In what could be yet another omen of impending demise for financially strapped American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer and nearly a dozen other celebrity tabloids and glossy magazines, longtime top editor Dylan Howard has been abruptly ousted from the troubled company.
The 38-year-old native Australian has been a magnet for controversy, most recently over his alleged attempt (which Howard denied) to blackmail Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos with photos of Bezos’ genitals.
Howard addressed the Bezos flap—apparently his most recent public statement—in a Columbia Journalism Review story from last fall by Simon van Zuylen-Wood, who approached him at a party for his book-length rehash on the death of Princess Diana.
Howard—“poking my chest,” Zuylen-Wood wrote—initially told the author he wouldn’t discuss Bezos. The article continued: “Not because I don’t want to talk about Bezos—I’ll talk about Bezos as much as I fucking want,” he clarified. “And I can give you the fucking real story.” I asked what that meant. “I have audiotapes, kay?” he confided, leaning close. “I have audiotapes.”
Howard was also exposed by New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow for his secret intelligence-gathering work to discredit actress Rose McGowan on behalf of convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein.
In order to avoid criminal exposure, Howard took an immunity deal with federal prosecutors, along with that of AMI chief executive David Pecker, to cooperate with an investigation into AMI’s alleged campaign finance violations on behalf of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
According to multiple sources, Trump acolyte Pecker, who on March 28 announced a 23 percent across-the-board pay cut in a company-wide email, told his longtime corporate wingman last week that Howard’s rumored $500,000-plus annual contract would not be renewed as of Wednesday, April 1. Variety first reported Howard’s departure from AMI, which he joined in 2009 after a checkered career as a television reporter in Australia.
The hard-driving, hot-tempered Howard was not universally popular among his AMI colleagues, and his exit was greeted as a rare bright spot by some employees as they took a substantial financial hit—which Pecker blamed on the coronavirus pandemic—and faced the prospect of unemployment.
“This has been a long time coming,” an AMI staffer told The Daily Beast as the news broke on Monday. “We are texting each other and wish we could host a party to mark the end of an era. An awful era. His actions almost destroyed the company.”
A former top AMI executive noted that Howard was still the subject of an ongoing FBI probe into allegations AMI extorted and blackmailed Bezos—potentially placing him in breach of his non-prosecution agreement with the Southern District of New York.
“On one hand Pecker must be glad he is gone,” said this former AMI executive, “but on the other hand you have to wonder, does he have files or recordings or other stuff that could incriminate David?”
AMI typically makes employees sign stringent non-disclosure agreements when they leave the organization, and it was unclear Monday if Howard—who in December 2017 purchased a $1.1 million house in tony East Hampton, New York—had signed such an agreement. Howard didn’t respond to a text and voicemail requesting comment on his ouster, and a spokesman for Pecker told The Daily Beast that the “company has not responded.”
Howard, who was removed as editor of the Enquirer last year, became a senior vice president at AMI in charge of developing true-crime projects and television deals, as well as hosting a podcast. Despite AMI’s increasingly dire situation—especially a reported $100 million sale of The National Enquirer that hasn’t closed nearly a year after it was announced—Howard seems not to have predicted his exit.
As recently as two months ago, The Hollywood Reporter claimed that Howard was “in the midst of repositioning himself as a Hollywood player, developing multiple projects in the white-hot true-crime arena. And, intriguingly, he is doing so with the support of a group of industry stalwarts—including Endeavor, Megyn Kelly and Dr. Phil McGraw—who had, until recently, been at the mercy of his notorious reporting tactics.”
Yet none of those various touted arrangements have produced a profit, according to AMI insiders.
One of them, a proposed reality show starring accused rapist and pedophile R. Kelly, resulted in unwelcome publicity for AMI this past November, when The Daily Beast reported on an audio recording that showed Howard had proposed an elaborate scheme to secretly funnel more than $1 million to the disgraced R&B singer for his cooperation on a documentary he hoped AMI would sell.
AMI, which is majority-owned by the Chatham Asset Management hedge fund, has insisted that the Enquirer sale is on track, but insiders are dubious.
“The Enquirer is worth nothing now. It’s worth pennies on the dollar,” said one. “There’s no way the deal closes.”
A former colleague of Howard and Pecker, meanwhile, said their willingness to put AMI properties at the service of Trump—the beneficiary of the Enquirer’s first-ever presidential campaign endorsement—and kill juicy stories about such celebrities as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in exchange for deals and favors, damaged the brand with once-loyal readers.
Under Pecker’s two decades of leadership, the Enquirer’s newsstand sales plummeted from around 4 million to under 100,000—a loss of readership that can be attributed partly, but not wholly, to the onslaught of the internet.
“From the perspective of the old tabloid business, Dylan and Pecker destroyed it,” said the former colleague. “It’s one thing keeping Arnie or Sly on the side and covering things up, but another if it’s Trump. It blew up in their faces.”
The immunity deal gave Pecker and Howard protection from prosecution over their involvement in a “catch and kill” arrangement with former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal, who also claimed she had an affair with Trump and who was paid $150,000 by AMI.
“As for Dylan, he is radioactive,” predicted the former AMI executive. “Who is going to employ him now?”