It’s easy for a confident liar to lie. Getting that same liar to tell the truth is another story, a story told by David Perel, former Editor-in-Chief, National Enquirer, in a recent post.
As Perel recalls, no one wanted to take the National Enquirer seriously when it published a piece about the pregnant girlfriend of a married presidential candidate. The man, John Edwards, denied it. Edwards’ aide supported the lie by claiming paternity himself. And with the supermarket tabloid’s long history of reporting ‘news’ about such fantasy figures as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, displaying photos of Satan’s face in a black cloud, denial was an easy sell for Edwards.
Incredibly, the Enquirer team had not expected the denial or the creative cover story. Edwards was betting that only his confession could validate the unsavory story. He wasn’t about to do it.
Unwilling to write off an actual news story and all of the effort and high-tech resources that getting it entailed, the Enquirer hired a mental health professional to help them to understand why Edwards was lying and how to gain his confession.
The analyst told Perel that Edwards was a man who prioritized and controlled his own carefully constructed image. He would never confess to anything unless it was the only way to keep some of that control. This knowledge changed the way Perel handled the growing evidence.
Perel held most of the evidence back but let Edwards know that the Enquirer team had stalked and photographed him throughout a recent encounter with his mistress. Edwards was given just enough information to realize that the Enquirer’s claims were true. From there his own imagination and guilty conscience could take over. Not knowing what else the Enquirer had, Edwards confessed to the affair but continued to deny fathering a child with his mistress, keeping some small control of the extent of his betrayal.
It was enough to validate the Enquirer. Thousands of man hours and the use of the best technology available had still come down to one thing: understanding Edwards and predicting his reactions.
According to Perel, letting Edwards imagine the worst was the only way to get him to tell some truth.