How David Pecker Built His Tabloid Empire AMI on Fear
A previously unpublished profile captures the Enquirer boss at start of his reign as gossip king. ‘He likes people walking around in fear,’ says one worker. ‘He gets off on it.’
In 2001, I was commissioned to write a profile of David Pecker, the CEO of American Media Inc., the National Enquirer’s parent company. I spent the next few months writing and reporting—only to have the story spiked.
Today, Pecker is at the center of a half-dozen national conversations. About Jeff Bezos. About Stormy Daniels. About the Saudis. About Michael Cohen. And, of course, about Pecker’s friend, the President of the United States.
So I decided to dig back into my files for the old profile. The 18-year-old picture feels shockingly current. The wannabe-tough-guy swagger, the financial woes, the rage at the skyscraper elites—it’s all there. So are ‘catch and kill,’ the D-list celebrities, and the quest to cozy up to the famous and the powerful. It’s just in this telling, the biggest name is Kennedy, not Trump.
I kept my tapes and transcripts from the original piece. But because the story is vintage, The Daily Beast and I gave Pecker a second chance to comment. Here’s what Jon Hammond, a spokesman for Pecker, had to say: “During his leadership tenures of 10 years at Hachette and 20 years at American Media, Mr. Pecker has worked tirelessly to navigate some of the best, and worst, times for the media industry. His commitment to providing support and opportunity for his colleagues and employees is as strong today as it was when he ensured that his staff was safe and secure following the anthrax attack against American Media in 2001. It is unfortunate that The Daily Beast has chosen to dredge up old rumors and gossip that were unsubstantiated then, and even less so today.”
Talk to employees who have passed through the grist mill of the tabloid publisher American Media Inc., and the portrait of CEO David Pecker that emerges is a man who governs in part by fear and will do just about anything to make quarterly projections. Other character traits frequently mentioned: workaholic, paranoid, vain, dishonest, bully. Ego is always mentioned. Like many successful men, Pecker’s is oversized. “As big as the great outdoors,” quips a former AMI editor. Critics contend it’s an ego that hinders decision-making and frequently obfuscates the facts.
The gangster ethos is another recurring theme. Pecker may be a Jew from the Bronx, but he could pass for an Italian from Palermo. It’s no surprise his favorite film is The Godfather or that he has a penchant for bodyguards and $350 custom Brioni shirts. Delve deeper and it becomes apparent that this is not the usual media story. It reads more like a Mario Puzo novel: betrayal, guns, bomb threats, large wads of cash, and a good marinara sauce. It’s exactly the kind of story you’d expect to find in the tabloids.
Fourteen floors above Madison Avenue, David Pecker, the don of the tabloids, is holding court. Settling into his chair, he tosses off this nugget: “At 21, I had a piece.” He’s talking about his first gun. Such is the street swagger of David Pecker. “I worked at Price Waterhouse, but I couldn’t live on the salary. So I also had my own tax business. I used to go to a job site and carry $10,000 in cash for the payroll. The gun was for protection.”
Pecker appreciates a good firearm. He’s been an NRA member for the past 30 years, and has the card to prove it. When he lived in Greenwich, he was also a member of a private gun club, because there’s nothing like squeezing off a few clips on the weekend to unwind. When he moved the AMI offices to Florida, the gun permit was renewed, a fact that did not go unreported by the local press. In the wake of this unsettling news, a rumor was hatched among AMI employees that the new boss was packing heat.
Not everyone believed this, but not everyone disbelieved it either. “I wasn’t scared for my life or anything,” says one former AMI editor. “But it certainly is something that flashes in your mind, like ‘Holy shit! You have to be careful with this guy. He’s got a hair-trigger temper.’” One company insider swears the rumor is true, but that Pecker stopped carrying when the news about his Florida gun permit leaked out.
That such outlandish gossip would be given even the slightest credence speaks volumes about the collective mindset of the AMI staff. When told of the gun rumor, Pecker seems genuinely shocked: “God! I can imagine now what kind of things people must be saying about me.” The next moment, though, he’s laughing, more amused than disturbed that his own staff harbor such grim thoughts. At the tabs, it might be better to be feared than loved.
“I’ve haven’t carried a gun in years,” he says. “I do have the permit, but I would never carry a gun to work.” He explains that he renewed the license not because he wanted to live out some wiseguy fantasy, but because he didn’t want the permit to lapse. “To keep it up,” he explains.
He reclines full-tilt, which causes the front of his suit jacket to splay open. There’s no trace of holster strap or gunmetal blue. Just a wide expanse of freshly starched Egyptian cotton. This means nothing to some staffers, who insist he favors an ankle holster. Still pondering the gun rumor, Pecker shakes his head and flashes his best who’d-believe-such-a-crock? look.
The smile reveals a blinding mass of bleached bone. He looks just like his photographs, only more so. It’s not just that the teeth are whiter than white. All of his features appear wildly exaggerated, as if lifted from a portrait hanging at Sardi’s. The hair is thicker. Shinier, too. The harsh midday light filtering through the window makes it glisten like greased plumage. The Groucho mustache is equally distracting. It’s beyond bushy, so dense it looks like it requires its own barber. And the deep tan, acquired not in a strip mall salon but thanks to lots of miles logged in his Bentley convertible, makes the pasty-faced staffers in the AMI hallways look even more anemic.
It’s not a subtle image, but nothing about David Pecker is subtle. Least of all his wardrobe: Corneliani pinstripe suit, a massive Rolex that looks like a gold ingot strapped to his wrist, gold tie, gold cufflinks. Enough gold to make even Donald Trump wince.
While David Pecker was C.E.O. of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, the number three magazine house (behind Steve Florio at Condé Nast and Cathy Black at Hearst), the flamboyant and brash publishing executive was always considered media pariah. It wasn’t just the 8-inch Davidoffs, cartoon mustache, and constant publicity-mongering. It was the way David Pecker ran Hachette. His critics labeled him a bottom fisher.
The business model was simple: pick up a property on the verge of folding for little or nothing, slash the operating costs (and the rate card), ramp up the artwork, to give the magazine a slick veneer, and see if the thing flies. In the press, Condé Nast bigwig Steve Florio compared Pecker to a used car salesman. Far from being insulted, Pecker seemed to relish the unflattering analogy.
So when Pecker approached Evercore Partners, a New York investment banking firm co-founded by former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, with a leveraged buyout deal to acquire AMI, the proposal received more than the usual once-over. AMI is the funny pages of journalism. It churns out three supermarket tabloids: the National Enquirer, Star and Weekly World News, which broke the classic 1988 “Elvis Is Alive!” story where Presley was spotted at a Burger King in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Pecker’s first phone call was to a young investment banker from the Blackstone Group named Austin Beutner who was advising the estate of legendary Enquirer founder Generoso Pope on the tabloid’s auction.
