In a depressing news cycle, the cover of In Touch Weekly’s Jan. 21 issue was a beautiful sight.
It was a blast from a less complicated past, with its vintage photograph of a beaming Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt staring out at readers from above the bold headline: “We’re Having a Girl!”
For some who saw it in the racks, me included, the cover of this supermarket tabloid provided a double dose of joy. Not only was the It Couple of the late 1990s and early aughts back together — they were about to be parents.
But wait a minute.
The story rang a bell, and when I looked into it, I found that In Touch had devoted its cover to a similar piece of news back in October, with a story headlined “Brad & Jen Baby Announcement! ‘Our Dream Finally Came True!’” That one included the persuasive-seeming detail that the father-to-be was “designing the nursery in their new home.”
And what about that other time Ms. Aniston was pregnant? In July, the In Touch cover promised, “Bombshell Pregnancy News!” — and that was just the icing atop the wedding cake of the headline “Brad & Jen: Just Married! Inside the Backyard Ceremony.”
Before that, in May, OK! magazine, which shares an owner with In Touch, American Media Inc., ran a cover photo of a happy Ms. Aniston and Mr. Pitt with the headline: “Yes, I’m Pregnant — With Brad’s Baby!”
Going by the tabloid reports, I found that Ms. Aniston should have given birth to some two dozen babies in the last few years. According to OK! alone, she has acquired up to 15 kids since 2013, having been pregnant nine times — twice with twins! — while also adopting a third set of twins.
The website Gossip Cop has debunked some of the above-mentioned reports. And when I called Ms. Aniston’s publicist, Stephen Huvane, he confirmed that she was not pregnant. He also said that Ms. Aniston has no children and — it pains me to reveal — she is not back together with Mr. Pitt, who was her husband from 2000 to 2005.
The publicist sounded more than a little weary of dealing with the tabloids.
“Every week I get these emails, ‘We’re working on a story that Jennifer is pregnant,’” Mr. Huvane said. “I will say, ‘This is a complete fabrication. There’s no truth to this or this is all ridiculous and completely false.’ And they still go with the story.”
It’s no mystery why In Touch and OK! keep printing these false stories. At a time when gossip magazines are suffering right along with more serious publications and digital outlets, they no longer have the reporting ranks they once relied on to dig up real celebrity scoops.
And these days they are careful to go with stories that sell. What’s strange, though, is that some of us keep coming back for more, despite their abysmal track record.
Whether the subject is celebrities or politics, readers can be easy marks for comforting tales. Tabloid publishers know this. So do online trolls and click-hungry websites.
“Algorithmic behavior existed long before there was an algorithm,” said Janice Min, the former top editor of The Hollywood Reporter and before that, Us Weekly, which she established as a place for real celebrity exclusives.
And one thing that fires up the algorithm is the idea that Ms. Aniston is going to have a baby.
“Whether politics or celebrity, narratives are what matter to people — the details often don’t,” said Ms. Min, who is now overseeing content and news at Quibi, the mobile video start-up from Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
And the gossip industry provides a rich, if anachronistic, narrative indeed: The approachable-seeming Ms. Aniston gets the better of a glamorous rival — Angelina Jolie — and finds contentment through being reunited with the supposed love of her life. And baby makes three (or 18).
Never mind that Ms. Aniston herself finds that view of a woman’s happiness to be offensive. “We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete,” she wrote in 2016 HuffPost essay that debunked the endless false tabloid reports about her love life and supposed pregnancies.
“With Jennifer Aniston, you have to start with the fundamental thing that people like her, and they’re pulling for her,” said Larry Hackett, the former editor of People magazine. “They would like to see her have the baby, because they’re operating under this archaic, old-fashioned notion that without a baby she must be unhappy.”
Mr. Hackett sagely noted that the mix of reality and fantasy contained in the Aniston story line isn’t all that different from the contrived, highly edited versions of reality presented by “unscripted” shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” still going strong in its 15th season. More important for the purposes of this column, it’s not all that different from a onetime stalwart of the genre, “The Apprentice.”
As Patrick Radden Keefe wrote in a recent article on “The Apprentice” for The New Yorker, Donald J. Trump’s star had dimmed in the years before it aired. By papering over his business organizations’ bankruptcies, not to mention the fraud accusations against Trump University, the NBC prime-time hit “mythologized him anew, turning him into an icon of American success.”
Mr. Trump ran his campaign and at times runs his White House with a reliance on the same mix of fantasy and truthiness typical of supermarket tabloids and reality TV. Just as a large group of people can’t get enough of the tales about Ms. Aniston, a large constituency seems eager to believe a reality-show narrative about the 45th president.
On “The Apprentice,” he was a straight-shooting, street-smart businessman. To rally-goers during his campaign, he was the outsider who sought to smash a calcified ruling elite. As president, he has been the man willing to fight off resistance from “the deep state” to do what’s right, even if it means shutting down the government.
In this scenario, the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III plays the role filled by Ms. Jolie in the Aniston saga — the foil who thrives on thwarting our protagonist.
Just as I have found myself tempted to believe the Pregnant Jen story line, the president’s fans seem more than willing to embrace this version of reality — a story line that has been fleshed out by The National Enquirer, his unignorable Twitter feed, his Fox News cheering section (Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, the gang at “Fox & Friends”), his radio boosters (Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin), and his longtime adviser Roger Stone, who fed a new “deep state” theory to Infowars a week before his arrest on Friday.
The desire to believe helps explain polls like the one from Quinnipiac late last year reporting that 83 percent of Republicans view Mr. Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt,” despite the string of indictments, convictions and guilty pleas that preceded the charges against Mr. Stone.
Driving the belief in political conspiracy theories and celebrity pregnancies alike is “a desire to have the truth fit” the heart’s desires, said Renée Ann Cramer, a professor of law, politics and society at Drake University in Iowa. “They want it to be true,” she said.
Ms. Cramer is well positioned to connect the dots between the coverage of Ms. Aniston and Mr. Trump. In addition to her public policy expertise, she is the author of “Pregnant With the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump.”
An attractive narrative emits a powerful force, whether it’s about politics or things less serious, and we’re all susceptible to its allure. Here’s hoping the truth will prove more powerful than what people want to believe when Mr. Mueller issues his report.