Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Toobin is CNN’s chief legal analyst and an author, most recently, of “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst,” and “The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court.” Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyToobin. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. CNN Films’ “Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer,” which documents the origin and evolution of America’s most notorious US tabloid, is now available on CNNgo.

CNN  — 

Most of us rarely think about the National Enquirer, if at all. Its circulation has fallen sharply from its peak, it hasn’t invested much in the internet, and while it’s still visible at supermarket checkout counters, it’s less clear that the tabloid newspaper is still a viable business.

Yet even in its diminished state, the Enquirer remains a classic piece of Americana, and its significance shouldn’t be underestimated — not only because of its past influence, but because of what the tabloid tells us about ourselves.

All journalism is voyeurism, to a certain extent, but the Enquirer long ago learned how to tap into the dark side of the practice. It’s not just that we want to see celebrities, but that we want to see them at their most vulnerable. “Tragic last days” and “Six months to live” are popular Enquirer headlines, even if they turn out to be inaccurate. A 1977 cover photograph of Elvis Presley in his casket sold more than 6.7 million copies — a record, according to the publication.

And while the Enquirer has often been dismissed as the home of reporting about aliens, that’s not true. (The Weekly World News, which was owned by the same parent company, trafficked in that kind of lunacy on newsstands before its print edition shuttered in 2007.) Rather, the Enquirer has always focused on the foibles of the rich and famous, and there have been some notable scoops over the years. In 1996, the Enquirer published a photograph of O.J. Simpson wearing the kind of Bruno Magli shoes which were apparently worn by the killer of his ex-wife and her friend. In 2007, the Enquirer revealed that John Edwards, then a candidate for president, had fathered a child with a campaign worker. Any news organization would have been proud to break those stories.

But these legitimate stories shouldn’t obscure how shabby the Enquirer usually is. As I learned in 2017 when I profiled David Pecker, the chief executive of the Enquirer’s parent company American Media Inc., the magazine is written so that it will not be successfully sued for libel – not written to tell the actual truth. I think readers in a way understood the Enquirer’s slippery relationship to the truth; they understood that the stories about celebrity breakups and illnesses might be true.

And up until 2016, the magazine had been a sort of equal opportunity weapon. It targeted the wealthy and famous to the satisfaction of its readers — editors carefully selecting the stars readers loved to hate most for the tabloid’s covers — without a discernible political bent. But that changed when Pecker used the Enquirer as a vehicle to further his friend Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Pecker didn’t just feature Trump on the cover repeatedly during the campaign and disparage Trump’s opponents. As the head of AMI, Pecker helped orchestrate a payment of $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal for the rights to her story of an alleged affair with the candidate so that she would not embarrass Trump during the campaign. Trump has denied McDougal’s allegations.

This use of catch-and-kill was the Enquirer at its worst — serving the interests of its owners rather than the curiosity of its readers. And the suppression of relevant information about a presidential candidate had a genuine impact on the outcome of the election. The Enquirer didn’t deserve to wield that kind of power, especially when it was used, as it was here, to serve the private agenda of the publisher.

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    To be sure, no one has ever read the Enquirer for moral uplift. It’s always been, at best, a guilty pleasure. There are American institutions that remind us of the best of ourselves, and there are others, like the Enquirer, that remind us of who we really are. If real journalism conveys information, the Enquirer conveys feeling — most often schadenfreude, or joy in the suffering of others, especially if they were once successful. The Enquirer’s talent for meeting this need is what cemented the tabloid’s notoriety in American culture, and what fuels its online successors today.

    We can always look down on the Enquirer, and we probably should, but the sad truth is that when we’re looking at the covers on the checkout line, we’re really looking at ourselves.