Pecker and Beutner discussed the recent tab backlash; public outcry following AMI’s coverage of Princess Diana’s death had cratered sales. From Aug. 31, 1997, when the car accident took place, to May 7, 1999, when Evercore acquired AMI, the combined circulation of the Enquirer and Star plummeted 1 million copies. Ad pages also took a significant hit, with corporate clients like Kraft Foods fleeing for fear of being associated with the stalkerazzi. It didn’t help that the Enquirer went to press just before the tunnel crash with the banner headline “Di Goes Sex Mad!”
Pecker said it was a blip. He pitched AMI as a sound investment, assuring Beutner that the anti-tab sentiment would quickly dissipate. After all, people could only listen to a ranting George Clooney for so long. Better to focus on the product’s unsung virtues. Like its affordable cover price ($1.49), which made it virtually recession-proof, and its financial stability. These were cultural icons, said Pecker, killer brands that had been under-promoted and under-marketed over the years by men less visionary than himself.
Impressed by Pecker’s credentials and his promise of an I.P.O. within two years, Evercore paid $300 million and assumed an additional $467 million in debt for the then-public AMI in May, 1999. After the contracts were signed, Pecker controlled three of the country’s six existing tabloids.
Six months later, Pecker persuaded Evercore to part with another $105 million in venture cap to buy Globe Communications Inc., AMI’s Boca Raton-based rival, publisher of the Globe (think of celebrity scandal: “Hillary & Lover on Sex Video”), Sun (a mix of pseudoscience health stories and Bigfoot sightings) and National Examiner (a maudlin National Enquirer: “Jerry Springer Saved My Life!”). AMI’s new chairman now controlled every tabloid in the country, a monopoly that made Hollywood publicists squirm.
But the transition from Elle to Enquirer has not been a smooth one for David Pecker. Two years into his AMI tenure, there are some troubling signs. Circulation, on a downward spiral for the past two decades, continues to slide unchecked. Advertising has been disappointing, too.
The product launches, never Pecker’s strong suit, have also failed. Of the three new AMI titles, one folded, one was shut down for “retooling,” and the other is selling poorly.
Many AMI employees have either resigned or been terminated in the wake of Pecker’s arrival. In several instances this is particularly alarming since the people who have left were not only hand-picked by Pecker himself, but had actually served under him at Hachette for many years before jumping ship to the tabs. “There was a lot of stability at Hachette,” says Martin S. Walker, the president of Walker Communications, a consulting firm for magazine publishers. “It wasn’t a mercurial management where there was constant turnover. You never saw the bodies coming out the window.”
The exodus began late last year when Pecker served notice to the Star employees, based in Tarrytown, New York, that he was relocating all company operations to AMI’s headquarters in Lantana, Florida (AMI has since moved into the former Globe Communications building in Boca, Raton). Of the 61 workers in Tarrytown only three made the move, none of them of any consequence in the Star hierarchy: a receptionist, a deputy photo editor and an art department assistant.
According to former Star employees interviewed for this story, it was Pecker’s volatile temper and the shaky job security at AMI that made booking a one-way ticket to Florida a dubious proposition. “We all felt that if we moved down there, we’d soon be on the unemployment line, having to find our way back up I-95 to New York,” said one editor.
(Due to employee non-disclosure agreements, most AMI sources in this story are anonymous.)
“People are afraid Pecker’s either going to have a heart attack or hurt somebody,” says another editor who chose resignation over relocation. “The ravings, decision-making and firings are totally irrational.” Another AMI refugee only manages a nervous chuckle when asked to describe one of Pecker’s famous temper tantrums: “The guy just curses the crap out of people. The screams have been heard across the building. There’s also banging of fists and the classic clearing-the-desk-with-the-arm thing.”
That Pecker’s social skills are less than ideal doesn’t surprise one former business partner: “I was always nice to the people below me, because I thought those were the people who made the company run. David never got that. He was a big ass-kisser going up. He would come to me once a day with some good thing he’d done. But then I’d hear that he had these guys locked in a room seven days a week working on numbers.”
Some suggest that Pecker derives pleasure from these tirades. “He likes to have people walking around in fear,” says one former AMI secretary. “He gets off on it. When he hollered at [one National Enquirer executive] she cried so much she resigned. Later he was bragging about the fact that she went through a box of tissues at their meeting.”
One former Star editor puts it simply: “I was just thankful to be out of there.”
Larry Roos, AMI’s vice president and chief information officer, was pink-slipped when the overhead screen went blank during one of Pecker’s PowerPoint presentations—even though he wasn’t directly responsible for the technical gaffe. It was the last straw for an executive already on Pecker’s bad side. “The firings went up and down the line,” says a former AMI worker. “It didn’t matter whether you were making $18,000 or $180,000.”
And when Pecker fired people, he refused to hire replacements. Shrinking payroll like this wasn’t productive. “I went from having 13 people in my department to five,” recalls one former AMI staffer. “I had an assistant manager who made $70,000 a year delivering mail because David got rid of all the people below him. Even I ended up delivering boxes to Boca because I didn’t have enough people. How does that save money?”
The abrupt departure of so many employees raised questions. Was Evercore having second thoughts about their CEO? Were the tabloids imploding? Was David Pecker in over his head?
The answers vary greatly, depending on the source. AMI employees, authorized by Pecker to speak to the media, insist that everything in Boca is running smoothly. “David’s a very direct publisher,” says Star editor Tony Frost. “He’s focused and he knows what he wants. He’s easy to work with.” Former AMI employees, not authorized by Pecker to speak to the media, insist the opposite is true.
Even though Pecker has instituted a gag order forbidding current AMI employees from talking to the press, some staffers are willing to speak off the record. According to one current AMI employee, Pecker’s hard-line management style has resulted in “absolute chaos.” He adds, “Morale is very low because Pecker has no knowledge of the tabs, and he’s a loose cannon. If this guy gets hit by a truck, people will bring out the party hats.”
Pecker has just flown in to take some meetings in New York.
Seated behind a cheap desk, in what is obviously a makeshift office, Pecker looks uncomfortable and out-of-place, like an actor who’s been horribly miscast. Unlike many men on the media circuit, he’s in good shape. The six-foot frame carries no middle-age paunch. He credits it all to a strict running regimen: four miles during the week, and five on the weekend.
With a theatrical flourish, he points behind the desk to a magazine rack displaying all six current AMI tabloid issues. It’s the only prop in the room, aside from a Post-it dispenser sitting on the barren desktop and, strangely, a framed “Certificate of Appreciation” from the DEA.
He pulls a fistful of broadsheets from the rack, and fans them out on the desk, like a poker player laying down a royal flush. “In the year 2000, between the Enquirer, Star, and Globe, we printed 12 retractions,” he announces proudly. “The New York Times printed 1,700.” He takes a beat to let that sink in. The methodology may be flawed, but statistics are statistics. “Seventeen-hundred!” he repeats gleefully.
