I needed a career change in a bad way. I co-authored a book that became a New York Times bestseller -– an arch polemic called "Hollywood, Interrupted" that bit hard at the hand that fed me. I figured if I burned all my sources, it might finally force me to leave the rat’s nest. Six months later, I was literally living in my van next to a park in Santa Monica with my two pit bulls. Apparently, a bestseller and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee in this town, except you better make it a soy latte and $3.75.
Then out of the blue, I got a message from someone at American Media, publisher of the Globe, the Star and their crown jewel, the National Enquirer -– the holy trinity of tabloid journalism. An old-school tabloid reporter had given them my name (“Ebner, you should come join us -- see the world!”) and they wanted me to come to their offices in Boca Raton, Florida and interview for a job. A plane ticket was on its way.
If it’s not apparent to the layman, there is no lower job in journalism than working for the tabloids. They pay for stories. They use each other as sources. They employ a situational ethics of the most robust variety: Subjects are excused for reprehensible behavior one day because of some cooked-up synergy with the home office, and then persecuted the next out of sport or spite. Stupidity is pandered to, stereotypes are reinforced with a vengeance and every story features a moral to be found in that lacuna at the perfect nexus where our lowest common denominator intersects with the lesser angels of our nature. The tabloids are where you book transit when you’re not planning on coming back.
After checking into the deluxe, extended-stay hotel in AMI’s football field-size office park and picking up my rental car – which I would never use -- I walked across a central plaza to the pumping heart of the scandal universe. Everything was flamingos, palm trees and aggressive pastels -– it looked like the opening credits of "Miami Vice." Escorted through a sprawling newsroom big enough to bring down a standing president, I was deposited outside the office of editor-in-chief David Perel, visible to me through a glass partition. The waiting area literature consisted of the latest Enquirer, which I discovered you can read start to finish in approximately 15 minutes, and the contents of which made my teeth hurt. I turned to the crossword puzzle –- and think for a moment what kind of crossword might be published in the National Enquirer –- when he rapped on the glass and waved me in.
“Ebner,” he greeted me like we were old friends -– or more probably, like he sees in us a common pathology. “I read all your clips. Good stuff. By the way –- you finish that crossword puzzle yet?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Then you’re hired.”
And before I had time to second-guess, I was on a plane back to LA. It was now January 2004. For the first time in my adult life, I was making a five-figure annual salary I wouldn’t be embarrassed to see published in a daily newspaper. I had a health plan, a dental plan, an expense account and a generous travel allowance. I had a corner desk in Santa Monica six blocks from the ocean. In one strange turn of fate, I was suddenly an adult, a tax-paying citizen and a re-enfranchised member of society. Because what they did produced rich bouquets and overflowing fountains of money -– so much money that it even trickled down to people like me. American Media’s combined circulation was 5.4 million; the New York Times, by contrast, was barely over a million. I felt like part of an elite military machine, and all I’d had to do to be a part of it was to kill someone with my bare hands.
On a typical day, I’d get into the office about 8:30. First thing I’d do is register the verbal memos about who had been granted immunity: We’re not touching Sylvester Stallone -– we’re going to do a magazine with him; he doesn’t get any coverage. Or Schwarzenegger gets a pass, now that he was pals with publisher David Pecker. It was all very pleasant.
Next, I’d see if they had me assigned to any story for the day. Let’s say they’ve got a blind tip –- “Attention: Elizabeth Taylor might be dying today.” I’d get in my ’69 baby blue Volkswagen bus with the hand-tinted windows and I’d drive up and park in front of her estate discreetly tucked into one of the canyons. I’d sit there all day recording license plate numbers for every vehicle that came in or out of her compound. Then I’d call them in to the office manager, who in turn would contact our mole at the DMV. One of the names that came back was actually one of our long-time stringers. Maybe they had a legitimate job inside, and they just never mentioned it. But a more tantalizing possibility was that Elizabeth Taylor herself was controlling her portrayal in the tabloids. The Mossad guys who worked security for her -– bullet-shaped Israeli ex-secret service agents who knew how to break all 206 bones in the human body -– would come out and knock on my window and ask me what I was doing. I’d tell them, “I’m doing the crossword puzzle.” I couldn’t have been more obvious. That assignment happened more than once.
Or my bosses would send me over to the San Fernando Valley to Annette Funicello’s house -– Mouseketeer emeritus and television’s first consensus pin-up, now debilitated by multiple sclerosis. My assignment was to knock on the door, and when someone answered, try and get a good enough look at her to assess her condition. As her thankless caretaker tried to maintain her civility for the 15 seconds of our encounter, I spotted Funicello across the room from the back, shaking in a chair, excused myself and reported back that she appeared to be inches away from death. Somehow, these people were always inches away from death, and yet they tended to live out their lives.
But the one thing I discovered was that I had an affinity for crime stories. However much a reporter from the National Enquirer is reviled in places like Los Angeles or New York, he is a rock star in the depressed Midwestern states that make up his readership. In some small town, peeling a handful of C-notes off the Chicago roll in my pocket -– with an unlimited amount I could have wired in on request –- I could put food on somebody’s table for months, or satisfy the most vicious methamphetamine habit. I would troll the wire feed or atrocity websites or skim small-town papers for days on end until something caught my eye –- “Fetus Snatcher,” let’s say -– and then suddenly I was on a plane that night to Kansas City, Missouri, driving the next morning to Melvern, Kansas, population 429. And then, just like "In Cold Blood," I was walking down a farm road in the middle of winter, two weeks before Christmas, on my way to doorstep the farmhouse where Lisa Montgomery had returned two days ago, having crossed the state line into Skidmore, Missouri and cut the living fetus out of the womb of 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who died hours later. She had planned to raise the child here as her own.
