TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — Here in the staff lunchroom of Star magazine, America's second-largest-circulation tabloid, hangs a cartoon, "The Polite Enquirer."
Its headlines read, "Cher Finishes Jigsaw Puzzle" and "Brad Pitt Visits Relatives, Has Good Time."
Not the type of stories inquiring minds are likely to see in the 2.3 million-circulation Star anytime soon. Especially since the tabloid's editor in chief, Phil Bunton, bristles at the notion that in the aftermath of the Princess of Wales's tragic death, his magazine should reform its celebrity-chasing ways.
"The misdeeds of the paparazzi have been greatly exaggerated, at least as far as America is concerned. America doesn't have packs of motorbiking hoodlums chasing celebrities up and down streets. It happens only occasionally over here, but in France and Britain it's a way of life," says Mr. Bunton.
On the Sunday following Diana's funeral, Bunton and most of his 15-person New York staff were in the office putting the final touches on a second Diana memorial issue. While weekly editions of the Star take 10 days to produce, the memorial edition has taken only 30 hours to put together.
Bunton is proud of the Star's brand of unorthodox reporting. "We're celebrity journalists," he says. "We're not out to educate our readers, simply to entertain them. But in providing entertainment, we often have to go through the same process of checks and balances as the mainstream press."
While Bunton rails against wretched excess by the British tabloids, the Star itself recently ran stories on the Princess of Wales like "Shrinks' Secret Files on Di" and "Di's New Love Boat Cruise." The Star's Sept. 9 issue includes an entire page of photos depicting the princess and Dodi Fayed "making out" during a "sizzling summer of passion."
"Despite what everybody thinks, we're a family publication," says Peter Burt, the Star's Los Angeles bureau chief. "We're not into graphic gore. We don't do stalker stories or anything that would put celebrities in danger. We're the kinder, gentler tabloid," he says.
"We would never run autopsy photos of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman or set up Frank Gifford in a hotel room with a hired stewardess, like the Globe did," says Mr. Burt, referring to the Star's primary competitor. Besides, readers love Hollywood legends, so negative stories about celebrities usually backfire, he argues.
Beating the competition
True, the Star employs skulduggery - Burt himself was an unauthorized guest at Elizabeth Taylor's 1991 wedding, where he posed as a waiter to report on the actress's highly guarded nuptials - but only to beat the competition, he says.
Each issue of the Star is vetted by the New York law firm of Squadron Ellenoff Plesent & Lehrer. Headlines, sources, photos, even picture captions are checked for content that could be deemed libelous.
Yet the Star's in-your-face journalism has landed it in court on more than one occasion. Entertainers Rodney Dangerfield and Ed McMahon recently netted settlements related to libel suits against the Star. Last winter, actress Brooke Shields sued the tabloid for a story about an alleged eating disorder.
This spring, a photographer on assignment for the Star was charged with running Michael Kennedy's estranged wife, Victoria, off the road in Massachusetts, following news of Kennedy's affair with a baby sitter.
At the same time, the tabloid has also broken stories hot enough to make a Time magazine editor drool: It was the Star who shook up the media food chain in 1992 when it revealed Bill Clinton's relationship with Gennifer Flowers, forcing the mainstream media to play catch-up on the story. The Star again sent shock waves through the worlds of politics and the press in 1996 when it reported that presidential political consultant Dick Morris was consorting with a call girl who listened in on phone conversations with the president.
The tabloid's headquarters is on the fifth floor of an office building in Tarrytown, a picturesque village overlooking the Hudson River 30 miles north of New York City.
With fog-gray walls and lavender chairs, the Star's newsroom is deceptively quiescent. An IBM computer sits on each reporter's desk. Low-walled cubicles run the length of the room. The copy and photo desks sit on opposite sides of the office. On a wall, three clocks tick at New York, London, and Sydney time.
Bunton, a Scot with an uncanny resemblance to the Star's founder, Rupert Murdoch, is poring over the latest editions of London's leading tabloids, bulging with stories and photos on Diana's funeral.