The boastful rhetoric is Pecker’s way of courting journalistic integrity. He knows AMI’s success hinges on advertisers accepting the tabs as credible news sources. It’s not a bad plan: Run legitimate stories that the mainstream media will pick up and credit the tabs for breaking first. The resulting halo effect will make people forget all about Elvis sightings and alien abductions.
To some extent Pecker has succeeded. The Star and Enquirer scooped everyone on the recent Jesse Jackson and Hugh Rodham political scandals. When The New York Times and The Washington Post finally reported those stories themselves, they were obliged to credit the tabloids—one imagines, quite grudgingly—in their own above-the-fold coverage.
David Kendall, whose law firm, Williams & Connolly LLP, acts as AMI’s chief legal counsel, vouches for the Enquirer. “In the past some tabs were sued successfully,” says Kendall, a Washington lawyer best known for defending former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial. “But if you’re a celebrity, and you see a story about yourself in a Pecker publication today, your heart will sink. Because it’s been carefully vetted, and will be bulletproof.”
Pecker launches into an impassioned speech about AMI’s new and improved journalistic standards. “We won’t run grainy photos,” he begins. This isn’t entirely true. Although art director Roger Black’s (Rolling Stone, Newsweek) $5 million makeover has given the tabs a more respectable full-color façade, grainy photos still continue to surface in the AMI racks.
The celebrity sex scandal is usually the culprit. Those blurry telephoto shots in the Star of Kevin Spacey “romping” with an unidentified hunk is standard fare. More recently, the April 10 issue of the Enquirer ran nine muddy images of ALF star Max Wright smoking a crack pipe and kissing a man. Persuading a Fortune 500 company to advertise in either of those AMI issues would have required some serious salesmanship.
Herein lies Pecker’s predicament. The salacious material in the tabs must be toned down to appease the conservative sensibility of national advertisers. On the other hand, the more mainstream the tabloids become, both visually and editorially, the greater the danger of alienating the loyal core customers who prefer their gossip and layouts down and dirty.
With circulation such a large portion of AMI’s profits (85 percent), Pecker’s emphasis on serious journalism and more celeb-friendly profiles is a risky business model. “Most people want to see celebrities fall in the shit,” says tabloid connoisseur and Barney’s creative director Simon Doonan. “They don’t want reporters to kiss their asses and talk about how gorgeous they are.” Doonan is also miffed that the content isn’t what it used to be. “It’s a bummer,” he grumbles. “You’ll pick them all up, and there’s a lot of duplication of material. They’ve all got Michael Jackson stuff this week.”
Doonan, one of New York’s top style authorities, adds that the cleaner layouts are a mistake. “The Enquirer is looking more like In Style every day, they’re even using the same typeface. I don’t know why everybody has such a mania for making everything upscale. It’s ridiculous, as if making everything into Hermès is the answer. The ads for dolls, and mail-order tents that come in 50 different colors for $3.99—that’s the brand identity of the fucking thing. It’s part of the entertainment value of the magazine.”
Some tabloid journalists aren’t too crazy about Pecker’s tab makeover, either, especially the new emphasis on breaking Washington news. “People don’t buy the tabloids for political stories,” one reporter scoffs. “Three things sell in the tabloids: relationships, relationships, relationships. Who’s going with who? Who’s sleeping with who? Who’s marrying who? Who’s playing around with who? Who’s divorcing who? That’s what the women want under the hair dryer at the beauty shop. That’s what they read on the train from Larchmont. Most people who buy tabloids are women. Do you really think they care that Jesse Jackson is having an affair?”
Pecker is convinced he can manage the delicate balancing act between placating advertisers and readers. Historically, political coverage has been anathema to the tabs. The Enquirer’s founder, Generoso Pope, never covered Washington. But with the emergence of politicians as celebrities, Pecker believes the rules have changed. “We have a loyal base readership who buy the tabs every week,” he says confidently. “If we have a Jesse Jackson story, we’re going to sell 2.3 million. If we have a regular story, we’re going to sell 1.8 million.”
There was a spike in sales when the Enquirer first broke the Jackson love child story. But it’s doubtful that follow-up pieces caused issues to fly off the newsstand. Take, for instance, the Feb. 13 issue of the Enquirer, which ran a story titled “Jesse Jackson Money Scandal.” The article, which alleges Jackson funneled money from one of his nonprofit organizations to his mistress, Karin Stanford, is a surprisingly dry read. Take away the emphatic punctuation, and the copy could pass muster at the Times.
This isn’t to suggest that Pecker believes movie stars are passé. He knows that tawdry Hollywood sex outsells tawdry Washington sex. That “Jesse Jackson Money Scandal” article may have been picked up by CNN, but the hyped cover story in that issue was “Hollywood’s Secret Sex Club,” a naming-names exposé on The Vault, a sex club in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. Revelations included Mickey Rourke being caught in the bathroom with a transvestite, and a Tommy Lee-Pamela Anderson bondage scene observed by a leather-clad Claus von Bülow.
Chris Wilson, a former Star reporter who recently defected to Page Six, says it’s this seedy side of fame that sells copy. He says toning down the content to attract better ads, as Pecker plans to do, would be a mistake. “During my last days, there was talk about making the Star into Us or a People. Everyone was like, ‘Who the fuck wants to work at People?’ It was a whisper campaign among editors, which resulted in some awful puffball features.” He pauses to issue a groan. “That’s the worst type of journalism.”
Wilson claims that it’s this fear of litigation that contributes to the alarming number of knock-off articles that increasingly find their way into the tabs. “The attitude among a lot of the editors was: Why break a story that’s going to get us in trouble, when we can regurgitate a story that’s been in the Post or the London tabs and throw our picture on it? The premium wasn’t on breaking stories.”
Another tab reporter blames the prevalence of cut-and-paste articles on drastically slashed editorial budgets: “Two-thirds of the staff have been fired. And those who are left aren’t traveling anymore, except on rare occasions, like a JonBenét story. So we’ve been reduced to rewriting gossip columns. You either do the reporting on the phone, or you do it from clips. Eighty percent of what the tabs run is done from clips.”
That’s a far cry from the tabloid heyday, when Generoso Pope would spare no expense to get a story. When Grace Kelly died in 1982, Pope chartered a jet and carpet-bombed Monaco with 20 reporters, each one flush with thousands of dollars in cash. The reporters, who occupied the entire floor of a luxury hotel, used the money to “buy up” (payment in exchange for an exclusive) and “doorstep” (finding where someone lives, and making them an offer) even the most reluctant sources.
“My father would be rolling over in his grave if he could see what is happening today in the tabloid business,” says Paul Pope, scion of the founder. “Unlike Pecker, my father paid big salaries to get the best editors, reporters and writers. He wasn’t a bean counter or a corporate bigwig with an MBA. He was an incredibly smart MIT graduate who loved his tabloid.”