When no one answered the front door, I walked around back. There through a gap in the chintz curtains, I could see the remnants of the family’s postponed Christmas holiday: A forlorn tree, half-decorated; unopened presents and stockings above the fireplace –- one too many for the number of reported family members, the last one a tiny red bootie half the size of the others. An image at once maudlin and horrifying -– this was my lede. While I was scribbling in a reporter’s notebook, a haunted man in a faded pickup truck pulled into the driveway and rolled down his window.
“Can I help you?” he said firmly.
“Sir, I’m from the National Enquirer, and--“
That was all he needed. “Get off my property,” he said, “or I will call the police.”
I made the front page of the local paper the next day.
At a truck-stop on my way out of town, an overweight convenience store clerk confessed to me that she had been pregnant a few years back when Lisa Montgomery had stared at her belly for an uncomfortable period of time. That became my follow-up story idea: “It Could Have Been Me.” And her kids got extra presents that year.
Or take the BTK Strangler, half a state away in Wichita, Kansas. BTK stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill,” a kind of how-to mnemonic offered by serial killer Dennis Rader in his taunting letters to the press between 1974 and 1991. After a 14-year hiatus, he picked up the correspondence again when his guilt presumably got the better of him. By the time we were onto it, Rader had been pretty well picked over by the national press corps. So my assignment? Make him gay.
Of course, this married father of two, Cub Scout leader and devout Lutheran never exhibited the slightest tendency toward homosexual behavior. But this was not a problem for the resourceful reporter. First I went through his roster of known acquaintances until I found a woman at a local university who was a lesbian. Source One: Proximity to lesbians. Next I phoned the only gay bar in Wichita and asked the owner whether it was possible that Rader might have been there any time in the past. He answered, “Sure, I guess it’s possible.” Source Two: Locked. And for Source Three, I twisted the arm of a criminal profiler on call out of Alabama until he suggested that the BTK’s father had probably molested him as a child.
One, two three sources: Gay BTK. It wasn’t quite the UFO beat, but it was something akin to investigative fiction; the trick was to see how much you could get away with without being sued, and the Enquirer had it down to a science. I wrote probably 30 bylined stories over the course of the year. I’m not even saying I was that good at it. I’d try for that sweet spot of the tabloid voice –- overly solicitous, maybe even a little breathless, yet ultimately disappointed in the human condition -– but I bet I hit it less than half the time. I suppose I could have gotten better if I’d stuck around longer, but for the most part, it was the rewrite guy’s problem. The old guys there didn’t look like they were heading into a happy sunset.
I finally hit the wall in 2005 on the Dermot Mulroney-Catherine Keener bust-up. Two mid-level stars, both consummate actors, married with a kid, were filing for divorce, and on the strength of her left-field Oscar nomination for "Being John Malkovich" (her second was for "Capote") and it being a slow news week, the story had some play. I had enjoyed Mulroney’s Celtic rock band Low and Sweet Orchestra once at the Troubadour, and spent a charming half-hour with Keener at Sundance one year, and they both seemed like genuine people. But I dutifully put a comment call in to Keener’s mother in Florida, and she answered on the first ring.
“Mrs. Keener? Hi, this is Mark Ebner. I’m a reporter for American Media.”
First rule of cold-calling: Out in the heartland, you’re from the Enquirer; with celebrities or their families, you’re from American Media. It gives you an extra second to wedge your foot in the door.
“I’m reading a report here that says your daughter and Dermot have broken up.”
“Oh, really?” came a sad voice from the other end. “I was just there two weeks ago, and they seemed really happy.”
I told her how sorry I was.
“You know, you seem like a nice man,” she said to me, the only person she had to commiserate with her. “I hope you do the right thing.” I thanked her and hung up. Then I sat there for a long time. It was my moment of clarity: There was no reason to do this story. Even on a slow news week, it didn’t make sense to me. These people had never hurt anybody. They weren’t out there driving drunk with their kids or clamoring for attention. They were trying to get through a difficult situation with their dignity intact. Plus it wasn’t going to sell papers. I called the publicist and told her I was off the story, and that I was burning the numbers and deleting my files.
“Mark, what’s got into you?” the publicist asked.
It was just a matter of weeks before they let me go. They had their reasons. While on assignment, I’d taken pictures of me embedded with the Minutemen on the Arizona-Mexico border and posted them on an unrelated website. I gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times on comedian Dave Chappelle, who had disappeared (to Africa, it turns out), where I said, “He’s my hero… If he stays far away from people like us, he’ll be fine.” Mainly, because this job came with a 95percent burnout rate, they were trained to watch for early warning signs. I just manifested mine ahead of the curve. The day I saw the head of human resources gingerly making her way to my desk, I told her, “I’ve been waiting for you.” My severance check had already been cut.
•Reprinted with permission from Six Degrees of Paris Hilton by Mark Ebner