Steve Coz

Can the National Enquirer’s editor sell respectability–and papers?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Once upon a time–before O.J., that is–supermarket tabloids were journalism’s shame. Respectable writers sneered at the tabs for their millions of lumpen readers; their fabricated or (worse) purchased stories; and their raffish British editors, who behaved more like blackmailers than like scions of the Fourth Estate.

But now the editor of the National Enquirer, Steve Coz, has a Harvard degree (cum laude, no less!) and mainstream cachet. In an age when celebrity-worship is religion and populism is the dominant political ideology, the tabs are pariahs no longer. Since taking over as Enquirer editor in 1995, the 40-year-old Coz has become the tab industry’s first star editor as well as its first respected one. In the spring, Time named him one of the “25 Most Influential People” of 1997. U.S. News profiled him admiringly soon after. And until a couple of weeks ago, Coz was considered the leading candidate for the editorship of the New York Daily News, one of the most venerated of daily mainstream tabloids.

The American cult of celebrity has flourished since Walter Winchell, and the tabs have been thriving since the early ‘70s–but it’s only in the last few years that other journalists have taken the supermarket rags seriously. Coz deserves as much credit (or blame) for this as anyone. Before becoming editor, Coz directed the Enquirer’s massive O.J. coverage. (At one point, the Simpson case made the cover 21 weeks out of 27.) The Enquirer’s investigators far outclassed other reporters. Thanks to lots of spadework and liberal payments to sources, Coz’s team tracked down the famous pictures of O.J. wearing Bruno Magli shoes, the harrowing diary of Nicole Brown Simpson, and the guy who sold O.J. a knife right before the murder. The Los Angeles Times ran a 5,000-word paean to the Enquirer’s “feminist” coverage, and even the New York Times credited Coz’s staff with breaking open the story.

The paper has been equally enterprising during Coz’s tenure as editor. In the midst of the 1996 presidential campaign, it revealed that Bob Dole had had a mistress. After the murder of Bill Cosby’s son, Ennis, the Enquirer posted a $100,000 reward, opened a phone tip line, and fielded the call that led to a suspect’s arrest. It has covered the JonBenet Ramsey murder doggedly, too.

The Coz vogue owes as much to his public posturing as it does to his investigative reporting. Coz casts himself as the conscience of tabloid journalism (if that’s not an oxymoron). When the Globe, the Enquirer’s chief rival, hired an airline stewardess to seduce Frank Gifford on hidden camera, Coz was shocked, shocked. He penned an op-ed for the New York Times condemning the Globe for making news rather than covering it. After Princess Diana’s death, Coz made the network-TV rounds to denounce the paparazzi (“stalkarazzi”) and tout the Enquirer’s refusal to buy crash-scene photos: “We call on the rest of the press to join our ban on the photos.” If he gets any more high-minded, he’s going to bang his head on the ceiling.

This righteousness lies at the heart of Coz’s business strategy: to make the Enquirer respectable. Coz is trying to convince America that the Enquirer is more like People than it is like other tabloids. His Enquirer, he says, abjures paparazzi photos, inflammatory and misleading headlines, and fabricated stories. Coz is more likely to appear on a Sunday talk-show round table than on a tabloid TV show. He also gets a lot of mileage out of his Harvard degree and his preppy good looks, two commodities that old-school tabloid editors lacked. (The Harvard shtick is largely that: Coz has spent his entire working life at the Enquirer.)

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Coz’s grandstanding does reek of hypocrisy. He denounced the stalking of Diana, but the Enquirer’s own cover story at the time of her death was “Di Goes Sex Mad,” complete with snapshots of Diana and Dodi Fayed. Coz criticizes the Gifford trap yet defends the similar way the Star, the Enquirer’s sister paper, treated Dick Morris. The Star paid Sherry Rowlands to lure Morris to a place where a hidden camera could film them. (Coz’s distinction: Morris was carrying on with Rowlands before the Star took pictures, while Suzen Johnson didn’t approach Gifford until after she had a Globe contract.)

The Enquirer also pays for stories and sources–an absolute no-no in mainstream journalism–and relies on gossip that would never make it past a regular newspaper editor. And Coz’s Enquirer still depends on sucker-punch journalism. It is far crueler than People ever would be. Celebrities scoff at the claim that the Enquirer is kinder and gentler. Coz’s Enquirer has been sued frequently for defamation and invasion of privacy. After Di’s death, George Clooney blamed Coz personally for encouraging celebrity-stalking. And, according to gossip columnist Liz Smith, three Hollywood superstars have hired private investigators to gather dirt on Coz and two other tabloid editors.

The misfortune of Coz’s career may be that he is gunning for journalistic respectability at a time when journalistic respectability doesn’t pay. Americans are starving for tabloid-style news, and everyone wants to feed them. Tabloid TV shows such as A Current Affair and Hard Copy have stolen tab papers’ market share. So have reputable TV shows and magazines, which now cover celebrity news with as much vigor as the tabs. The best JonBenet story ran in Vanity Fair. Time, Newsweek, and People worship stars, fad diets, and medical miracles almost as avidly as the Enquirer does. These mainstream media are eating the tabs’ lunch. The Enquirer’s weekly circulation has fallen from 6 million copies in the ‘70s to 2.7 million today.

Coz believes he’ll reverse this decline by taking (or at least talking about) the high road. Don’t count on it. Consider the Globe: As the respectable media have become sleazy, the Globe has become sleazier. While Coz preaches decorum, the Globe has added more sensationalism, more gore, more nasty gossip. The Enquirer’s circulation is stagnant. The Globe’s circulation is rising fast.