The newspapers were delivered by a Star reporter in London who took a one-way flight on the Concorde to hand-carry the tabloids to Tarrytown. "The ticket cost us $5,000. And well worth it," says Bunton blithely.
At the Star, money is the mother's milk of journalism. "Last month we chartered a sailboat for the weekend Barbra Streisand was going to be married on Block Island, [R.I.]," says Bunton. "It cost us 3,000 bucks, and nothing happened."
Such expenses are picked up by the Star's owner, American Media Inc., based in Lantana, Fla. The publicly traded company also owns the Star's sister magazine, the National Enquirer, and four other national tabloids including Soap Opera magazine and Soap Opera News.
American Media's revenues this year are $316 million, the lion's share coming from Star and the National Enquirer, says Peter Nelson, the company's controller. Most of the Star's earnings come from newsstand sales - less than 25 percent of the magazine's pages typically carry ads. The company's profits last year were reportedly $12 million.
Like most journalists covering Hollywood, Calif., Star reporters are on a never-ending quest for exclusives on celebrity and entertainment stories. A mishap on the set of "Melrose Place" or an eye-popping photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. on a beach can yield a high-profile byline and a sharp rise in circulation.
"A lot of our reporters are young and right out of journalism school," says Star news editor Dick Belsky. "They don't want to cover boring city-council elections or sewage disposal. When they come to the Star, they get to cover national stories about famous people," he says.
Star reporters follow in the footsteps of Robin Leach ("Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"), who once worked as the tabloid's gossip columnist, and Steve Dunleavy, former correspondent for the syndicated program "A Current Affair" and now a columnist at the New York Post.
Unlike most newspapers and magazines, tabloids like the Star offer cash to sources to get the stories and photos they run - and pay handsomely. Of the Star's 25 to 30 news stories in each issue, an average 50 percent are paid for, says Bunton.
Those cashing in often belong to the magazine's network of tipsters. In Los Angeles, "Our source network consists of about 100 freelancers," says Burt. They include production assistants on television sitcoms, movie extras, caterers, and limousine drivers. "We get dozens of leads a week. About half of them pan out, half of them don't," Burt says.
Sometimes the same tip is called in over and over. "Every week we get somebody telling us that Frank Sinatra has died. So we call his publicist, who says it isn't true and slams down the phone. We don't like having to check on the same story three or four times a month, but it's not something you can ignore," Burt says.
Payments to sources tend to range from $100 for short gossip items to $5,000 for cover stories, says Bunton. Since the tabloid has no staff photographers, all its photos are purchased, typically from freelance photojournalists or photo agencies.
Star reportedly paid O.J. Simpson $500,000 for the exclusive rights to photograph his homecoming party after he was found not guilty in his criminal trial.
More recently, Bunton says the Star paid someone $35,000 for a photo of Bill Cosby with Autumn Jackson, who claimed to be his daughter.
Press pundits have long debated the perils of checkbook journalism, some referring to the practice as "cash for trash."
"The problem is that people tend to sweeten their stories for money," says Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post's media critic.
"In this media-saturated age, people know that the more sensational their tale, the bigger paycheck they can command," Mr. Kurtz continues. "There's a built-in incentive to hype, exaggerate, maybe even falsify a story. Paying [sources] for stories creates a fundamental credibility problem that no amount of rationalizing by the tabloids can eliminate."
Not so, counters Burt. "That's an elitist perspective which doesn't recognize that the mainstream media pays for stories all the time," he says.
"Journalists who work for the networks use their celebrity to seduce people they want to interview," says Burt. "The networks send limousines and wine and dine people they want on the air. They put them up at the best hotels. Isn't that paying for a story?"
The Star's second memorial issue on Diana, due on the newsstands by the end of this week, will be the highest-selling edition of the Star this year, predicts Bunton. And the issue may set another benchmark: It will be the only Star edition in memory in which not a single story is paid for.