AMI employees also claim their paychecks are shrinking. The six-figure salary has always been the standard compensation for selling out to the tabloids. But the gap between what AMI pays and what mainstream media outlets pay is rapidly closing. Indeed, many AMI staffers say that since Pecker’s latest round of budget cuts, their workload has increased exponentially, to the point where they feel that they’re actually underpaid.
Star editor Tony Frost admits that while there have been staff reductions, it’s a non-issue. “We have an army of freelancers,” he says enthusiastically. “Our resources have not been harmed greatly.”
The AMI freelancers disagree. One stringer complains that Pecker has reduced fees to the point that he can no longer afford to work for the tabs. A cover story that once paid $2,000 now only fetches $200 to $350. “Pecker screams at editors telling them what pieces of crap they are, and that they can’t get any stories. But the reason they can’t get the stories is because they don’t pay any money.”
Another reporter claims that the quality of tab articles has dropped because writers aren’t able to pay their sources adequately for the all-important tips. “My sources used to be paid $300 to $500,” she says. “Now, if they’re lucky, they get $50. Well, for $50, who’s going to bother?”
For proof that tab sources are indeed drying up, look no further than this tipster, who claims that AMI has cut his payment by half: “I’m the guy who found out Kathy Lee’s hairdresser used to cut poodles in Florida. That used to be worth $150. I’d only get $75 today. So I don’t even bother anymore.”
Checkbook journalism has always tainted the tabloid’s image. The Star paid Gennifer Flowers $130,000 and threw in a red dress from Nordstrom’s for her Clinton sex scandal story. Far more controversial was the Globe’s payoff to flight attendant Suzen Johnson for setting up former football star Frank Gifford in a sex sting operation that even tabloid reporters found difficult to defend (both stories ran prior to Pecker’s appointment at AMI).
While he insists that he would never sign off on something as blatantly unethical as the sexual entrapment scheme that snared Gifford, Pecker concedes paying sources is still very much a part of the tabs’ news-gathering process. Editors are authorized to pay up to $50,000 for a hot exclusive, a sum that would have been folding money during the Pope era. “I like to give them a lot of leeway,” Pecker says. He downplays the pay-to-play, saying that his two biggest stories this year came from unpaid sources: “Neither the Hugh Rodham or Jesse Jackson stories was paid for. The Jackson story came in through an email from the Rainbow Coalition.”
Ex-Star reporter Chris Wilson says landing a great tab story without money exchanging hands is highly unlikely: “I’m sure that Jesse Jackson was a story where people were paid. Somebody was paid to leak that stuff. People say, ‘What’s in it for me? Why should I stick my neck out and get fired?’ Somebody was paid. Trust me.”
Which begs the question: How much of the stuff in the tabs is true? After all, not every publication requires its sources to take lie-detector tests. “There’s a lot of good stories the tabs break, but there’s also a lot of bullshit stories,” explains Wilson. “The general rule is: The more serious the story is, the truer it is. Someone is a drug addict, someone having an affair. These things have been legaled a million times and are true. But if it’s a story about someone having a crush on somebody and there’s just a picture of two actors hanging out, it’s probably not true.”
Wilson defends the tabs when it comes to checkbook journalism. “Everybody does it,” he says. “The legit press just does it in a different way,” through consulting fees, lavish travel budgets, and connections to other upper-tier media outlets.
This is the thing that rips Pecker up inside: the hypocrisy of the “legit press.” Which means the tabs must strive even harder for journalistic excellence—and scoops. Is there anything the tabs won’t print? He tents his fingers and turns pensive: “We won’t run any photos of a celebrity’s children.” He claims that even the dirt-dishing Globe must follow this rule.
When it’s mentioned that AMI has published pictures of Kathie Lee Gifford’s 10-year-old son, Cody, Pecker is momentarily speechless. The Giffords have filed a multimillion-dollar libel suit against AMI, on behalf of their son, for a tab story that ran last year portraying him as an incorrigible brat. Pecker dismisses this with a flip of the wrist, as if he’s asking for the check: “Cody has been photographed millions of times for charity events.”
“We respect the privacy laws in Los Angeles,” he continues. “I’m a nut over this. We also changed the news gathering with respect to how many sources we want.” Asked how many sources are required to confirm a story, Pecker immediately replies, “Three.” Pressed on the issue, though, he backtracks: “Sometimes we’ll have two.”
Satisfied that he’s made his point about journalistic ethics, Pecker addresses the touchy subject of employee relations. “I’ve been frustrated in certain areas,” he admits. “At Hachette, I had a team that worked together for 15 years. Then I came to AMI and it was like having three different corporate cultures, three different ways of doing things.”
He clenches his teeth when it’s suggested that perhaps this frustration triggers emotional outbursts at work. Could this be why people call him a bully? He says such stories are unwarranted and exaggerated. “There’s been maybe one incident in the two years that I’ve been here. There was a closed-door meeting with an executive who did something that cost the company a couple million dollars. I would say that I got pretty upset.”
He doesn’t flinch when the now infamous November 1999 National Enquirer staff meeting is mentioned. That’s when Pecker gathered the Enquirer editors in the newsroom to announce the Globe purchase. The speech started civil enough, but quickly devolved into a profane screed about the poor financial performance of the Enquirer. He expresses no regrets. According to Pecker, all the shouting and cursing was necessary. “There’s been a complete change in the product since then,” he says proudly.
Pecker claims that the inordinate number of employees who have either been dismissed or quit in recent months isn’t unusual. These things happen when a company undergoes big changes. Explaining why it was necessary to fire AMI’s entire accounting department he says, “There was no professionalism at all—no MBAs. The accounting system was very archaic.”
Throughout the interview, Pecker tugs at his French cuffs, like a Vegas pit boss with a nervous tic. “I understand that people are upset,” he says. “I’ve always seen myself as a student of change. And with change there’s not a lot of popularity.” He smiles. “I feel the results will speak for themselves.”
Little has been written about David Pecker’s past. Like many New Yorkers of humble origin, he seems to have sprouted from the Manhattan pavement fully formed. Clips reveal only the most basic facts. Even tabloid reporters ran into a dead end. When it was announced that Pecker was their new boss, the Star’s staff started digging. Reporters were immediately dispatched to New York. “They were able to turn up very little,” confesses one editor. “Nothing worth talking about. It was a dry well.”
David Pecker was born in the Bronx in 1951. The youngest of three children, he grew up on Allerton Avenue, near the Bronx Zoo, in a working-class neighborhood where muscular men carried lunch boxes to work and children played stickball in the streets. His mother was a Russian immigrant. His father, considered a curiosity by the local Jewish community, was a bricklayer born in East Harlem who spoke fluent Italian.
Determined to be his own boss, Pecker’s father founded a construction company and began venturing farther from the city, accepting jobs in southern Westchester. One such job was building a foundation for a house in New Rochelle. When the contractor went bankrupt, he offered Pecker’s father the unfinished house in lieu of payment. Happy to escape to suburbia, the family moved out of their cramped Bronx apartment.
Pecker attended New Rochelle High School, where he took some bookkeeping courses and discovered he had a talent for accounting. Then, in 1967, when Pecker was just 16, his father died. With no life insurance policy, the family was desperately in need of money. Pecker’s older brother took over the construction company, but the business floundered. “Struggle” is the word David Pecker uses to describe those early years. To make extra cash, he took a job after school as a drug store delivery boy.
After graduating from high school in 1969, he enrolled at Westchester Community College, undecided whether to pursue an engineering or business degree. Meanwhile, the family’s circumstances worsened. Pecker’s recently divorced sister had moved back home, and his mother was ill with angina. To support them, he began accepting accounting jobs that the bigger firms in town turned down.
He transferred to Pace University, and graduated in 1973. But there wasn’t much to celebrate. His mother, quite frail now, was dependent on him. As was his older sister, who was suffering a nervous breakdown after losing her two children in a protracted custody battle. Money was so tight that foreclosure on the family house loomed. He needed a job. Price Waterhouse, which had recruited him while still in high school, offered a junior accountant position. That first year, he established himself as a tireless worker, banking an additional $3,500 in overtime pay on top of his $8,500 base salary.
In 1979 he moved on, becoming the corporate assistant controller of CBS’ magazine unit, whose flagship title was Woman’s Day, a revenue gusher in the coveted service category known as one of the “seven sisters.” Pecker enjoyed his job, and probably would have remained on a successful but uneventful career path if CBS president Larry Tisch hadn’t decided to sell off the company’s magazine division.
Looking to break into the American market, the French publishing giant Hachette S.A. had a $450 million bid on the table. The CBS magazine president Peter Diamandis was also interested. The titles were greatly undervalued. Whoever closed the deal could flip the magazines at a handsome profit. Diamandis enlisted the help of two other senior CBS executives, but he also needed somebody who could run the numbers.
For that job, he turned to Pecker, the young accountant who logged 20-hour days and never complained. The grind paid off. In 1987, he secured the $650 million needed to finance the CBS buyout from Prudential-Bache. Diamandis and his crew had somehow snatched the deal out from under Hachette, who had low-balled their bid, coming up $150 million short. The former CBS Magazine Division was now Diamandis Communications Inc. (DCI), and David Pecker was its new vice president.
A year later, Diamandis and his partners cashed in, selling DCI for $1 billion. Hachette Filipacchi Magazines ended up with 12 of the 19 titles, with Times-Mirror and Cahners picking up the scraps. Pecker’s cut was $10 million. Thanks to Diamandis, he had gone from being an anonymous bookkeeper, to a media player quoted in the Wall Street Journal.
“If it wasn’t for Diamandis, no one would know who Pecker is,” says Steve Cohen, editor of Media Industry Newsletter, explaining Pecker’s debt to his mentor. “He was just a number-cruncher who punched a calculator all day.”
Rather than savor this success, Pecker worked even harder. After he got married, he didn’t even take time off for a weekend honeymoon. Still reeling from that first entrepreneurial rush, he couldn’t wait to broker another deal. “David had the taste of being an owner when he was with me,” says Diamandis. “He owned a piece of the action, and he liked it.”
Unfamiliar with the American market, Hachette was anxious to have the Diamandis team oversee their newly acquired purchase. But the relationship quickly soured when the industry entered a recession in 1989. From the beginning, the DCI team was known collectively as “the four musketeers.” After making them all fabulously rich, Diamandis assumed he commanded the unflinching loyalty of his partners. “We expected to leave as a group,” he says. “But only three of us left.”
In a move that enraged his partners, Pecker took a meeting with Hachette President Daniel Filipacchi and agreed to stay on as the company’s CFO. Pecker claims that severing his ties with DCI was discussed beforehand, and that his split with the partners was amicable. Diamandis, though, insists this wasn’t the case. “I have a good deal of respect for David’s business acumen,” he says. “But as a human being, it’s another story.”
“It was a double-crossing, but David probably thought, ‘I’ve got to watch out for myself,’” says Cohen. “If David was drowning in a swimming pool, would Peter rescue him? I don’t know.” The point is moot. There is little chance of Pecker and his former boss taking a swim together anytime soon. Twelve years later, Diamandis still refuses to speak to Pecker.
While at Hachette, Pecker made his quarterly projections and was rewarded with a promotion to CEO. During his tenure, he doubled the number of Hachette titles and doubled corporate revenue. More importantly, in a short period of time, he gave the French publisher a presence in New York. “When Peter Diamandis left, Hachette was not in such good shape,” says former Hachette owner Daniel Filipacchi. “David did a great job. You can look at the numbers and see the difference.”
Despite Pecker’s high-profile position at Hachette, the power he wielded was limited. It was well known that the Paris-based publishing company, a subsidiary of the enormous French weapons-communications conglomerate the Lagardère Group, kept their bulldog CEO on a tight leash.
It was more than the Gallic arrogance that rankled Pecker (“How’s your French?” was the stock greeting by Hachette employees transferred to New York), it was the leisurely work ethic. “The 45th floor, where the French staff had their offices, was called ‘frog corner,’ says one editor who once worked for Pecker. “Nobody knew what they did. Everybody else had five different jobs and worked their tails off, but the executives upstairs would take three-hour lunches. It drove David crazy.”
“David’s philosophy was that editorial quality was more or less irrelevant to a magazine’s profitability,” says another Hachette editor. “If you packaged something correctly, the product could be shit. It didn’t make any difference what was between the pages. And that’s why you could run these things with a skeleton staff, because this was really all about packaging.”
Another hallmark of Pecker’s corporate culture, which one George staffer described as “a sort of blue collar vibe,” was the insistence on hiring people who didn’t necessarily conform to the industry template.
“David’s a bit of a renegade, he was different than everybody else,” explains one of Pecker’s faithful Hachette employees. “Frankly, he’s just more honest than most publishing people. There’s a lot of Bronx guys in the business, but they disguise it a little better. David is just more real. He doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not.”
But even the Peckerheads—as his loyal foot soldiers were known at Hachette—found their boss impossible to please. The “best and the worst of times” was how one former Hachette employee described what it was like working for Pecker: “The best was that he could be very empowering and motivating. The worst was that his expectation level, what he expected you to bring in money-wise, was way out of whack. He raised the bar so high that it was unachievable. But that was his M.O. He didn’t want anybody to think they had won. There were always mind games with David.”
If Hachette made Pecker a media player, then John Kennedy Jr. made him a media star. It was this relationship with American royalty that also put Hachette, if not on equal footing, then at least on the same playing field, with Hearst and Condé Nast. Everyone agreed that Kennedy’s pitch—a glossy magazine called George that was equal parts politics, lifestyle, and supermodels—was intriguing, but nobody thought it would make money.
