The Most Loved, Most Hated Magazine in America: The Rise and Demise of Confidential Magazine
William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, 2016, Forthcoming
64 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2016 Last revised: 28 May 2016
Date Written: April 4, 2016
Before Gawker, the National Enquirer, and People, there was Confidential magazine. In the 1950s, Confidential was the founder of tabloid, celebrity journalism in the United States. With screaming headlines and bold, scandalous accusations of illicit sex, crime, and other misdeeds, Confidential destroyed celebrities’ reputations, relationships, and careers. Not a single major star of the time was spared the “Confidential treatment”: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Liberace, and Marlon Brando, among others, were exposed in the pages of the magazine. Using hidden tape recorders, zoom lenses, and private investigators and prostitutes as “informants”, publisher Robert Harrison set out to destroy stars’ carefully-constructed media images, and in so doing, built a media empire. Between 1955 and 1957, Confidential was the most popular, bestselling magazine in the nation. Confidential, published between 1952 and 1958, was a watershed in the history of American media and celebrity culture. Confidential also played an important, little-known role in legal history and the history of freedom of the press. The provocative, highly-sexualized magazine became the subject of a nationwide campaign to eradicate it from newsstands. These efforts culminated in obscenity, criminal libel, and conspiracy charges brought by the state of California, and a “star-studded” 1957 Los Angeles trial, described as the “O.J. Simpson trial” of its time. The extensive litigation against Confidential killed the magazine, and Robert Harrison ceased publishing it in 1958. Only sixty years ago, at a time when First Amendment protections for speech were fairly well-developed, the most popular magazine in the country was effectively run out of business by the law. Confidential magazine has been written about extensively in the context of celebrity history and film history, but its legal history has yet to be documented. Drawing on unpublished legal and archival sources, this article tells the story of rise and fall of Confidential, and in so doing, illuminates a significant episode in the history of freedom of the press.
Keywords: First Amendment, freedom of the press, libel
JEL Classification: K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation