Tabloid Man

Englishman Paul Bannister was a national newspaper reporter in Britain, where he worked for the Daily Mail, the Sun, and the BBC, among others.


He was recruited by the National Enquirer, where he became senior reporter and the tabloid’s top specialist in tales of the psychic, a post that took him to about 40 countries to interview all kinds of people, from a spirit healer in Iceland to a witch doctor in Brazil. On assignment, Bannister has been menaced by a ghost, shot at by a gunman, endangered by Michael Jackson, booted by Gidget, spat on by a kangaroo and threatened by a horde that includes actor Tony Curtis, footballer George Best, the French police, the Salvadorean military, comedian Bob Hope’s daughter, actress Stephanie Power’s brother, the murdered JonBenet Ramsey’s neighbors, a New Jersey mob hitman,  Princess Caroline’s bodyguards and a weedy, bespectacled, middle-aged public librarian. Plus others.

He uncovered exclusive tales of the famous that include Oprah’s death video, Obama’s bikini girl scandal and the baby Joni Mitchell kept secret even from her parents.

He has shared a sardine with Prince Charles, a Scotch with Jeane Dixon, a prayer with Dog the Bounty Hunter, a grooming with a talking gorilla and a trade secret with Englebert Humperdinck. All of this came about because of an old chair that legend said killed the people who sat in it.

Bannister lives in Oregon with his wife Jennie plus a 21 lbs Maine Coon cat, a 90 lbs Catahoula dog called Axel and an indeterminate mutt called Java who pretends to be deaf but can hear the fridge door open at 100 paces.  His lifelong interests include rugby and bicycle racing. He authored ‘Strange Happenings,’  co-authored ‘Money Signs’ with astrologer Fredrick Davies and ‘Yesterday, Today and Forever’ with psychic Jeane Dixon. He also cooperated on the Globe book ‘Juice, the OJ Simpson tragedy.’ He is currently working on a new novel.

Before I breeze off into my own adventures, it’s useful to know a little about the tabloid of record that became my employer. Meet the National Enquirer and its purposeful publisher.

The paper was launched on the back of a $75,000 loan in 1952 by Generoso Pope Jr., a New Jerseyite Italian-American who was the son of a quarry millionaire. He created a gory New York tabloid that specialised in traffic accident and murder photographs, under headlines like “I Used My Dead Baby’s Face for an Ashtray’ and ran circulation up to around a million before it stalled.

For reasons that will be explained later, Pope relocated the Enquirer from New York to Florida in 1971 and began its metamorphosis into a celebrity microscope that meticulously examined the underbelly of Hollywood.“If it’s nice, it ain’t news,” was his philosophy on covering celebs. The technique worked and in its heyday the paper was selling around five million copies a week.Much of that success came from Pope’s own clear vision and focus, and as an autocrat and sole proprietor, he crushed opposing views and did it his way.

He was also a famous ball-buster who didn’t care for familiarity. A security guard who’d been warned not to chat to him once said: ’Good evening Mr Pope, how are you doing?”Pope ordered the man fired. “It was the ‘How’re you doing?’ that got you the sack,” the personnel officer explained to him.

Tall, stiff-shouldered and with a shark grin, GP looked like the janitor as he wandered the offices adjusting the thermostats to 78 degrees. He smoked like a test chimpanzee for the National Institutes of Cancer, he ran celeb dirt, and he liked to publish hokey stories. “More people eat corn than caviar,” he reasoned. He had a a weakness for Miracle Cures and New Proof of Life After Death and a quiver full of schmaltzy, circulation-boosting weaponry including reader contests (someone, somewhere, must still wear cheap ‘I’m a National Enquirer TV Blooper Spotter’ tee shirts) and Lucky, a rescued dog we photographed with celebrities.

He loved tear-jerking stories and would send his favorite rewrite girl, beautiful Minnesota honey blonde Marsha May, back to her desk six or seven times to re-jig a story he liked. “Make me cry, Marsha,” he’d tell her, an admonition with which most of the male reporters heartily concurred. Pope was hated by Hollywood and reviled by the establishment media, who called him The High Priest of Low Brow, but the readers got what they wanted, and his formula worked.

