Equal parts entertaining and discomfiting, the two major documentaries opening at local theaters this week are both likely to make you mad. Not at their craftsmanship or viewpoint, but at the blood-boiling events they scrutinize: An infamous recent scandal of long-term sexual abuse in high-profile women’s gymnastics; and the rise of the nation’s preeminent weekly tabloid, whose yellow journalism was recently capped by revelations that it actively, underhandedly helped put you-know-who in the White House.
Mark Landsman’s Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer is about the famed supermarket rag popularly associated with nonsense stories about “UFO babies” and Elvis sightings. The Enquirer was a minor New York broadsheet until it was acquired in 1952 by Generoso Pope Jr., the son of a mafia-affiliated, Italian-language NYC newspaper owner. Ruthlessly bent on expanding circulation, he first turned towards grisly crime-scene and accident photos no other publication would touch. Then he realized the biggest audience lay in the fast-growing suburbs: Housewives who wanted celebrity gossip, diet advice, believe-it-or-not type stories and so forth in which “facts weren’t important.” Paying its staff generously (and firing them even more liberally), the Enquirer landed salacious scoops like the only photo of Elvis in his coffin, often flaunting the journalistic no-no of paying sources.
Eventually, and under different owners following Pope’s death, these muckrakers would begin fancying themselves real reporters—albeit ones who did not draw the line at creating rather than breaking news. Thus such “ethically challenging” coups as destroying Gary Hart’s Presidential campaign by aggressively ferreting out an extramarital fling. But they also “buried” similar stories about people like Bill Cosby in exchange for cooperation on more favorable coverage. They let someone like rising real estate magnate Donald Trump use the publication to drive his own celebrity status. (We even hear one old phone convo where he unconvincingly poses as an “anonymous” tipster about himself, promising dish about how hot Madonna supposedly was for The Donald. Uh-huh.) When he turned out to be a popular subject, the tabloid eventually agreed to “catch and kill” scandalous stories about him (re: Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougall) so they wouldn’t hurt his political ambitions.
Not everything the Enquirer does is bad, but they’ve certainly helped lower the general discourse. And their lack of ethics has led directly to our situation today: Stuck with a celebrity POTUS who doesn’t understand why he can’t manipulate all media coverage, because he certainly could with his pal The Enquirer. The most infuriating thing about Scandalous is seeing that paper’s former staff in their lavish homes, smugly making excuses for themselves. They argue they were just “doing their job” when they used underhanded means to get (or suppress) a story, often blithely destroying a subject’s privacy, career or entire life. These people are so shameless they can actually make you feel offended on behalf of Amazon’s unimaginably rich Jeff Bezos, who recently accused the company of extortion and blackmail.
Erin Lee Carr’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal charts how as official doctor for female gymnastics on the U.S. Olympics team, as well as for Michigan State University and a local high school, Larry Nasser was able to molest young women and girls for years on end. He was a much-liked figure by parents, officials and most of the competitors themselves, for whom he often played sympathetic “good cop” versus more harshly demanding coaches.
Yet Nasser exploited precisely that innocuous image to take advantage of girls too young and innocent to even be sure they were being assaulted—especially since on rare occasions when they complained, he assured them his digital “vaginal treatments” were standard procedure. Other adults were so disbelieving this affable, “super-dorky” fella would do anything wrong, they assumed the victims “misunderstood.” He’d even surreptitiously insert his fingers when parents were present in the room—though his abuses (and visible erections) definitely increased when they weren’t.
Among the many appalling things about this case is the fact, duly laid out here, that authorities primarily invested in trophies either dismissed or actively covered up such allegations. Their intentions may not have been evil, but at the very least, they enabled continued molestation by not following protocols designed to protect the athletes. Even when new guidelines were drawn up to prevent inappropriate behavior from Nasser, no one actually bothered to make sure he was complying. Once the scandal finally broke big-time, it made everyone save the victims look utterly reprehensible.
While this documentary turns somewhat rotely inspirational in the end, and the trial itself (which was open to cameras) got rather theatrical, Nasser did finally “comply” by appearing every inch the villains. His courtroom displays of contrition convinced no one, and the judge’s reading aloud of his whining, manipulative notes to her made it clear he thought he was somehow “the victim.”
Proving once again that sociopathy is a dismaying “new normal.” Heart of Gold and Scandalous are both engrossing nonfiction features, but they won’t exactly uplift your faith in 21st-century humanity.
Scandalous opens Fri/15 at SF’s Opera Plaza and Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
At the Heart of Gold opens Fri/15 at the Vogue Theatre in SF. More info here.