And it didn’t. George was a perennial loss leader in the Hachette portfolio. After an initial $20 million investment, the new monthly never gained a footing in the marketplace, chalking up $4 million a year in losses. Despite the deluge of red ink, George more than paid for itself in free publicity. Long criticized for being a shameless publicity-monger, Pecker’s appetite for gossip column inches only increased when George launched in 1995.
“Pecker was basically hogging the limelight,” says Steve Cohen. “If you go back and look at the clips, every picture of Kennedy has Pecker next to him. That created a lot of resentment. He was always trying to steal the scenery.” One Star editor put it this way: “Pecker loves publicity. I mean, everybody does. But he seems to love it to an extent that’s beyond normal.”
Without Pecker, Kennedy would never have gotten George off the ground. Every magazine house in town had taken a pass. Hachette became the publisher of last resort. Without Kennedy, though, David Pecker would have remained a faceless CEO. The tabloid king himself readily admits this. “I don’t think Hachette or myself would have had notoriety if it wasn’t for John. And if I go back in my 25 years of publishing experience, I’d have to say that my years with Kennedy were my most enjoyable.”
Pecker’s expression brightens when he talks about George’s founder and editor-in-chief. He wants everyone to know that he considered Kennedy a close friend. In the Aug. 3, 1999, issue of the Enquirer, shortly after the plane crash, Pecker actually wrote a mawkish editor’s letter titled “My friend, John F. Kennedy Jr.” Many deemed this the height of hypocrisy. “I felt we had a pretty good relationship,” says Pecker. “And I was very saddened over the accident. It was a very difficult situation for me personally.” He stops abruptly, and adds this: “I felt bad that I wasn’t invited to the funeral.”
This sentimentality is laughable to many of Kennedy’s business associates. In the beginning, Kennedy was grateful Hachette green-lighted George. To show his appreciation, he became part of Pecker’s traveling dog-and-pony show, making appearances at sales meetings to promote not just George, but Hachette in general. He never turned down one of Pecker’s requests to put in a public appearance, whether it was Secretary’s Day in Detroit or presenting Pecker himself with an award, to maximize the press exposure.
“David had a technique that he used on John, which was to make him feel that he ought to be grateful,” says one Kennedy clan friend. “And John was always so fearful that he wasn’t grateful enough. He never wanted special treatment, and was always a mensch.”
Kennedy’s goodwill toward Pecker eventually wore thin. Pecker fired George employees, and refused to replace them. Then the magazine’s budgets were cut without informing Kennedy. Promises were routinely made and broken. None bigger than the national advertising campaign for George that Pecker agreed to but which never materialized.
Many George staffers thought these budget cuts stifled growth, but there might have been a reason to reduce the burn rate. According to a 2001 New York Post story, George magazine lost more than $10 million in 2000. Industry sources cited in the story added that losses could rise as high as $15 million in 2001 due to a “softening ad environment in the coming year.”
The financial disputes caused friction between Kennedy and Pecker. “John left two long messages on my machine saying that David and he had this fight about staff firings that had occurred while he was away, without his consent, and it turned into ‘war,’” reveals one friend. “He later said to me, sobbing through the whole conversation, that he thought David was his friend, but then realized that wasn’t true, and that he was an evil man.”
Considering the insensitive things Pecker has to say about. JFK Jr., it’s difficult to believe the two men were ever friends. To relieve the tension between them, Pecker claims he offered to sell George to Kennedy. “I told him, ‘You could buy this magazine if you wanted.’ You know he had the money. But it’s very difficult for the Kennedy family to go in their pockets for anything.” He adds that Kennedy didn’t have the greatest editorial instincts either: “I told John that dogs and presidents don’t do well on covers. But we did the Wegman thing anyway, and it was our lowest seller. Trying to change John’s mind was like turning the Intrepid on the Hudson—very difficult, very slow and painful. He had a hot temper, too. He’d just blow up.”
Pecker’s relationship with Kennedy didn’t prevent him from cashing in on his partner’s death. The Enquirer milked the plane crash for over a year with cover lines like, “Carolyn Saw JFK Die”; “JFK: Heartbreaking Autopsy Secret”; and “His Last Words: We’re not going to make it…”
Asked if he had any more Kennedy stories in the pipeline, Pecker replies, “We’ll probably just do a special commemorative issue.” It’s not clear if that is the June 19 Enquirer, with a cover that reads: “JFK Jr. and Madonna: The Handcuffs, The X-Rated Movies, The Peanut Butter.” Although the Enquirer can still make money off Kennedy’s name, Hachette finally decided that it couldn’t, and dropped George right after Pecker’s departure.
When people talk about David Pecker being ideally suited for the tabloids, they usually mention the Premiere scandal. This was in 1996, when Pecker ordered an investigative article killed at the behest of Premiere’s joint partner Ron Perelman. Spiking the piece, which portrayed one of Perelman’s business associates in an unflattering light, resulted in Chris Connelly, Premiere’s editor in chief, walking out in protest, along with two of his editors.
When the writer of the article, Corey Brown, said she intended to publish the article elsewhere (it ended up in New York magazine), Pecker offered to buy her silence. This payola tactic, known within the tabloid business as catch and kill, was used by Enquirer editors whenever information needed to be kept out of print. Brown explains how the hook was baited: “Hachette asked me: ‘Is there any amount of money we could offer you not to publish the story?’” Several years later, Brown is still incensed: “Pecker didn’t care that he was breaking every rule in the book. He put Perelman’s wife, Patricia Duff, on the masthead. It was pathetic. The man had no concept of journalism. He just didn’t care. I loathed him for what he was doing. I knew we were in trouble when he told us his favorite movie star was Jean-Claude Van Damme. We knew he was tasteless. We just didn’t realize he was evil.”
During Pecker’s reign at Hachette, even the big magazines didn’t perform as well as expected. Nobody knows this better than Jack Kliger, the Condé Nast executive hired by Hachette to replace Pecker. According to several sources close to Kliger, he felt duped by Pecker because the magazines he inherited were not nearly as healthy as the ledger numbers indicated.
“There were a lot of problems with circulation, and there was a lot of discounting with advertisers,” reveals one Kliger confidant. “Jack thought the magazines were in better shape, but he quickly realized it was going to be a struggle to bring them back to where they needed to be. And he wasn’t happy about it.”
“When Jack took over, he found the company in a state of disarray,” another Kliger source says. “The core books were not doing as good as they should have been doing. The circulation was weak. He’d driven up circ a little bit, but the subscribers were one-shot deals, where you’d have to send ten pieces of direct mail to get them to re-subscribe. Ads weren’t great either. And then there were a number of books that hadn’t really received much attention, and had to be folded.”
The most troubling discovery Kliger made when he took over Hachette were all the “consultant fees” Pecker had on the books. One in particular caught Kliger’s eye: a $3,000 monthly payment to Frank Pellegrino. “It was the kind of thing where if you thought about it for 30 seconds you’d smell a rat, but if you just looked for 15 seconds, it could get by,” says one editor.
Frank Pellegrino is the owner of Rao’s, an Italian restaurant in East Harlem where, according to the Zagat Guide, “You gotta know somebody (preferably the Pope) to get in.” And if not the pope, then Frank Pellegrini himself. All the tables at Rao’s have standing reservations every night. Some are awarded to regulars, others are granted on the merit of celebrity. According to sources close to Kliger, Pecker’s reservation, which fell on the third Thursday of every month, was purchased.
“The consultant fee was so David could go to Rao’s,” says one George staffer bluntly. “Going to Rao’s meant more to David than anything in the world. He used to send Rao’s gift baskets to people on Christmas with a card that said: ‘For all of you who could never get into Rao’s...’ The subtext was: I’m a big shot, and this is where I eat. But you’ll never get in. So here’s a cookbook and a bottle of spaghetti sauce.”
Pellegrino admits that he was on the Hachette payroll. “I worked as a consultant on film projects,” he says earnestly. “Knowing that I’ve been in the film business for a long time, David would kind of run things by me, and ask for my opinion.” In addition to being Rao’s proprietor, Pellegrino is an occasional bit player in films. He’s the guy in Goodfellas grilling steaks in prison for Paul Sorvino and his crew.
“I read some scripts and proposals,” says Pellegrino. “Also some ideas for TV programs based on the magazines.” Asked if any of these projects ever came to fruition, he suppresses a laugh and says, “Not really.” Had he ever worked at the Hachette’s offices? “Not really. I was really too busy because of all the stuff I’m doing.”
When it’s suggested that some might interpret his consultant fee as a flagrant quid pro quo, Pellegrino becomes incensed. “David’s intentions were honorable, and all of mine are honorable!” he bellows. “I can tell you that for an absolute fact.” Nor does Pellegrino appreciate being linked to the food service industry. “It’s got nothing to do with me being a ‘restaurateur,’ okay? I’ve got 37 years in show business!” (Pecker, for his part, says the pay-for-table-access talk is ridiculous, noting he’s had a table at Rao’s since 1987.)
Pellegrino’s consultant fee was a red flag that made Kliger queasy and prompted a complete audit of the Hachette books. “Jack had the distinct impression that this was part of a larger whole,” says one source. “Like, ‘Jesus Christ! What the fuck else has been going on at this place?’ He thought that the accounting was clearly non-professional and self-serving.”
Although Mr. Kliger declined to comment for this article, Hachette’s public relations spokesperson, Anne Janis, confirmed that Pecker had paid a consultant fee to Frank Pellegrino. She made it a point to add that the restaurateur/showbiz veteran is no longer on the Hachette books. Were there other consultant fees that Kliger took exception to? “We went through and changed a bunch of things,” is all she will divulge.
Marc Liu, the former vice president of marketing at AMI, explains that the company’s accounting practices were not standard procedure. “There were two different sets of numbers: the real numbers, and the numbers reported to Evercore,” says Liu. He speaks slowly and deliberately, perhaps mindful of his legal exposure and David Pecker’s inclination to punish disloyalty. “The Evercore numbers weren't fraudulent—they were just more optimistic.”
None of the former Star employees believed things would end up like this. When the news broke that David Pecker was going to be the new AMI president, the response was positive. “David’s a bright, smart guy who can be incredibly charming,” says one ex-Star staffer. “When he first came in, I thought, this guy is going to save us, because he’s the new generation, the new order. He understands magazines far better than any of the previous people who’ve owned the company, and he’ll kick us into the 21st century.”
This esprit de corps was established not long after Pecker’s arrival, when he invited about 20 Star employees to a meet-and-greet at Tony’s La Stagione, a casual Tuscan-style restaurant about a mile from the Star’s original Tarrytown offices. Pecker also invited Evercore’s Austin Beutner, who was excited about his firm’s latest acquisition and eager to meet some colorful tabloid reporters. Listening to insider celebrity gossip, he thought, would be a pleasant departure from pouring over quarterly projections.
It was a frigid winter night, with a brisk wind blowing off the Hudson. But inside the comfortable wood-beamed dining room, editors and reporters were hunched over steaming plates of osso bucco. The atmosphere was festive but restrained, like bingo night at a church fundraiser. Pecker was charming and affable, as he always is at social events. But the tabloid employees, a boisterous crowd even when not consuming alcohol, were subdued, eager to make a good impression on their new bosses.
“Everybody started off on their best behavior, not drinking much,” recalls ad executive Tony Hoyt. “Suddenly we were like, ‘Fuck this! Let’s have a cocktail! And it turned into a wonderfully raucous evening.” As the $90 bottles of Amarone flowed, the Star employees began loosening up.
“We started exchanging war stories,” says one editor who attended the dinner. “Like covering the O.J. Simpson and JonBenét Ramsey stories. There was a lot of funny stuff about how you could say anything about the Ramseys, and they wouldn’t sue because they had too much to hide.” Reporters shared tales of “walking the fine line”—knowing precisely how far to stray beyond the boundaries of the law without provoking a lawsuit.
Pecker found the writers and editors fascinating. He had never been a tabloid reader. The only time he had picked one up was in 1978, when the Enquirer published its blockbuster “Elvis Issue,” featuring a cover photo of the King laid out in his coffin. Pecker was a big Presley fan, but he hadn’t read a tabloid since. He listened intently, and liked what he heard. The tabloid mentality was something he could understand: no pretense, no bullshit, all the gossip that’s fit to print.
It was a refreshing change from the snooty world of New York glossies, where magazine editors and writers considered themselves minor literary figures, and publishers worried about being perceived as too advertiser-friendly or politically incorrect. He felt a kinship with this roomful of media outcasts. He laughed at the jokes, slapped backs, and joined in all the toasts. This wasn’t just socializing. It was homework. He was a salesman, and had to become familiar with the AMI product that he would be pushing.
The tabloid king said that he felt a special affinity to Tarrytown. He told them that his father had actually helped lay the bricks for a famous theater that once stood only several blocks away from the Star offices, a place that booked nostalgia acts like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, a place with mob connections.
The writers and editors interpreted this as a good omen. Generoso Pope had started the tabloid business with a $75,000 loan from gangster Frank Costello. Everyone at the dinner agreed that Pope and Costello would have approved of their new CEO. When Pecker promised that he wouldn’t move the Star offices to Florida (a promise he would soon break), all the tab people gathered around the table cheered.
As the dinner progressed, everyone noticed that Austin Beutner was becoming increasingly withdrawn from the conversation. “I think that the possibility of lawsuits began to hit home,” says one AMI editor who was observing Beutner all night. “It was as if he was just now realizing that this was a much higher-risk business than anything he had known before.”
When the waiters arrived to clear the plates, Beutner bolted from the table. “We were all kicking back, totally relaxed, and suddenly Austin got the hell out there pretty fast,” says one reporter. “Most people speculated that he’d been alarmed by what he heard.”
Tony Hoyt had the same read. During the evening, he was monitoring Beutner’s pained expressions. He concluded that all the talk of ethically bankrupt journalistic practices was giving the Evercore executive a severe case of heartburn, if not buyer’s remorse. “You could actually see the color draining out of Austin’s face,” remembers Hoyt. “He must have been sitting there wondering, ‘What the hell am I doing buying these publications?’”
If Beutner was having second thoughts about Evercore’s foray into tabloid journalism, those doubts didn’t vanish when the first issue of the Star under Pecker’s stewardship hit the supermarkets in May 1999. That debut issue included a controversial story suggesting that the murderer of JonBenét Ramsey was her own brother Burke, who was only 9 at the time of the killing. Fantastic as it sounded, the piece was picked up by the New York Post and Time magazine’s website. The problem was that Boulder authorities released a statement saying that Burke was never a suspect.
Pecker printed a retraction. The Ramseys filed a $25 million libel suit against the Star, and also sued the Globe for running a similar piece. Both of the Ramsey lawsuits were settled out of court for undisclosed amounts.
Pecker regards himself as greatly misunderstood. He is keenly aware that more publishing people than not would love to see him fail. He attributes most of this animosity to the rebellious image he has cultivated over the years: the guns and flashy cars, the mustache and Double Robustos. But beyond the resentment fueled by these raffish props lies a deep-seated prejudice that he says will always prevent him from being fully accepted by his peers. “I came up on the financial side, and all my counterparts were in advertising and sales,” he explains wearily. “I wasn’t accepted. I didn’t go to Harvard. I didn’t come from a WASP background. I came from the Bronx. And then taking over Hachette after Diamandis left, who was the Greek god of publishing… it’s all those things.”
The thing that annoys him most, though, is the idea that he’s a glorified accountant, unconcerned with the quality of the publications he manages. “My peers think that I don’t respect the reader,” he says incredulously, “that all I care about is slashing printing costs and ad rates. But I care about my customer, and I’m very concerned about shortchanging them.” A look of anguish engulfs his features, contorting them into a furrowed ball of flesh.
Twelve hundred miles away, more anguish awaits. Reports in the Florida newspapers suggest morale at AMI is fast declining. That may explain why Pecker’s black Corvette was recently “keyed” in the company garage. He suspects that the perp was a disgruntled worker who had just been fired. A surveillance camera is now pointed at Pecker’s AMI parking space.
There was also an embarrassing incident involving an Enquirer reporter stabbing a policeman with a ballpoint pen while pursuing a story. As unseemly as this may appear, in the annals of tab reporters behaving badly, it's routine stuff. In the past, bail and legal counsel would have been provided by the Enquirer, gratis. But Pecker refused to lend assistance, a decision that did not go over well with the tabloid’s old guard. When editors protested, Pecker acquiesced, but he still fired the reporter. “I could not support someone who would stab a policeman with a pen,” he says.
The new AMI dress code has not been well received either. Intended to spruce up the appearance of the company’s workforce, Pecker has outlawed the default work uniform of many Floridians: shorts and sneakers. “Not wearing tennis shoes isn’t going to make me write any better,” gripes one tabloid reporter. “This is a hot climate. You have to feel comfortable.”
Another editor agreed the dress code was a good idea, but that the boss should dress less casually himself before he demands his employees do the same. Pecker may wear Italian suits and French cuffs in New York, but down in Boca he’s gone native. “Unless he has a meeting, David wears slacks, a V-neck sweater, gold chain and loafers—no socks,” says one former editor. “Coming from the British tabloids, where everyone wears a suit and tie, I was appalled when I saw this. It’s a very Tony Soprano look.”
Some insist the relaxed wardrobe is a better fit for Pecker’s personality. A former employee says Pecker likes to project a tough-guy image: “We threw a magazine party in New York at Lava, and David was walking around with three security people like he’s Mr. Mafia Guy—he loved it!”
He takes the same safety precautions that mobsters do, too. After an office coffee machine dispensed a bitter pot of joe, he was convinced somebody was trying to murder his employees. “I think a night security guard had poured the coffee through the machine again to reheat it,” says one of the alleged targets. “David had the water tested to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. We had round-the-clock security guards after that incident.”
The tabloid king may have reason to believe his life is in danger. Two years ago, a bomb warning was phoned in to the AMI offices. This required the evacuation of all employees (Pecker was in New York at the time). There was also a car bomb rumor that was credible enough to require an investigation. Now the AMI boss doesn’t get behind the wheel until the underside of his car has been checked with mirrors. Since a threatening letter arrived on his desk last month, Pecker been under 24/7 security.
(Not long after this story was filed, the AMI headquarters in Boca Raton was involved in the 2001 anthrax attack that targeted U.S. media outlets. Bob Stevens, a photo editor at AMI, was one of the five people killed in the terrorist attacks. Seven other AMI employees were wounded. And Pecker devoted substantial resources to supporting a traumatized workforce.)
The security contributes to the isolation, and the isolation can conjure dark thoughts. The young accountant that Peter Diamandis plucked out of a cubicle to help leverage a billion-dollar deal is feeling his mortality. Critics may think that he’s obsessed only with profits, but other things haunt him at night besides sagging newsstand sales and dwindling ad pages. “My sister was killed,” he says, the voice lowering an octave. The last syllable catches in his throat and hangs in the air, suspended, like a helium balloon with a slow leak. “She was run over by a bus in Greenwich. I was really down. This was in November of ’97. Then my brother passed away three weeks after that from diabetes—he was 57.”
Would an AMI employee make a joke about Pecker being hit by a truck if he heard that? Would others forgive the vulgar outbursts and erratic behavior if they knew of this man’s tragedy? Maybe. Maybe not. The tabloid king has many enemies, and magazine people are a cynical lot. More than a few of them will interpret this off-script confession as a sympathy ploy.
Perhaps sensing this, he divulges more medical history, like a census taker checking boxes on a clipboard. This is worse than poisoned coffee and car bombs. It’s the gnarled branches on the Pecker family tree, something all the money in the world can’t fix: “My father passed away from diabetes at an early age. All my uncles on my mother’s side died of diabetes, too. It just riddles everybody.” He slumps behind the desk. Gravity is seeping into his body, pulling him down. “I’ll be 50 in September,” he says with a quizzical look, as if he can’t quite believe it himself. “That’s why I’m running.”
The B-movie metaphor works: David Pecker is running for his life. The obstacles ahead are clearly visible: declining circulation, rising newsprint costs, shrinking ad budgets, staff unrest, and a disease that might kill him.
Let’s hope that it doesn’t. Because it would be unfortunate if David Pecker isn’t the tabloid savior. The world needs AMI and the National Enquirer. It’s the last bastion of authentic celebrity journalism, the sole media outlet that hasn’t been usurped by Hollywood publicists. As Enquirer editor Steve Coz says, “We’re the only ones left who aren’t doing spoon-fed celebrity crap.”