At the end of Jim Rutenberg and Maggie Haberman’s recent New York Times story about President Trump’s alleged plan to buy the National Enquirer’s Trump files, the reporters noted a curious thing. Anonymous sources at the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media, describe the files as containing “older National Enquirer stories about Mr. Trump’s marital woes and lawsuits; related story notes and lists of sensitive sources; some tips about alleged affairs; and minutia, like allegations of unscrupulous golfing.” (Classic.) Reportedly, American Media CEO David Pecker, a Trump friend, kept them in a safe.
But wait. How could older National Enquirer stories be so valuable? Because the back issues of tabloids aren’t preserved as often, or as comprehensively, as more “respectable” newspapers and magazines. “Many of the older National Enquirer stories are often not available through Google or databases like Nexis,” Haberman and Rutenberg noted. Indeed, a Google search will show you that it’s not easy to view copies of the National Enquirer from the ’80s and ’90s—the pre–David Pecker years, when the tabloid actually ran stories critical of Donald Trump. The publication itself doesn’t maintain an online archive. The Internet Archive, which relies on user scans, offers only a smattering of mostly recent issues, and Google Books doesn’t include the tabloid among its scanned periodicals.
“Donald Trump—a cheapskate who hates to shake hands and is terrified of going bald,” a juicy Nov. 26, 1991, Enquirer headline reads. How can I see that gem from my computer? EBay, the “archive” where you can purchase whichever random issue a fellow human has happened to keep in her attic and decided to list for sale, and see whichever pages she decided to scan as an advertisement for the whole. This approach has one obvious drawback for research: Chance may be your friend, or your enemy. Currently, there’s only one Trump-negative copy of the Enquirer with a listing on the auction site; it sold while I was writing this piece, for $14.18.
To see all the old Trump stories yourself and make sense of them as a whole, you’ll probably need to go to one of a few physical places—a library or archive that’s focused on popular culture, like the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University, which has a specific mission to save materials “for the study of everyday American life,” or a big institution like the Library of Congress, which has most of the tabloid on microfilm (with the exception of a few years in the 2000s). Why can’t you find old Enquirers at your local library, even if the most recent issue is in the periodicals reading room? Institutions must decide what gets saved because storage—physical and digital—costs money. Steve Ammidown, manuscripts and outreach archivist at the Browne Popular Culture Library, said, when I asked why more places don’t have old Enquirers around: “In most cases, the libraries that do receive it often just keep it for a year or two, then they will weed it as a matter of course. Other libraries don’t really see the value in having it all.”
Preservation of Enquirers, which are printed on cheap pulpy pages, presents an extra physical challenge. Bill Ryan, a spokesperson for the Library of Congress, said of the library’s collection, “We do not keep the paper after microfilming, as the quality of the paper is such that it would not hold up over time.” Microfilm, a technology that transfers images of printed material to physical film, which readers then view using a machine that enlarges and lights up the image, has fallen out of favor in recent years as digitization has become more popular (though librarians and archivists still like it because of its simplicity and reliability). Ryan said that the Library now films the Enquirer itself, but it once purchased Enquirer film from vendors that offer catalogs of titles. Other institutions may not have the means or the desire to transfer their own Enquirers into film in-house, if vendors don’t offer it. And since the Enquirer isn’t included in big digital periodicals databases that sell licenses to libraries, like LexisNexis or ProQuest, the chances an institution might offer users access diminish yet again.
The decision to keep Enquirers around—or not—reflects an institution’s understanding of what its researchers will want to access in the future. This sounds like a simple statement, but if you think of what the Enquirer is and has been—sensationalist, unreliable, not-quite-journalism and not-quite-fiction—it becomes clear why some places don’t see value in keeping it. Ryan referred me to the collecting policy governing which periodicals the Library of Congress chooses to keep. The Library’s criteria include periodicals that “reflect current events and opinions; provide information about trends, fashions, and contemporary culture; record the present and past life achievements of the people of the United States; provide current information about the United States as a whole, or focus on a particular region, state, city, or ethnicity; reflect the general recreational, aesthetic, and cultural needs of the people.” The Enquirer definitely meets that last standard, reflecting a very particular set of aesthetic and cultural needs, and doing it with intensity. Compare the motivations behind this collecting policy to the way the database LexisNexis Academic, for example, describes its sources as “credible” and its “news content” as “comprehensive” and “authoritative.” (LexisNexis did not respond to a request for comment for this story.) The Enquirer could never be considered “credible,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
“The bulk of our National Enquirer collection starts in 1988, so you can literally trace the rise of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton through the Enquirer’s eyes. To be able to see it through the New York Times is one thing, but to see it through a magazine with fewer scruples is really interesting as well,” Steve Ammidown said when I asked him why his institution saw the periodical as valuable. If you look at its coverage of any number of celebrities, the Enquirer treatment—kid gloves off, mean face on—adds a piece to our picture of what that celebrity meant to the public. You can make an argument about the values and mores of a certain sector of a society when you look at the kind of person who bears the brunt of critique in sensationalist newspapers. The Pecker-era Enquirer now loves to hate Amal Clooney, for example—a woman with a career and a foreign-sounding name who’s called a “jealous monster,” “control freak,” and “wife from hell.” This is gender politics at its most obvious. Who was the Amal Clooney equivalent of 1989? Academics who write about the way knowledge travels across spheres can look at a tabloid like the Enquirer as a case study. So, for example, social scientists can compare the way particular scientific subjects are covered in mainstream newspapers and tabloid presses.
The Enquirer’s old Donald Trump stories may or may not contain truths about our president, though that “terrified of going bald” thing is definitely real. But there can be no argument against the fact that they show how his public image was constructed, year after year. Their relative inaccessibility to a Trump-fixated public shows what a loss it is when we fail to value old culture—even when it’s trash.