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Telling the Truth: Confessions of a Former Tabloid Writer

October 28, 2013 by  
Filed under Honesty, Patti Armstrong

Telling the Truth: Confessions of a Former Tabloid Writer

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.

for post on telling the truthI 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 mentions 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.

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Art for this post on “Telling the Truth”: The Friendly Gossips, Eugene de Blaas, 1901, PD-US author's life plus 80 years or less, published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong is a correspondent for the National Catholic Register and OSV newspaper. She is an award-winning author and was the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’ bestselling Amazing Grace series. Her latest book is Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families. She has appeared on EWTN, Catholic TV, Fox & Friends, and numerous radio programs across the country. Patti studied a year of journalism at University of Detroit, has a B.A. in social work and an M.A. in public administration, and worked in both those fields before staying home as a freelance writer. She and her husband met in the Peace Corps and are still raising the tail end of their 10 children. Follow Patti at Twitter and like her Facebook pages at Dear God Books, Big Hearted Families, and Catholic News & Inspiration.

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