There once was a time when great journalists became stars, their latest exposés eagerly awaited by readers and feared by the powerful. But as the Internet and cable TV networks started making devastating inroads over print journalism, the industry has become increasingly irrelevant as millions of Americans get their news from social media and late-night talk-show monologues.
Investigative journalist Mark Ebner stands out from that pack as one of the rare breed of reporters who has managed to not only survive but thrive in this new age. That’s because he’s built a reputation for bringing a tough-talking, hard-charging, film-noir style to his work, which has resulted in his stories being published in more than 50 of the top glossy magazines in the nation, among them Rolling Stone, Premiere, Details and Spy.
Today, the Pasadena-based reporter — who’s also a high-end private investigator— writes primarily for the Daily Beast website in addition to Esquire, Boing Boing and numerous other sites. He also is currently focused on two new ventures: his eighth true-crime nonfiction book on a subject he can’t disclose, and a podcast called “The Grey Zone with Mark Ebner” in which he shares the surprising stories behind his most stunning and sordid discoveries.
Ebner took time to hold court on his illustrious career and what drives him, as well as the state of journalism today. His leather jacket and gritty East Coast accent lend an extra level of oomph to his tales of uncovering murders, sex scandals and more among the mighty.
Pasadena Weekly: How did you get your start in journalism?
Mark Ebner: I knew that I was going to be a reporter when I was 6 years old growing up in the shadow of the “Superman building” in Providence, Rhode Island (a nickname for the Industrial National Bank Building). It’s this grand old building that looks like the one Superman flies out of in the old 1950s TV series, and I was enamored of Clark Kent. After getting thrown out of some of the finest prep schools on the Eastern Seaboard, I took a year off to intern in journalism at a weekly paper called the Jewish Civic Leader, where I learned layout, paste-up, typesetting and writing obituaries. The obituary writing skill is the only one that matters anymore.
At Bard College, I studied under the great Ed Sanders, author of the classic Charlie Manson book “The Family.” I couldn’t believe that writers were allowed to write like that and I knew my fate to be a journalist was sealed right then and there. Providence was nicknamed “Crimetown” because of how heavy it was tied in with the Mob, so I ended up a crime reporter and a true-crime author.
I was a late bloomer. I had a lot of partying to do in my post-college years, so my first break came in 1985 when an editor friend at Spin magazine asked me to write a story. I came up with the idea of interviewing actors and actresses who specialized in having their characters killed in horror films. That story ran on the back page of Spin called “Dying to Make a Living.” I got 25 cents a word and I never looked back.
But you’ve done a lot more than just true-crime and celebrity scandal exposés.
If I’m known for anything it’s exposing Scientology in a Spy magazine cover story in 1996 called “Do You Wanna Buy a Bridge?” which led to me consulting on the “Trapped in the Closet” episode of “South Park” and led to a cottage industry of exposés on them. I’m also known for exposing Bill Cosby back in 2004 for drugging and raping women when every other publication was afraid to think about it. I’ve Infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in East Texas, exposed drug dealers, rapists and murderers, and authored or co-authored seven nonfiction books to date I’ve also been on a dozen TV networks, so here you see someone who’s either had a good run and continues to do so, or a guy who can’t hold a job.
How did you get into true-crime reporting?
I did a stretch producing standard entertainment journalism which left a bad taste in my mouth. After that, I felt that if I had to sit down and try and pull a useful quote out of another ingénue my head would explode. Hollywood had a problem, the problem was crime and I set out to do something about it. Consequently, I wound up co-authoring The New York Times bestseller “Hollywood Interrupted” with Andrew Breitbart and I wrote the crime book that I’m most proud of, “Six Degrees of Parish Hilton: Inside the Sex Tapes, Scandals and Shakedowns of the new Hollywood.” But through it all, my PI work feeds my journalism, true crime and podcasting habits. It pays really well.
You’re really into the current Hollywood shakedowns against sexual predators and harassers who abuse their power against women. Where do all the sudden and shocking disclosures in Hollywood and with President Trump seem to be headed?
From his own mouth, Trump said you can do anything to women if you’re powerful. He wasn’t wrong in that respect. When you talk about abuse, sexual harassment pervades every industry. In show business it’s a whole different animal because of the power structure in Hollywood. Whether it’s [disgraced film executive Harvey] Weinstein or Trump the reality-show host and Ponzi guy, you do hold this power over women’s heads. The casting couch has been viewed for so long as the cost of doing business. Literally, the first place many young women are asked to sit when they arrive in Hollywood is the casting couch. Hollywood is such a rich mine for exposing the harassment because there’s so much of it.
I call Trump a Ponzi guy. I write about crime, I saw this guy a mile away in the run-up to the election. I didn’t think he had a chance. That says more about our country than anything else, and it’s profoundly disturbing. Trump is a living, breathing, walking, talking crime guy. This is what I realize people don’t know about him. Watch [CNBC reality series] “American Greed.” He did the same thing he does with investors with our vote, the most important currency we have. But that’s the story of my life — I told you about Cosby in 2004 and no one listened.
So is Trump unstoppable because of his position? Can he be brought down?
There’s no doubt in my mind he can be called out, tarred and feathered and stay standing. One thing he said is true: I can shoot people and get away with it. His base is completely won over. You can look at that and get frustrated by all of that, but at the same time, Russia is where it’s at and [special investigator Robert] Mueller is not f–king around. You can see he’s not. Hang on, sit tight. This will take care of itself.
Tell us about your experiences with Scientology and “South Park.”
One of the hallmarks of my career was getting asked to consult on “South Park” after the creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone read my Spy exposé on Scientology in 1996, in which I infiltrated Scientology from the inside out. I walked in the door and joined for as much as my editorial budget would allow. I tapped out and met other people who wanted to talk and realized what a total mind control cult it was. I also exposed the secrets, the sci-fi nature of it that people weren’t aware of. Matt and Trey invited me to come down and consult on the episode about Scientology. They flashed the words “This is what Scientology believes” throughout the show. It is their highest-rated episode ever and won an Emmy. The trick I pulled on Scientology when I wrote that lies in the fact they get their members to confess their darkest secrets to them and then blackmail them if they want to leave.
In my lead of the article, I admitted I’m an ex- drug addict, I’ve been in psychiatric care and I owed the IRS $6,600. So I said take your best shot to ruin me, because I left them nothing to expose about me. When the article came out, they said “We’re suing you.” I made it clear that I knew about libel laws in this country. I said “You have to prove malice and damages. I have info on all your members and will put it out for discovery.”
My prediction, because they have no power and their stars are getting in trouble but are real estate rich, is that they’ll stay open from the real-estate money awhile longer, but they’ll go away.
How do you feel about the state of journalism today?
I knew that my profession was on the decline around 9/11. I was writing for slick glossy magazines paying me all kinds of money for decades. When I got to New York after 9/11 I was set to pitch my editors there, the center of the universe for print journalism. I went down to Ground Zero and did reporting as smoke was still coming out of the ground.
I said, “We need to be asking questions about the Saudi royals being flown out of here after just 48 hours after the crashes.” They wanted to put American flags on their covers and just make people feel better. We’re not making money as journalists anymore and they’ve strangled us unless you have a staff job at The New York Times and Washington Post. I had a great run and switched to true crime because that’s where long-form journalism is now. And we’re not going to get help from this government.
To learn more about Mark Ebner, visit hollywoodinterrupted.com.