Tab Wars: Breaking News or Faking News?

Us Weekly hopes to point out competitor tabloids' alleged inaccuracies.

May 18, 2007 — -- This year Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have been married three different times on three different continents, divorced twice and split for good after Oprah Winfrey organized a reunion show between Pitt and ex-wife Jennifer Aniston -- or so read the splashy headlines of American celebrity magazines.

In the top-grossing genre of celebrity media coverage, rumor and gossip are often mistaken for the truth. Now one title is on a crusade to expose errors inside its competitor's covers.

But in a country addicted to the Hollywood story, is fiction more valuable than fact?

From Breaking News to Faking News

In early May, celebrity magazine Us Weekly began publishing a section called Faux Biz, in which it calls out false reporting from rival rags such as Life & Style, In Touch, OK! and Star. The two-page spread detailed errors in reporting since 2005 in the Pitt-Jolie story by Life & Style and In Touch.

"Brangelina did what? Nope, turns out they didn't. A look at two mags' twisted records," read the section's subtitle.

Us Weekly editor in chief Janice Min said the section was born out of necessity rather than spite.

"When the business of reporting on celebrities is attached to these copycat publications that fabricate stories, yes, it was a conscious decision to clarify Us's position," said Min.

A lot is at stake. In 2006, Min's magazine brought in over $250 million in combined circulation sales, while In Touch grossed just over half that amount, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Min said her title is being threatened by younger publications that value entertainment over reality.

"It seems that the imitation has gone to a place that's actually strange now," said Min. "Where Us Weekly had made its name breaking news, these publications have crossed the line into faking news."

Bauer Publishing, the parent company of both In Touch and Life & Style, declined to comment on the situation. Calls to OK! and Star were not returned.

Looking for Truth in All the Wrong Places

Magazine analyst Samir Husni said all of this infighting is bad for the industry. He has studied celebrity magazines for the past 25 years and now chairs the journalism department at the University of Mississippi.

"It's unfair for Us Weekly to do this," said Husni. "It's going to hurt all of us in the end because this nitpicking and fights among these magazines won't do any favors for the audience -- they're losing sight of who's really important."

While Min maintains her magazine has a duty to its readers to reveal the truth -- Husni said that's not really what the audience is looking for.

"We are a nation addicted to that type of gossip -- people are not picking up those magazines looking for the need to know the truth," said Husni. "Magazines are more like Prozac for the readers, these are disposable items."

The Celebrity Beat

Min is trying to separate her title from this generalization. She said erroneous reporting wouldn't be tolerated in other industries.

"This world of following celebrities is to women what sports is to men, and nobody would ever tolerate this kind of conduct in those industries," said Min.

Us even calls itself a "celebrity magazine" in an effort to avoid the "tabloid" logo.

"Us Weekly is fun, it's addictive, it's light, but it's definitely a news magazine, and it absolutely covers the celebrity industry," said Min. "This is a beat that should be covered with the same journalism that you cover sports, education and finance."

Husni disagreed.

"We are the only country in the world who refers to those magazines as celebrity magazines, the rest of the world refers to these as gossip," he said.

"If you focus on truth and journalism in a medium that's not really geared towards truth and journalism, you will give the readers a lot of opportunity to explore other options," added Husni.

Disclaimer: This Story Is Only Based on True Events

According to Husni, tabloids are like soap operas in print. Pitt and Jolie, or "Brangelina" as they are known in the tabloids, graced the cover of over 60 percent of celebrity magazine covers last year, and Husni said that whether the stories were fact or fiction doesn't necessarily interest the readers.

"The whole thing is like a movie, it's Hollywood in print, and do you believe every movie you go to watch?" he asked. "They add a little salt and pepper here and there, it's not a true representation and that audience actually understands that, they know they're reading something just for fun."

Min said this mindset and the alleged sloppy reporting of competitor magazines threaten the credibility of her publication.

"These magazines could turn the whole industry of celebrity coverage into a joke," she said.

But Husni said it's already a joke -- Min just has never heard the punch line.

"Sometimes those people take themselves way too seriously in an industry that's completely unserious," said Husni. "There's nothing serious about this business."

Reality Shatters Fantasy

Some analysts speculate Us Weekly's move to out competitors was less noble in its intentions and more about boosting slumping sales.

Min said that's not the case. Citing that overall revenue is up nearly 40 percent in 2007, grossing some $75.3 million with a circulation over 1,750,000 -- she said Us Weekly sales are hardly slumping.

And she concedes that Us makes mistakes too.

"None of this was undertaken to say we're never wrong," said Min. "Us Weekly is like every news organization -- makes errors and corrects them, that's part of news gathering."

Husni said Us Weekly's attempt to win readers with its decency may actually be insulting them.

"Give some credit to the readers, they're not dumb," said Husni. "This game will probably backfire on Us because the more readers hear about other magazines, the more they will want to go and pick them up."

Husni said staying out of it may be the best strategy to maintain readers. Credibility, he said, isn't synonymous with truth.

"Credibility is in the eyes of the beholder," said Husni. "The needs, wants and desires of the readers -- that's what credibility is."

Min said Us Weekly and parent company Wenner Media are not planning to stop the assault anytime soon.

On Friday the magazine launches another new section exposing the secrets of faking news. For example, how do magazines make stars look pregnant?

But will readers really care? Only time, and celebrity news, will tell if truth is more profitable than fiction.