Phil McGraw, a.k.a. “Dr. Phil” hosts the most popular daytime talk show on television.
On it, the psychologist (he holds a PhD in clinical psychology, not a medical degree) and his wife, Robin, counsel millions of viewers on issues ranging from marriage and domestic abuse to addiction to weight loss. Robin, in particular, is an outspoken anti-domestic-abuse advocate.
Although he’s been called many things by the media – the Daily Beast referred to him as a “quack,” The Washington Post once suggested he “ought to have his head examined” and Psychology Today stated he “often dishes some very bad advice” – he’s had enough with one particular outlet: that bastion of supermarket checkouts, the National Enquirer.
Since the late 1990s, the Enquirer and its sister brands (such as Star) have run more than 85 articles about the McGraws. These pieces accuse Dr. Phil (and sometimes Robin) of various indiscretions, from minutiae like being a “ratings whore” to personal turmoil such as a “secret divorce deal” to outright felonies like sexual and child abuse.
In response to these stories, Dr. Phil and his wife Robin filed a $250 million lawsuit last week in Palm Beach County, Fla., against American Media Inc., the National Enquirer’s parent company, citing libel and malicious defamation. It claimed the publications specifically focused on the McGraws as a means to overcome financial instability.
The lawsuit mostly focused on allegations from the tabloid that Dr. Phil abused his wife. It included other examples as well. In one, the magazine wrote that a drunk Dr. Phil stood behind a man and smashed a beer mug over his head at a Lubbock, Texas, bar called the Copper Caboose while he was a student at Texas Tech University.
The issue, according to the suit, is that the Copper Caboose didn’t open until six years after he’d moved away from the city – where he didn’t return until 2014 – and didn’t serve alcohol until 2009.
The lawsuit stated both Dr. Phil and Robin “suffered permanent injury to their personal and professional reputations throughout Florida, the United States and the world, and each has also suffered from stress, emotional distress, and other pain and suffering.”
In addition to financial damages the McGraws say were incurred by these articles, they “seek the economic value of the use of their names, images, and likenesses, as well as any and all profits from AMI’s unauthorized use of their names and likenesses.” The suit stated that they seek to “punish [AMI] for their unlawful conduct and to penalize and deter [AMI] from repeating such unlawful and egregious conduct against other public figures and private citizens.”
The National Enquirer responded to the suit with an article on its website titled “Verbal Abuse, Brainwashing & Worse! The TRUTH About ‘Quack’ Dr. Phil.”
In the piece “the National Enquirer Staff,” which is given the byline, called Dr. Phil’s lawyers “legal pitbulls” and deemed the suit “outrageous.” It continued:
“‘As members of the media, Dr. and Mrs. McGraw recognize the importance of a viable First Amendment and the role and obligation of the media to deliver accurate information of public interest to the public,’ their lawyer protested to the court.
“But, he argued, The ENQUIRER had used ‘the right of free speech as a sword to deliver sensationalized falsehoods.’
“The one BIG problem with that assertion: The article at the center of Dr. Phil’s temper tantrum was – and remains today – 100% true!”
The piece said that much of its information it has published can be found in lawsuits filed against Dr. Phil. This is true, the lawsuit stated, but the tabloid arguably stated allegations as fact.
If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it harks back to the suit in which Hulk Hogan was awarded $140 million after suing Gawker Media. Both suits filed in Florida and involved celebrities, and they both involve publications known for breaking sensational news and ruffling feathers.
Much like Gawker, the National Enquirer has led a sort of double-life.
It was founded in 1926 by William Randolph Hearst protégé William Giffen as a broadsheet called the New York Evening Enquirer with money borrowed from Hearst. According to an essay in “When Private Talk Goes Public: Gossip in American History,” its purpose was to “disseminate isolationist and fascist propaganda during the 1930s.”
In the 1950s, it was purchased by Generoso Pope Jr., who transformed it into a tabloid and gave an editorial directive to focus on sex and violence.
At the beginning of the 1960s, knowing not many people would subscribe to a tabloid and seeking a better alternative to the newsstand, Pope struck a deal with supermarkets – if they carried the National Enquirer, he would guarantee that half the issues in each store would sell. If they didn’t, the company would buy the difference.
Naturally, this led to the need for splashier stories. So in 1967, he gave another directive: drop the violence and focus on celebrity, the more scandalous the better.
That, more or less, has remained the status quo.
Such a model has led to numerous lawsuits, many of which the company has settled or lost.
Most famous among them is likely the 1981 case brought against the tabloid by Carol Burnett. She claimed the Enquirer took a true account of her having a few glasses of wine, meeting Henry Kissinger and sharing part of her dessert with neighboring tables at Rive Gauche, a now-defunct restaurant in Washington, D.C., and turned it into a sensational story.
According to a 1981 story in the New York Times, the Enquirer piece read: “At a Washington restaurant, a boisterous Carol Burnett had a loud argument with another diner, Henry Kissinger. She traipsed around the place offering everyone a bite of her dessert. But Carol really raised eyebrows when she accidentally knocked a glass of wine over one diner and started giggling instead of apologizing. The guy wasn’t amused and ‘accidentally’ spilled a glass of water over Carol’s dress.'”
AMI lost the suit and was forced to pay Burnett $1.6 million in damages, although the amount was reduced to $150,000 in 1983.
Still, the Enquirer has published some accurate and sensational journalism in the past, along with its usual offerings such as this week’s “Gabrielle Union Nip Slip – Bares Bod While Celebrating ESPN ‘Body Issue!’ and “Vin Diesel: Paul Walker’s Haunting Me!”
Most notably, it was considered by the Pulitzer Prize Board for journalism’s highest honor after breaking a story about the affair and subsequent child of John Edwards, the former Democratic senator from North Carolina and John Kerry’s running mate in the 2004 presidential election.
The lawsuit filed by the McGraws’ lawyers stated, “The First Amendment cannot be used as a sword to defame and then as a shield to justify and protect the knowing publication of falsehoods regarding a person’s private and professional life.”
Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen.
What is true is that media outlets tread potentially treacherous terrain when writing about celebrities. Earlier this year, Gawker declared bankruptcy after losing the suit to Hogan.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Travis M. Andrews