Monday, October 4, 2010

ENQUIRING MINDS SHOULD WANT TO KNOW





"THE INVESTIGATOR," SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS, 23 AUGUST 2008

As The National Enquirer continues to muckrake into the love life of political has-been John Edwards, now is a good time to investigate the colorful history of America's best-known tabloid.

The story begins in 1906 when 15-year-old Generoso Pope (born Papa) arrives in New York City freshly emigrated from Italy with $13 in his pocket. Within twenty-five years he becomes the USA's first self-made Italian millionaire.

Colonial Sand and Stone, Pope's cement company, paves the streets of Manhattan, and with his profits the concrete baron buys Il Progresso, New York's Italian-language newspaper. Through the 1930s, Pope pens editorials that glorify Benito Mussolini, Italy's fascist dictator. He even trips to Italy to meet Il Duce. Twice.

Pope's best friend is Frank Costello, the notorious mafia "don of dons." He chooses "Uncle Frank" to be actual godfather to the third of three sons, Gene Pope Jr.

When he grows up, Gene Jr. edits Il Progresso; his two brothers, Fortune and Anthony, had already assumed control of the concrete business.

The CIA is created in 1947, and this secret agency devotes much of its attention to communist influence in Europe--Italy, in particular. The assistance of Gene senior and junior is discreetly solicited, and Il Progresso urges its Italian-American readers to write all their friends and relatives in Italy about the evils of communism. In addition, cash is filtered to church and labor groups to ensure a Christian Democratic election victory in 1948.
This is where the CIA's relationship with the mafia is rooted: an alignment with top mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano, whose boys work the Italian docks to keep olive oil flowing and communists at bay.

In 1951, a year after his father's death, Gene junior moves to Washington D.C. and officially joins the CIA. He is assigned to psychological warfare, a unit that deals with propaganda and brainwashing. But he leaves the agency after one year and returns to New York. His brothers do not welcome him back into the family businesses, and Gene never speaks to either one again. (Both are later convicted of fraud for skimming funds from their concrete company.)

The New York Enquirer catches Gene's eye. He turns to Uncle Frank to "negotiate" a deal--and loan him $20,000 for a down payment on the $75,000 price tag. Mr. Costello also coughs up $10,000 a week operating expenses while Gene strives to raise circulation.

In return, the New York Enquirer reports that the mafia is a myth perpetuated by communist propaganda, prompting New York Mirror columnist Lee Mortimer to write: "As soon as anyone goes after the mob, he's taken on the following week by that loathsome blackmail sheet that's 'owned' by Frank Costello's godson."

Then Gene experiences an epiphany and remodels his paper into a freak show featuring photographs of car wrecks and gruesome murders ("Madman Cuts Up Date & Puts Her Body in Freezer").

Circulation triples. Gene goes national and re-christens his paper The National Enquirer.

However, his gruesome themes cause a hiccup: Gene is stripped, by New York City's burghers, of his much beloved police badge and honorary status as deputy police commissioner.

Embarrassed, and believing blood-and-gore has no future, Gene plots a new tabloid recipe: A large helping of celebrity scandal, a measure of self-help, a spoonful of the occult and a dollop of inspirational uplift.

Gee Whiz Journalism is born--and circulation takes off, reaching six million in 1977 when a boxed Elvis Presley appears on page one.

Meanwhile, mobster Frank Costello serves a stint in prison for tax evasion. Upon release, he reaches out to his now-prosperous godson for a helping hand; repayment, perhaps, for setting him up in business years earlier.

But Gene rebuffs his godfather, pleading a new respectability that precludes association with an ex-con mobster.

Henceforth, fearing retaliation, Gene surrounds himself with off-duty police officers. And buddies up to the CIA again.

In the mid-1970s, when Senator Frank Church investigates intelligence abuses, the Enquirer publishes stories such as "Public Disclosures Destroying CIA" and "Lives of All Americans Have Been Put in Danger by Headline Hungry Politicians Who Are Crucifying CIA."

Long before anyone else in the Fourth Estate, Enquirer reporters uncover Project Jennifer, a joint CIA-Howard Hughes operation to salvage a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine from the Pacific Ocean floor using a specially built ship called Glomar Explorer.

Gene spikes the story. (The LA Times scoops it.) Months later, summer of '75, a freelance photographer uses a high-powered telephoto lens in Helsinki, Finland, to snap Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reading documents. Enlargements show the docs to be a top-secret memo from President Gerald Ford outlining U.S. negotiating strategy for SALT talks with the Soviets.

The photographer sells his prints and negatives to the Enquirer for big bucks.

Gene travels by train from Florida to Washington D.C. and personally hands the photographs to CIA director William Colby.

In October 1988 Gene Pope Jr. drops dead of a heart attack. By order of his will, the tabloid is put up for auction. It fetches $412 million.

Today the Enquirer belongs to American Media Inc., which owns every celebrity tabloid on the checkout stand. Its controlling shareholder is Evercore Partners, whose founder and chairman, New York investment banker Roger C. Altman, served briefly as deputy treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton- until he got snared in Whitewater and resigned.

Altman remains a Clinton intimate and a staunch financial supporter of Hillary's presidential aspirations.