Confessions of a Former Tabloid Writer

What do O.J. Simpson, the Bachelorette, Charlie Sheen, and Angeline Jolie all have in common?  The tabloids love them.

On the way to the grocery store checkout, one cannot help but notice headlines flashing the latest scandals.  If the high point of your day was discovering that cheese was on sale, reading up on the latest celebrity dirt is tempting.

After all, it is not like you’re sitting around gossiping at the office water cooler or making fun of the pants one of the moms wore to your book club. These people are celebrities so they should expect it, right?

In truth, regardless of what they should expect, all that really matters is what God expects of us.

Landing an Assignment

I once wrote for a very well-known gossip tabloid.  I was a young mother with a degree in social work and a master’s in public administration. My education as a former journalism major enabled me to earn money as a freelancer while I stayed home with my children.

I used the Writer’s Guide to Periodicals to research what magazines wanted and how much they were paying. By keeping my eyes open to interesting stories, I landed assignments by proposing article ideas to various magazines.

One day, while looking under the “general interest” category for periodicals, I read the entry for a certain tabloid newspaper.  Although their cover stories are about famous people, many of the inside articles are about unusual topics or events.

I pitched a few ideas to them and one of their editors called me. He assigned a story to me about a couple who raised wolves.  I was told to record the interviews because in spite of their reputation for telling lies (A Hollywood entertainer once sued them in 1976 for malicious lies about her.), the entire eighth floor of their building was dedicated to fact-checking everything.

When I called to request an interview over the phone, the couple was not too keen on being in the tabloid.  Since I was writing for other reputable newspapers and magazines, I used a fake name so I would not be associated with writing for a gossip paper. I felt like a liar. Still, I proceeded, excited to write for a famous publication that would pay me $500 an article (in 1989 dollars).

The next assignment was a story about a woman charged with child abuse who was allowed to count time at a “fat farm” as time served as part of her jail sentence.  I spoke with a man at the health spa (aka “fat farm”) who gave me the full scoop.

Later, he called me back with second thoughts. “She’s not stable,” he said. “I changed my mind and I don’t want my interview used.”

I called the editor to tell him. He chuckled, “That’s of no significance to us,” he said.

I had a dark feeling. I had gone into social work to help people. Writing this story was not going to help anyone—not the woman or her child, and certainly not the man who regretted talking with me.  The story ended up getting cancelled due to other reasons but the editor’s words haunted me.

Bending the Truth 

The next article was about a dog that was saved from the gas chambers of an animal shelter and then went on to star in Disney movies.  I called people connected to the story using my fake name, and said I’d be looking for a publication to place the story in. I decided mentioning the specific publication wasn’t going to open doors for me.

When the article was done, the editor called to tell me he wanted it to be a little more dramatic. “Make it sound like the volunteer who saved him did not know if the dog would be dead or alive by the time she got there,” he said.

“But that’s not what happened,” I told him. We talked for a bit and I agreed to do my best to add more drama. Still, I kept everything truthful.

When my story appeared in print, however, it was changed to say that the volunteer drove frantically to the shelter not knowing if the dog was dead or alive. So much for accuracy.  I realized that since they did not fear lawsuits from average citizens, they bent the truth when it suited them.

Then I came across a story I thought the editors would love. Some people who worked at the Custer House in Mandan, ND—the place where General George Custer left before his last stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn—claimed the reconstructed house was haunted.  But the appeal of writing for this famous publication was gone. I had begun praying the rosary daily—after having just learned it in my early thirties. I was also reading about the Catholic faith and desired to truly live it.

Writing for a tabloid newspaper began to weigh heavily on my heart. Even if I was completely honest and stayed away from gossip or scandal, I would still be helping a publication that cared more about money than honesty or people. Temptation was then placed squarely in my path one day when the editor called. “Do you have any good leads?”  he asked.

We could really use the money, I thought.  I could always do “one last story” then quit. But I felt the choice before me was to follow God or to turn my back on him for money.

“No,” I said,  “I don’t have anything.”   It was the truth. I had nothing more for them anymore. I knew I could not follow my Catholic faith and still write for them.  We’d get by without the money.

Another Door Opens

I am convinced, that by saying “yes” to God and “no” to the gossip publication,  God opened another door for me. The opportunity to freelance for Woman’s World Magazine fell into my lap within the same week. They paid the exact same amount, and even though it’s a secular women’s magazine, they were wiling to include things in stories like mention of angels and praying to God.

I wrote for them for the next ten years until it occurred to me in prayer to give my gift of writing to God. From that point on, I began writing Catholic books.

My story is a small glimpse into the world of gossip publications, but it became a big turning point in my life.  It was an opportunity to choose God over something of far lesser value.

And isn’t that the same choice when anyone buys a gossip magazine or newspaper? Instead of reading something spiritual or at least in harmony with God, gossip hurts the reputation of others and also harms our own souls.  “An evildoer listens to wicked lips; a liar pays attention to a destructive tongue” (Proverbs 17:4).

Writing for an immoral publication contributes to evil, but so does paying money to read it.  Our society has become numb to gossip and it’s treated like a sport.  In reality, we are finding enjoyment in the scandal or troubles of others.

Even people who try to avoid gossiping in their personal lives often feel famous people are fair game. Watching celebrities behave badly, divorcing, committing adultery, getting caught at something, suffering from an eating disorder, and any number of human failings, creates enjoyment in many people.

Celebrities are people with souls–children of God. If we hear some sordid news about them, we should send up a prayer and not give our attention to programs or publications that exist to spread scandal as entertainment.  Instead, by rejecting evil such evil and choosing God instead, it gives him the opportunity to lead us to higher ground.

Copyright 2014, Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She currently works as a communications specialist with Teresa Tomeo Communications and worked in the fields of social work and public administration before staying home. Patti is an award-winning writer, speaker and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on EWTN, and Catholic TV as well as radio stations across the country. Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families (Scepter Publishers) and Dear God I Don’t Get It (for children from Liguori Publications), will be released in Spring 2013. To read more visit Patti’s blog and website. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook at her author page.

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