8 years after the National Enquirer's deal with Donald Trump, the iconic tabloid is limping badly

NEW YORK — Catch and kill. Checkbook journalism. Secret deals. Friends helping friends.

Even by National Enquirer standards, testimony by its former publisher David Pecker at Donald Trump’s hush money trial this week has revealed an astonishing level of corruption at America’s best-known tabloid and may one day be seen as the moment it effectively died.

“It just has zero credibility,” said Lachlan Cartwright, executive editor of the Enquirer from 2014 to 2017. “Whatever sort of credibility it had was totally damaged by what happened in court this week.”

On Thursday, Pecker was back on the witness stand to tell more about the arrangement he made to boost Trump’s presidential candidacy in 2016, tear down his rivals and silence any revelations that may have damaged him.

However its stories danced on the edge of credulity, the Enquirer was a cultural fixture, in large part because of genius marketing. As many Americans moved to the suburbs in the 1960s, the tabloid staked its place on racks at supermarket checkout lines, where people could see headlines about UFO abductions or medical miracles while waiting for their milk and bread to be bagged.

Celebrity news was a staple, and the Enquirer paid sources around Hollywood to learn what the stars’ publicists wouldn’t say. It may have been true. It may have had just a whiff of truth. It was rarely boring.

When the tabloid paid a mourner to secretly snap a picture of Elvis Presley in his coffin for its front cover, that week’s issue sold 6.9 million copies, according to the 2020 documentary, “Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer.”

For all the ridicule the tabloid received from “serious” journalists, Enquirer reporters hustled and broke some genuine news. A memorable picture of the married Sen. Gary Hart enjoying a tropical holiday alongside a woman he was involved with destroyed a presidential candidacy and brought politicians into the Enquirer’s celebrity world. The tab was considered for a Pulitzer Prize after revealing a sex scandal involving U.S. Sen. John Edwards in the early 2000s.

During his celebrity days in the 1990s, Trump was a fixture in its pages, and often a source for news. When Pecker bought the Enquirer in 1999, one of his first calls was from Trump, who said, “Congratulations — you bought a great magazine,” the former executive testified this week.

As the “Scandalous” documentary illustrates, some of Pecker’s unsavory practices predated his deal with Trump. The Enquirer paid for the story of Gigi Goyette, an actress who claimed she had an affair with Arnold Schwarzenegger, dangling the prospect of a potential book and movie. Then it kept silent as Schwarzenegger, who denied the affair, ran for California governor. The arrangement became known as “catch and kill.”

Pecker said that in a summer 2015 meeting with Trump and lawyer Michael Cohen, he outlined how he would help the presidential candidate, a deal that included the alleged “catch and kill” arrangements with Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels.

“They weren’t put into writing,” Pecker testified about his promises to Trump. “It was just an agreement among friends.”

Throughout the campaign, National Enquirer headlines made no secret who the tabloid was backing: “Donald Trump: The Man Behind the Legend,” read one. “Donald Trump: Healthiest Individual Ever Elected,” was another.

The Trump-boosting covers baffled Steve Coz, a former top Enquirer editor, when he saw them at his neighborhood supermarket in Florida. “That is so foreign to anybody who worked at the National Enquirer,” Coz said in the documentary.

Cartwright, lured to a job at the Enquirer by his friend, Dylan Howard, with a promise to break stories like the Edwards scandal, instead found that material about one of the most colorful, compromised politicians in recent history was off limits. Meanwhile, Bill and Hillary Clinton were frequent targets of unflattering stories; Pecker called that a double win, since it helped Trump and anti-Clinton stories were popular with Enquirer readers.

Even Cartwright said he was surprised to learn in Pecker’s testimony about the role Cohen played in helping to manufacture outlandishly false stories about Trump’s Republican primary rivals. Ben Carlson was described as a “bungling surgeon and ”brain butcher.” Marco Rubio headlines referenced a “love child” and “cocaine connection.” Ted Cruz supposedly was having five secret affairs and his father was alleged to have a connection with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Cartwright remembers wondering with friends at the time about what was going on, only to be told that “you’re sounding like a conspiracy theorist.”

The stories were wild, nothing truthful about them. But thousands of voters saw them, and when the rumors hit the mainstream media, the opponents — particularly an angry Cruz — were forced to address them.

“This is the ground zero of fake news,” said Cartwright, now a correspondent for The Hollywood Reporter.

It has been years since an Enquirer story made an impact. In 2019, the tabloid published texts alleging an extramarital affair by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — also owner of The Washington Post, a thorn in then-President Trump’s side. But it backfired when Bezos publicly revealed that the Enquirer had threatened to publish damning photos if the Post didn’t halt an investigation into Pecker’s American Media Inc. Pecker lost his job as head of the Enquirer’s parent company in 2020, and it was eventually sold.

Celebrity news is widespread in the media today. TMZ has largely assumed the Enquirer’s mantle with aggressive celebrity coverage and a willingness to pay for it, with more journalistic rigor. Political talk is also easy to find on the web, and so is disinformation.

The Enquirer averaged 238,000 newsstand sales each week during the last six months of election year 2016, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. During the last six months of 2023, its sales averaged just under 56,500. It limps along: The lead story on its website Thursday was “The Untold Story: Marko Stout’s Journey From Obscurity to Art World Phenom.”

“It’s really a shadow of its former self,” Cartwright said. “David Pecker’s legacy will be that he totally destroyed that tabloid.”


David Bauder writes about media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder

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