We all knew that The Boss had small regard for the corporate bottom line, but we didn’t quite realize just how little he cared for it, plowing back the income into the product. Later, it turned out that Pope made an annual profit from the Enquirer of about $19 million. After his death, the new owners made a few changes and cleared $70 million almost at once. Back in the GP days, in late 1973, I was the sixth reporter taken on staff, and eventually we’d have 80 or so of us, plus a dozen photographers and several hundred freelancers. We worked in teams of about eight under editors whose chief job was to appease the feared publisher, who liked to divide and conquer.

The teams’ production was monitored, under-producers were put on a month’s notice and every group worked uncooperatively, so it was not uncommon to bump into office colleagues even in remote places, where rival editors from the Enquirer had independently sent reporters. Once, a reporter and photographer team who’d taken a week to reach a mining camp in the Guatemalan jungle were told excitedly of two other gringos in the same village. They went to share a beer and found themselves facing another Enquirer team working on the very same story. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but the two reporters were personal enemies. For several days, the bemused miners were treated to the sight of two sets of gringos doing the exact same interviews and pictures without speaking to each other.

At least, they were working as a team, unlike the man sent in 1973 on the Enquirer’s most famous assignment. John Harris, a rangy, drawling wit of a man from North Carolina is forever enshrined in tabloid lore as The Man Who Searched for Utopia.

It was publisher Gene Pope’s idea, scrawled on a lead sheet and dropped on John’s desk. The brief: “Is there really a Utopia left in this world? What’s it really like to live in Tahiti and those other pipe-dream paradises? Let’s write a series.” Harris, a painstaking and diligent man, gathered up his corporate Amex card, a sheaf of traveler’s cheques and his powder blue Olivetti portable typewriter. He began his legendary search in the Caribbean Sea.

It looked promising, but he had to report that there was poverty and some litter in the Bahamas, and crime in Jamaica was endemic. Pope scratched them off the list. The Windwards, Turks, Antilles and Leeward islands all had minor flaws and while the Caymans were very attractive, the publisher knew of the financial centers there, and business, he ruled, had no place in Paradise.

John moved on to Europe, and the Greek isles. Too many Euro tourists. He  visited castles in Spain (too ruined)  and examined faery isles in Scotland (too damp.) Every week or so, he’d file a story about another wonderland. Each time, the publisher found fault with the spot, some grain of grit in the oyster’s shell that was enough to deny the place the title of Utopia. In four and a half months, John went through Central and South America, Asia, Africa and even a took a peek at Antarctica. He checked remote islands and filed report after report. Every time his dispatch revealed something the publisher considered a fatal flaw.

Molokai was too accessible to North America. Bali had tourists, Sri Lanka was politically uncertain, the Seychelles were too remote, Mauritius wasn’t friendly enough. Nowhere met Pope’s near-impossible standards. Tension mounted. Over the months of John’s global wanderings, two of his editors were fired and the third was fearing for his job. John Harris had become a journalistic Flying Dutchman, condemned to travel for ever.

Later he’d say he didn’t mind. “I got that around-the-world, all-expense-paid assignment to search for Utopia,” he said. “It was probably the greatest assignment a reporter anywhere could ever get.” Diligent John looked and reported back. Tahiti was NG’ed. Its capital had an un-paradisiacal rush hour and parking meters. Bora Bora had too many hotels, American Samoa was too unkempt. The world’s most wonderful places weren’t good enough. Then, in mid-Pacific, journeying John visited Upolu, a Western Samoan island of glorious beaches, lush rainforest, dramatic waterfalls and volcanic scenery.

The place was an uncluttered confection of swaying palms and gentle trade breezes. There was no crime in this heaven of white sand, warm blue ocean and plentiful resources. John sighed, from both relief and sadness. He knew he’d found The Place, and his long and wonderful journey was ending. He’d triumphed by finding paradise, but he’d come to the end of a glorious experience. Paradise was no longer lost, Harris wrote. He typed his report and called it in to the office.

Publisher Pope got the news. Our man had found Utopia. Pope read the dispatch and cracked his rare and sharklike smile at editor Maury Breecher. “That’s good, Maury, very good,” he said. Breecher backed out, bowing, practically sobbing with relief.  At his desk, the phone rang. The publisher had a question. ’How’d Harris get this to you?”   “He phoned it over, and my assistant typed it, Mr Pope,” said the editor.

“Phoned? You mean they’ve got phones on this island? If there’s a phone there, it ain’t Utopia,” said Pope. “Bring him back.”

The $200,000 odyssey was over, and Pope never printed a single word about it. “There is no paradise on Earth,” he’d declare. He knew, he’d looked for it.

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