How the ‘National Enquirer’ Blew a Chance for the Pulitzer Prize — 30 Years Ago

By: Shelley Ross

Note: This Monday, the Pulitzer Prize board will announce whether or not it will bestow its esteemed award on the National Enquirer for its coverage of the John Edwards sex and morality scandals, putting an end to months of grand debate. The mere notion of the tabloid’s eligibility this year sparked a furor amongst journalists around the world, some still asking: should its penchant for checkbook journalism take it out of the running — and is the Edwards material too salacious for consideration?

Curiously, there was little fretting over content last year when The New York Times won a Pulitzer for its reporting on the prostitution scandals that cost New York Governor Eliot Spitzer his job; and there was little or no outrage when it was recently disclosed in court that ABC News, a division of the Walt Disney Company, paid $200,000 to Casey Anthony, the so-called “Tot-Mom” accused of child neglect and fraud before ultimately charged with the murder of her two-year-old. This is my perspective.

It was another time, another era when the National Enquirer had a circulation between 6 and 7 million a week, the largest readership of any weekly outside of TV Guide.

Story budgets were big and ambitions were bigger. It spawned a “graduating class” of media superstars like Mike Hoy who would become editor of The Times of London, Stephen Chao, a future president of Fox TV Stations and USA Cable network, Judith Regan, the founder of her own successful publishing imprint for Rupert Murdoch, and Jessica Klein who would go on to be executive producer of 90210.

And there was me, Shelley Ross, the one to cross over for a 20-year career in broadcast news which included a five-year stint as executive producer of Good Morning America with Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson, and a bucket of awards including three Emmys and a Peabody.

At age 24, I had the distinction of becoming the youngest, and only female of 16 editors at the National Enquirer.

It was a cutthroat, brutally competitive newsroom as each week, all 16 of us would be summoned to the private office of Iain Calder to pitch our offerings for Page One, the story that meant everything to the paper’s newsstand success.

Back then, fueling internal competition was almost an art form perfected by Generoso Pope Jr., the legendary publisher who had once trained in the CIA’s psychological warfare division.

A bulletin board near the pantry, for all to read, listed working stories of each editor. You didn’t have to linger by the coffee machine to know which editors had the most stories pitches “approved by G.P.”

The length of the color-coded columns was visible at a glance. A separate memo on the board listed how many Page Ones each editor had for the preceding months, plus what circulation the most recent entry reached.

For real sport, two editors at time would be sent to a major city to compete for the biggest stories and greatest volume in a given week. Mr. Pope’s result: his own journalistic gladiator fight.

During my time there I had a good run of front-page stories, satisfyingly in the top two or three for much of my tenure. This, despite some nefarious acts and outright sabotage to spoil one person’s Page One contender to make room for another’s. It sounds so silly, but that was easy to do in an era before digital file sharing, Entertainment Tonight, 24/7 cable news and the Internet.

Which brings me to the current cyber campaign: “The National Enquirer Deserves the Pulitzer Prize.”

As an alumna, the groundswell of professional support led by journalist Emily Miller has been extremely enjoyable to watch, as has the reaction. “Tabloid trash has never looked better,” one snarked.

How true, and how ironic that, with a circulation now under one million and a staff shrunk by harsh economic realities, the Enquirer has now come of age. It is on that note, and with a personal sentimentality, that I recall the Pulitzer that got away.

It was the first week in November, 1978, the first time we all took notice of Paul Dougherty, a burly new editor from Australia who came into the meeting with urgency and enthusiasm. When it was his turn to pitch, he began: “Mr. Pope, I have a story I think can win a Pulitzer prize.”

Mr. Pope, as we all called him, leaned over to Calder and in a stage whisper said into his ear, “Iain, tell Mr. Dougherty what I think of the Pulitzer prize.

Iain Calder, and the rest of the room erupted with laughter, much of it the squirmy, awkward variety expected of a competitive team trained to respond to “The Boss.”

“Mr. Pope, I have a freelancer who has filed a story about a cult of Americans in Central America, many brainwashed, being put through mass suicide drills.” he added. During the preceding months, a freelance reporter, an Enquirer regular, had written a 62-page report describing the horror. One passage included this haunting description of one suicide drill he said was told to him by a woman who had escaped a place called “Jonestown”:

“All the guns were gotten out and everyone met in the pavilion for hours … finally Jim told us there was no hope, that we were going to have to die … they brought in this big jug and everyone got into this long, long line. Everyone drank except Jim, who sat in his elevated chair and watched.”

“Who’s the freelancer, Paul?” Pope asked, seemingly antsy.

“Gordon Lindsay,” he answered.

“What local pub did he file the copy from?” someone yelled out, resulting in another round of hearty laughter led by the enigmatic Mr. Pope. The laughter was now infectious, more of a good stress release which rippled across the room to everyone except Paul Dougherty.

“Mr. Pope, there are children there. Children who are punished, put down in a well — in the dark of night. These people are Americans … mostly from San Francisco,” he asserted.

