This morning, Charlie Sheen announced he is HIV positive on The Today Show. "It's a hard three letters to absorb," Sheen said. "It's a turning point in one's life."
The interview comes after seven turbulent years for Sheen, which have included pleading guilty a misdemeanor assault charge in a domestic violence case, being sued by a dental technician who claims Sheen punched her, and being represented by Hollywood attorney Marty Singer. (His other clients have included Bill Cosby, Bryan Singer, and John Travolta.)
Sheen's public disclosures coincide with the National Enquirer publishing an article alleging Sheen had spent up to $10 million paying off people who knew he had the virus, a claim Sheen confirmed on Today. On Twitter, Sheen's confirmation of his HIV status shocked users who view the National Enquirer as a publication trading in falsities at worse and rumors at best, but the Sheen story falls in line with the newspaper's tradition of exposing high profile men's secrets months—and sometimes years—before their respected, mainstream competitors.
"Our investigative unit is probably bigger than most mainstream media outlets today," said Dylan Howard, the Enquirer's editor-in-chief and the vice president of American Media Inc., the newspaper's owner. "Every reporter is an investigator, and they rely on good old-fashioned reporting methods, developing sources and boots-on-the-ground tactics. At the same time, we are outsiders, which in a sense is what all journalists should be—they shouldn't be part of the establishment or power structure, be it Hollywood, the Beltway, or Wall Street."
In July 2008, for instance, they broke details about former presidential candidate John Edwards cheating on his dying wife Elizabeth with mistress Rielle Hunter. Tabloid veteran David Perel had hunted Edwards for the Enquirer, eventually catching the politician at the Beverly Hilton Hotel where he had been visiting Hunter and her baby (later revealed to be Edwards') in a room. Perel and a team of investigative reporters spent three years looking into Edwards' "love child," but for weeks the mainstream media ignored the reports—until Edwards admitted the affair in an ABC News interview. The public balked at prestige publications' failure to verify the accusations, to the extent that the New York Times' then-public editor Clark Hoyt dedicated an entire post explaining why the Times failed to cover the Edwards affair: "The Times did not want to regurgitate the Enquirer's reporting without verifying it, which is responsible," he wrote. "But The Times did not try to verify it, beyond a few perfunctory efforts, which I think was wrong." The Enquirer's coverage made the newspaper eligible for a Pulitzer Prize.
To obtain stories, the tabloid has often used the same methods most prestige papers also employ. For the Sheen story, Howard said, the Enquirer received tips from "whistleblowers." The company's reporters then spent 18 months flying across the country to meet with more than a dozen sources. "[They] spoke to us at great personal risk and under various threats behind the scene," Howard said. "Still, these sources believed one man's medical plight was far outweighed by the apparent risk to others. It was a story we felt needed to be told." On Today, Sheen denied he consciously exposed his sex partners to the virus.
The Enquirer claims their sources led the investigative team to documentary evidence. During the investigation, the story then underwent American Media Inc.'s rigorous fact-checking process; the company employs a research department, and lawyers review every story. The company also makes sources sign contracts and take a polygraph test.
"It's expensive—but it helps separate fact from fiction—and we believe in getting it right," Howard says. "At times, [during the reporting process] we faced strong resistance and many threats. But in the end we made a decision to publish––one which we are proud of and intend to follow with more exposés that underscore and build on our 89 years of investigative journalism in the celebrity market."
These goals led the Enquirer to know about Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults of multiple women in 2005, nine years before women's stories finally torpedoed Cosby's career. Under oath during a deposition, according to the Times, Cosby said he gave an interview with the Enquirer so the newspaper would kill a story that included Beth Ferrier's accusation that Cosby had assaulted her. Instead, the tabloid ran a story where Cosby responded to Tamara Green and Andrea Constand's claims about the comedian assaulting them. Although the vast majority of journalists would consider Cosby's influence over the Enquirer's stories unethical, it's true that the paper covered Cosby's alleged abuse while other outlets refused to.
The tabloid isn't always right or journalistically ethical, of course. The newspaper has famously paid sources, and last year, the outlet published a false story about the dead actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's friendship with screenwriter David Barr Katz. Two days later, the newspaper withdrew the story. They settled with Katz for an undisclosed amount, and Katz has used the funds to establish the American Playwriting Foundation. The organization will award one playwright a $45,000 prize every year for their unproduced play. Following the settlement, the Enquirer installed Howard as its new editor-in-chief.
Many other tabloids have earned a reputation for publishing a mix of smutty lies and incredible investigative reporting. Last year, for instance, the website TMZ published a video of NFL player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee Janay. The news caused the NFL to suspend Rice. In Touch also has unearthed male celebrities' crimes: Although the grocery store mag has repeatedly falsely announced Kim and Kanye's breakup, as Anne Helen Petersen writes on Buzzfeed, they also broke the allegations of Josh Duggar sexually abusing five girls. Perel, the same journalist behind the Edwards affair, had recently moved to In Touch, and he led the investigation. In the Washington Post, he detailed how his team filed records requests, interviewed a pedophile in prison, and hired an Arkansas-based law firm to file its Freedom of Information Act requests.
Obviously, tabloids aren't Ms. Magazine—a writer sued TMZ for sexism—and they're not even xoJane. But in the last few years, they have been a major force in bringing down men who have abused women. Most mainstream outlets—and even some tabloids like US Weekly—would struggle to publish the Duggar story or other allegations against powerful men. Petersen points out that People and US Weekly must worry about publicists' reaction to their coverage to secure access to stars. But since most everyone, from A-list actresses to reality stars, hates tabloids, it's easier for these magazines to go after them without compromising access. Although tabloids have a marked and ignoble history of slut shaming women and attacking female celebrities, strangely, few outlets share their freedom to go after rich, famous men like Sheen, Duggar, and Rice. The publications want page-views and magazine sales, but in a way they're also functioning as mechanisms to serve the public good.
"With the Sheen scoop, we saw an explosion of interest online as well. That said, recognition from others is not our sole motivating force," Howard says. "It is an obligation to our readers to deliver them the unvarnished truth about celebrities, newsmakers, and politicians."