truth.

    I don’t think that’s quite right. Of course, I completely understand how propaganda works, but I don’t go around thinking that every headline is a gateway drug.

    The answer to your challenge is simple: of course it has an effect, and unless you’re less intelligent than you seem, you know it.

    Can you provide evidence for that other than your credentials as a fiction writer? It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at cognitive research, but from what I remember, the notion that minds are vulnerable to random inputs while waiting in line at a supermarket (or other temporal and marginal inputs) is speculative at best.

    This isn’t a question of my intelligence. I think the fact that you’re framing your argument to suggest that only someone stupid could disagree with your theory is a pretty big tell that you don’t actually have anything of substance to back up your theory. What would actually make me “less intelligent” is to fall into that trap and agree with you out of fear of being labeled. I am not nearly close to being the smartest person in the world, but I’m certainly smart enough not to fall into that rhetorical trap.

    In my view, which I believe is actually backed up by the relevant research, it that in our modern media environment, people coalesce around the propaganda that confirms their existing biases. That’s why people on the right think Fox tells the truth and people on the left think it’s propaganda. Similarly, people on the left think MSNBC is the truth, and people on the right think it’s propaganda. The reality is that it’s all propaganda, and people are just selecting the propaganda that conforms to what they already think.

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  10. Gustopher says:

    @Andy: You will note that I never refer to them in non-ridiculous tones. I always repeat that they were insane nonsense.

    The BENGHAZI!!! hearings were one of the most recent and flagrant uses of government power to propagate bullshit, and will almost certainly be returned to if the Republicans gain power over congress, even if they move onto HUNTER BIDENS LAPTOP!!!, CRITICAL RACE THEORY!!! or GENDER AFFIRMING CARE FOR TRANSGENDER YOUTH!!! It’s not the past, it’s the current technique whenever they have power.

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  11. Kari Q says:

    @Andy:

    Of course they are not talking about Benghazi any more. Hillary was defeated and isn’t running again. Benghazi is just an example of a nothing story that the right pounds over and over, pretending there’s a scandal there. You do understand what an example is, don’t you?

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  12. Andy says:

    @Gustopher:

    If you keep repeating those bullshit catchphrases, my vulnerable mind just might start to believe them, at least according to Michael. You keep worming this bullshit into my brain, so it’s only a matter of time before I join the Proud Boys. We can all blame you when that happens.

    @Kari Q:

    You do understand what an example is, don’t you?

    I do, thanks for asking!

    And similarly, I’m using these as examples to make fun of the idea that supermarket headlines or repeating bullshit will worm its way into people’s “vulnerable” minds and lead them to wrongthink.

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy:

    The reality is that it’s all propaganda, and people are just selecting the propaganda that conforms to what they already think.

    So, people are born with all the prejudices they’ll ever have? Propaganda is merely fan service in your opinion? Humans are solid-state, unalterable by events, by experience, by inputs from media? Odd, because I could swear that I’ve had my own opinions changed by external input. I suspect you have as well.

    So, I guess my ‘fact’ is this: every single person on planet earth forms opinions over time. Right? They were born believing Elon Musk is a great pioneer? They just knew that already? From birth? Even people who were born before Elon Musk?

    Question: the twelve year-old standing in line at Kroger and reading the National Enquirer, explain how they already have all their prejudices formed and are merely reinforcing pre-existing beliefs.

    People create propaganda for the same reason they create advertising: because it works.

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  14. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    So, people are born with all the prejudices they’ll ever have? Propaganda is merely fan service in your opinion? Humans are solid-state, unalterable by events, by experience, by inputs from media? Odd, because I could swear that I’ve had my own opinions changed by external input. I suspect you have as well.

    That’s not a claim I’ve made or am making.

    It’s certainly true that people’s opinions form over time and that this process is largely emergent and not predictable. But most people don’t develop strong views from random exposure and then choose a side, then end up on a side and then adopt the views of the group, because we are social animals, and conforming to in-group norms is a very powerful force in our species.

    I’ve quoted this passage before, but I think Brink Lindsay put it best in an old essay about partisanship, but here it really applies to tribal identity generally:

    It’s that their beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity. There’s no epistemologically sound reason why one’s opinion about, say, the effects of gun control should predict one’s opinion about whether humans have contributed to climate change or how well Mexican immigrants are assimilating — these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet the fact is that views on these and a host of other matters are indeed highly correlated with each other. And the reason is that people start with political identities and then move to opinions about how the world works, not vice versa.

    And I think the social science and cognition research generally supports that. And you can see that in how various political groups and ideologies try to force the group to adopt their views or at least keep any heterodoxy silent.

    If we’re talking about the 12yo kid, the factor that overrides all others is the social pressure from family, from peers, and from what they perceive as norms in society. Their political identity is not going to develop based on that – it’s not going to develop in a vacuum based on what’s on a supermarket shelf.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    @Andy: Dude, if you’re looking for an excuse to join the Proud Boys, just do it.

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  16. Andy says:

    @Gustopher:

    Dude, if you’re looking for an excuse to join the Proud Boys, just do it.

    I’ll make sure you get the referral bonus!

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  17. DK says:

    @Andy:

    The irony is that the only time I hear BENGHAZI!!! mentioned is from left wing people who continue to complain about it (for the record, I thought the Benghazi hearings were mostly bullshit). I read right-wing sites, and no one talks about Benghazi anymore.

    Speaking of irony and bull—t…

    “10 years ago Islamic terrorists killed 4 Americans in Libya. The attack was a direct result of the failed policies of the Obama-Biden admin. They falsely blamed a video to cover up the weakness, appeasement, and incompetence that led to the attack. #Benghazi #NeverForget”11 Sept 2022 by right-wing Sen. Ted Cruz

    “Never forget that four Americans died in Benghazi under Hillary Clinton’s watch on September 11th of 2012.”10 Sept 2022 by right-wing blue checkmark Bridgette Gabriel

    “Why the Benghazi Attack Still Matters” – 12 Sept 2022, right wing Hillary Derangement Syndrome site Judicial Watch

    “Benghazi ten years later” – 11 Sept 2022, right-wing infotainment channel Fox News

    “Crooked Hillary Compares Testifying About Dead Americans She Failed to Protect in Benghazi to President Trump Not Testifying in NYC About His Taxes” – 12 Aug 2022, The Gateway Pundit

    “Benghazi Survivor Says U.S. Hasn’t Learned from Mistakes a Decade Ago” – 11 Sept 2012, The National Review

    “10th Anniversary of Benghazi Attack and the Democratic Response Is Shameful” – 11 Sept 22, RedState

    There’s recent Benghazi posts on BizPac Review, and at The Washington Times, and etc etc etc.

    So why float easily-debunked gaslighting about “the left?” Whither cometh this increasingly shrill and dishonest anti-anti-MAGA mindset?

    I read right-wing sites

    Oh.

    Well okay, I do too. But it’s to research the poison to strengthen the antidote, not to ingest the poison and spread it.

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