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Telling the Truth: Confessions of a Former Tabloid Writer

October 28, 2013 by  
Filed under Honesty, Patti Maguire Armstrong

What do O. J. Simpson, The Bachelorette, Charlie Sheen and Angelina 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 are 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.

Breaking In

I once wrote for a 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.

I pitched a few ideas to a well-known tabloid and one of the editors, Ed, called me. He assigned a story to me about a couple that raised wolves.   Even though the tabloid had been sued by a celebrity for reporting malicious lies, Ed assured me that their entire eighth floor was dedicated to fact checking.  All my interviews needed to be recorded and mailed in.  However, since I was writing for other newspapers and magazines with good reputations, I used a fake name so as not be associated with the tabloid. I felt like a liar. Still, I proceeded, excited to write for a famous publication that would pay $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. “She’s not stable,” he said. “I changed my mind and I don’t want my interview used.”

I called Ed 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.  The story ended up getting cancelled due to other reasons but Ed’s words haunted me.

Bending the Truth is Not Truthful

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. When the article was done, Ed 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. 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 knew the editors would love. But impressing Ed with good story leads was losing its appeal for me. 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 the tabloid began to weigh heavy on my heart. Even if I was completely honest, 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 Ed called. “Do you have any good leads?”  he asked.

We could really use the money, I thought. I hesitated a moment. 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 the money.

“No,” I said,  “I don’t have anything.”   It was the truth. I had nothing more for them because I would no longer ignore my conscience.  We’d get by without the money.

That same week, 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 willing to include things in stories like mention of angels and praying to God. I wrote for them for the next ten years before I began writing Catholic books and left the secular media altogether.

My story was a small glimpse into the world of gossip publications, but it became a big 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 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. Instead, rejecting evil and choosing God gives him the opportunity to bless us with something much better.

 

Art: The Friendly Gossips, Eugene de Blaas, date not shown (though painter lived from 1843-1932), PD-US because of age, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. Her newest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families, a collection of stories to inspire family love, and Dear God, I Don't Get It and the sequel, Dear God, You Can't Be Serious, children's fiction that feeds the soul through a fun and exciting story. Facebook. Family website. My blog. Twitter.

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  • Jeanette

    My story is a little along that same line…I was married and had two small children and needed to have a part-time job to supplement the income. This was 30 odd years ago. So, I applied for a position in an obs/gyn private office. I answered phones, made appointments, typed consultation letters and looked after the office hour times. I was a newly reverted Catholic and very devout. These two doctors were associated with a hospital and had an office beside it. Little did I realize that they did abortions in the hospital. When some women came into the office to be prepared for abortion the next day, they had placed within them an abortifacient (seaweed-type gel). I was horrified and told my husband that I wanted to quit that job. He said no because we needed the money…abortion didn’t bother him but it sure bothered me. All I could do was pray to God every day to get me out of that office! I was a little naïve at the time and should have just quit outright not concerning myself with my husband’s opinion because it was my soul that I should have worried about at that point. But, God never disappoints. One day, the head secretary came in, on her day off, to tell me that they didn’t need my help anymore. I was so happy! And I told her outright that I was happy because I didn’t want to be in that office that had anything to do with abortions! At least I got to be a witness to her. Soon, I got another job, much more convenient for me. I went to a Dermatologist’s office, got his dictations and as a dicta-typist did his consult letters from the convenience of my home when my children slept. God is Faithful and so Good!

    • LizEst

      Wonderful witness, Jeanette. Thanks for sharing. God bless you.

    • Patti Maguire Armstrong

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Jeanette. I think we all have 20/20 vision of things we should have done but lacked clarity at the time. God can cut through our ignorance with the power of our prayers and our desire to serve him. The bonus was your witness before leaving. God bless you!

  • Howard

    “I realized that since they did not fear lawsuits from average citizens, they bent the truth when it suited them.” So, a “tabloid” is a newspaper that actually bends the truth when it suits them, whereas a “respectable” newspaper only (usually) uses selective reporting and selective omission to bend our perceptions of the truth when it suits them? And this is supposed to be a morally significant distinction?

    One example that I happened to notice occurred during the Bosnian civil war. At one point the Bosnian Serbs enjoyed a distinct military advantage, and having a position of strength, they wanted to negotiate. The Bosnian Muslim faction certainly did not want to negotiate from a position of weakness, but pressure was building on them to compromise and end the conflict. At the height of this pressure, a shell was launched from the front separating the Serbian and Muslim forces; it could be tracked back to its origin by radar, but it was not possible to determine which side had fired it. The shell landed in a market behind Muslim lines, with many civilian casualties. That is how it was reported the first day, but remember, all the “right” people opposed the Serbs. Almost immediately it became a “presumably Serbian shell,” then a “Serbian shell,” though no basis was ever given for that determination. Which side benefited from that shell? The Muslim side; the international community condemned the Serbs and stopped pressuring the Muslims to negotiate.

    More subtle, of course, is the practice of keeping some stories alive in the news and making sure that others never see the light of day. Sometimes the “angle” is obvious — for example, the Zimmerman trial went national to push a national agenda. The Matthew Shepard story has been told countless times, but with key details omitted that would detract from the story we are intended to receive.

  • Patti Maguire Armstrong

    Howard, you make an excellent point. My husband and I are often indigent at what passes for news when it’s SO slanted. Or what is ignored when it should be reported. But with the tabloids, it’s on a different level. The entire publication sets out to change facts into fiction for the sake of entertainment and sales. And they do so with callous disregard for people and measure their actions based on who can retaliate. Yes, I know the media often lacks integrity and honesty. I suppose the non-tabloid media believes they are striving for journalistic standards while the tabloids laugh at them as no concern of theirs.

    • Gabrielle Renoir

      I respect your opinion, and if I’m wrong, I’m certainly willing to admit it, but I think you’re splitting hairs. A lie is a lie. I don’t even glance at tabloids, and I don’t even recognize the names or faces of “stars” not being interested in them on that level, but the “legitimate” news outlets are lying to make a dollar, too. I don’t think we can say one lie is on a different level than another. As Christians we are not to lie, period. To me, any lie is wrong. I blame tabloids for the lies they tell, but I don’t blame them anymore than I blame major media outlets. I think most people expect tabloids to lie, whereas they put their trust in major news outlets, and those outlets betray that trust on a daily basis.

      • jxmckie

        “A lie is a lie.”

        That’s what Ernst said!

        “I don’t think we can say one lie is on a different level than another.”

        That’s a nice profile pic.

  • Annie

    You are an inspiration!!!
    I knew the tabloids lie. It seems the media has grabbed the reins and is taking control of all we hear and see. We need to keep our faith front and foremost and choose god in everything with this we will not go wrong. The earth is a nasty place full of beautiful things from god but we must remember those beautiful things have been touched by evil so beware. God is our safest way. Our greatest choice. Dear god please spread some wisdom among us so we can see , hear & feel the difference between right & wrong . Amen