I grew up far from the madding crowds, surrounded by acres of fallow farmland and heaps of tabloids. My father always had the latest National Enquirer, though he didn’t discriminate; he grabbed National Examiners and Globes and Stars by the handful as he pushed his cart through the checkout line at the Giant Eagle.
Not to say that he didn’t have limits: he hadn’t the time for Time and hated People almost as he hated people. The old man owned used car dealerships and dive bars and other slimy operations, and he knew native advertising, public relations, and career-fluffing when he saw it. He preferred to wallow in the dirt and always wanted more of it.
“Everything in these magazines is true,” he’d say when my mother protested that this choice of reading material catered to the prurient interests of its dim-witted audience. “But you know, what I’m really worried about is everything that isn’t.”
We would sit together on the leather couch in the den, loutish, aging father and impressionable home-schooled child. I didn’t attend preschool or kindergarten, so instead of seeing Dick and Jane run, I heard about Gary Hart and Jim Bakker fooling around. My father, who in those days had a magical way of earning maximal income with minimal effort, believed this to be “quality time,” thinking that he was wising me up to the ways of the world.
“Yeah, sure, you can make it up,” he told me. “But even when you make it up, it’s on the money. The whole system, the way the big shots carry on…If you only knew a little bit of the truth, it would make your toes curl and the blood shoot out of your eyes.”
His beloved National Enquirer was a vestigial relic of the Hearst publishing empire that had wound up in the hands of allegedly mob-connected Generoso Pope and stayed there until 1988, when it was bought by Macfadden Publishing, itself a vestigial relic of the glory days of of muscleman Bernarr Macfadden’s publishing empire (of which the tabloids The New York Evening Graphic and the confessional True Story once constituted major parts). The rag sold for $412 million, roughly $350 million more than it cost to purchase the Boston Globe in 2013.
“Those pubs [like the Enquirer] paid a fortune to writers,” veteran alternative press publisher Russ Smith told me. “Of course, if you worked there, it was a stain that couldn’t be erased.”
The knock on the Enquirer, of course, was that much of its content was bullshit, which didn’t exactly distinguish it from other, more esteemed publications that ran stories from post-truth journalists such as Stephen Glass (New Republic) and Jayson Blair (New York Times). Most respectable folks confused it with its all-bullshit sister publication, the Weekly World News, which led with amazing stories about Bat Boy and other such sham wonders.
In our family, the heyday of the National Enquirer came during the Clinton impeachment scandal (also known as the “Monica Lewinsky scandal,” though not to her). By then, my father had fallen on hard divorces and harder times and was living with his brother. The old man had been anticipating his fall from grace for years. Like his political idol/college football opponent/semi-pro football teammate, Ohio Democratic Congressman Jim Traficant, he went long stretches without paying his federal income taxes. Both of them would meet their makers in similar fashion: as CTE-addled lunatics screaming about how life itself was one big rotten conspiracy, a joke played on all of us.
But Bill Clinton gave my father a brief reprieve from the business of giving up on life, handing him a scorching-hot issue he could sink his teeth into. A sleazebag like Jim Traficant was a mere crook, the sort of person who could be surveilled and thereafter kept at arm’s length. Clinton, on the other hand, struck my father as an inveterate liar, a man whose success hinged on a number of falsehoods that eventually earned him the presidential salary my father’s tax dollars were paying, if my father ever remembered to pay his taxes. “You can watch a thief, but you can’t trust a liar,” he’d intone like some guru with each new bit of Kenneth Starr/Linda Tripp-pseudo-story.
For my father, the issue with Clinton wasn’t “Slick Willie’s” adultery. No, he assumed everyone, himself included, engaged in that when given the slightest opportunity. It was the abuse of power in order to incentivize adultery, the abuse of power to weave elaborate lies, that incensed him. Slick Willie simply couldn’t lie and keep his facts straight like the rest of us; instead, he was forcing himself on a younger person who lacked the willpower to refuse his advances. Over the course of a lifetime, the son of a dead traveling salesman and a very lively nurse had accumulated vast amounts of power for no better reason than the one that causes your dog to chase its tail.
There was no point to it all, except because. We competed and destroyed one another, and why not? What the hell else could you do?
Like any publication, the National Enquirer operated according to its internal political logic — logic that became clearer during the most recent election, when its current ownership kept bad news about Trump off the front page and tasked its reporters with exposing his rivals. But that wasn’t all the Enquirer accomplished during the previous decade.
Indeed, the preceding ten years had witnessed some of the publication’s best work, when it shifted from trying to “out” Scientologists John Travolta and Tom Cruise to forcing Sarah Palin’s teen daughter Bristol to admit she was pregnant (after numerous TV appearances in which she urged teens to abstain from sex) and John Edwards to come clean about his rotten behavior (Edwards, a blow-dryed, ambulance-chasing dead ringer for “30 Rock’s” page Kenneth Parcell, was simultaneously publicizing his dying wife’s heroic fight with cancer, trying to capture the progressive vote in the 2008 election, and fathering a child with a woman whom he initially ordered to claim she had conceived with former campaign staffer Andrew Young).
Initially, Palin and Edwards tried to deny the claims, falling back on the fact that most people believed the National Enquirer was comprised of fiction. But they were eventually hoisted on their own petards, as rubber-faced Ted Cruz, who survived the Enquirer’s allegations of extramarital affairs but recently slipped and “liked” a pornographic tweet (he attributed that whoopsie-daisy to a careless staffer), assuredly will be.
Ken Silverstein, the editor-in-chief of Washington Babylon, almost wound up working for the National Enquirer — a state of affairs he wouldn’t have minded, had Hillary Clinton won. But the mission of this website, which owes its title to pioneering director Kenneth Anger’s delightfully ahead-of-its-time tattletale Hollywood Babylon, extends much further than that.
You see, pretty much everyone with even a modicum of power is a fucking asshole. That’s the plain truth of the matter. There are a few good ones to be raked from the rubbish, I suppose, but this free market in awfulness eventually turns everyone into a monster — men, in particular.
The powerful are trash people almost to a man, and the attention paid to tabloids over the past century certainly isn’t owing to bullshit pablum like “Stars…they’re Just Like Us,” but rather because they aren’t anything like us; they steal, hoard, and abuse their power, and we hate them for it.
We hate the marginally powerful (Twitter celebrities who turn their followings into sexual harassment clinics), the somewhat powerful (Garrison Keillor, somehow), and the reasonably powerful (Harvey Weinstein, alleged pederast Bryan Singer once the authorities catch up to him). We would hate the very powerful and the mega-powerful too, the Carlos Slims and Mark Zuckerbergs, if we could turn high-powered paparazzi lenses on them and expose their gross goings-on; likely no airport barf bag could contain our upchuck and no padded cell could contain our rage.
“As long as these rat bastards go down, I don’t care if it’s one at a time,” my father used to tell me. “To hell with all of them.”
Readers of this site would like to see radical change happen much faster than that, but, like many of these recently-humiliated creepy-ass men on the creepy-ass fringes of social media, we will have to take what we can get.
And you can count on one thing from Washington Babylon: We will treat Carlos Slim and Mark Zuckerberg with the same contempt we have for Harvey Weinstein, Anthony Weiner, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.