“Well, tell them to call their congressman,” Mr. Pope added, dismissing the story the rest of us knew too great a departure from his Enquirer formula for success: celebrities, diets, psychic predictions, and tips that help you live longer.

As Mr. Pope collected himself to move the meeting forward, he wiped away a remaining tear of laughter from under his glasses.

The next week, on Nov. 10, we reconvened for the Page One meeting and there was Paul Dougherty, re-pitching his story.

“Mr. Pope, we have been in contact with the congressman from San Francisco and he is concerned enough to travel there.” Lindsay had called Dougherty and then recapped their conversation in a letter (again, before the invention of e-mail.) He said the congressman had asked him to coordinate the trip to Jonestown.

“Many families of the cult members have contacted the congressman. They fear for their loved ones,” Dougherty said.

Gordon Lindsay had feared for his own life as well. He said his wife had gotten telephone threats while he was on his first trip to Guyana. He said he was told he was on an “enemies list.”

Back in the Page One meeting, Mr. Pope was now firmly dismissive to Dougherty, causing many of us this time to privately cringe. We had been all been through some form or another of his editorial hazing there. In one of my first editorial meetings, Mr. Pope asked the editors what we were missing in our coverage. I made a suggestion with an unfortunate choice of phrase, “I think we would better serve the readership if we expanded celebrity coverage to soap opera stars,” I offered.

“We’re not here to serve readers,” Mr. Pope sniped. “We’re here to sell papers.”

While some of us felt for Dougherty, we all knew he would have to learn on his own how to sell to Mr. Pope, on Mr. Pope’s terms. (While Pope had no time for awards, he might have been more persuaded by a pitch more along the lines of “Enquirer Saves Brainwashed Americans Held in Captivity.”) The most senior editors had seen favorite stories killed. It was impossible to argue against Mr. Pope’s track record of success.

Yet, despite all the warning signs — Mr. Pope’s impatient foot tapping — and the knowledge the front page would not be selected by democratic vote, Dougherty would try to sell his story again the following week, perhaps becoming the first editor to go for a truly ballsy three in a row. “Mr. Pope, the congressman is on his way,” he began. On Pope’s end, there wasn’t the slightest nibble.

The next day, Saturday, Nov. 18, I was at home paying some bills. The television was on in the background, when I heard a news bulletin. At an airport in Georgetown, Guyana, some members of the People’s Temple shot and killed San Francisco Congressman Leo Ryan and four others after they had visited a large group of Americans living in nearby “Jonestown,” the community created by a cult leader known as the Reverend Jim Jones.

It was thought that all members of the temple had committed a mass suicide by drinking Kool Aid laced with cyanide. The death toll could not be calculated as authorities were finding bodies upon bodies. When all was tallied, 919 people died there that day.

Among the four killed with Leo Ryan was NBC newsman Don Harris.

The Assassination of Rep. Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana Tragedy, a report of a Staff Investigative Group to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the U.S. House of Representatives, May 15, 1979, revealed something more about the events of the day.

“While he was part of the entourage that traveled to Jonestown, Jim Jones insisted he be left behind at the airport, so he caught the next flight back. Mr. Ryan eventually obtained Mr. Jones’ approval for the media group and Concerned Relatives to enter Jonestown and the People’s Temple truck was sent back to Port Kaituma to transport them. They arrived in Jonestown after dark. Only Mr. Gordon Lindsay, a former freelance reporter for the National Enquirer, and on this trip, working as a consultant to NBC, was denied entry. A previous unpublished story by Mr. Lindsay critical of People’s Temple had incurred Jim Jones’ wrath and accounted for the refusal to allow him into Jonestown. Mr. Lindsay thereupon immediately returned with the plane to Georgetown.”

Sent packing by order of Jim Jones, Lindsay had ironically returned safely to California.

As was reported at the time, he then took his wife and eight-year-old daughter into hiding.

One other Jonestown casualty was never recorded: the Enquirer career of Paul Dougherty, the editor with the big untold story who would soon have to be fired rather than serve each day as a living, breathing reminder that the legendary Generoso Pope Jr. had made a really bad call.

His firing would be seared in my young mind as a twisted privilege of executive power, one I would see time and again over the next 30 years.

For the record, I have not spoken to Gordon Lindsay or Paul Dougherty, or to anyone about them, since I left the Enquirer in January 1980. The quotes from and dates of the Page One meetings are reconstructed from a keen memory of these stunning events. It is possible the meetings did not take place over three consecutive weeks as I have recalled.

I only tell this story now to share what I believe makes a Pulitzer heart.

In a newsroom, it takes a lot more than one reporter’s passion or instinct to get a story published, let alone win an award. It takes a collective conviction.

How many of us, in any field, have had a boss pull the plug on a project or a germ of an idea just because it didn’t fit the narrow formula for success?

Now, the question remains: will the Pulitzer Prize committee continue to show the courage to open their hearts and minds, and step out of their narrow formula as well?

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