When Donald Trump acolyte David Pecker purchased 13 of Bauer Publishing’s gossip, celebrity and teen-oriented weeklies for a reported $80 million on June 15, the transaction permitted Pecker’s perennially strapped company, American Media Inc. (publisher of the National Enquirer, Us Weekly, Star, Globe, OK! and Radar Online) to corner the tacky tabloid journalism market.
AMI’s acquisition of Bauer’s In Touch, Life & Style and Closer mags also awarded the 45th president a valuable prize: effective control of the pop-culture engine that helped propel him to the White House and could very well keep him there.
“Mr. Pecker has repeatedly used his brands as a cudgel on behalf of his friend Trump,” Larry Hackett, the former editor of People, argued last week in Australia’s New Daily. People, along with Entertainment Weekly, is the nation’s only celeb-focused magazine not owned by Pecker—with the rest of Time Inc.’s magazines, they were recently purchased by Meredith.
“He has peddled false stories about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama without any regard for the facts,” Hackett continued. “That’s regrettable if it’s one or two publications. But now he has control of… magazines with an estimated readership of 38 million, a virtual monopoly on the eyeballs of supermarket and Walmart shoppers. What’s to stop him from using those titles [to launch] unfounded attacks on Mr. Trump’s political foes, his Hollywood critics, unwanted immigrants?”
Pecker’s 36-year-old sidekick is AMI Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard, an Australian import with a checkered past.
There was a 2008 scandal, after he bought purloined medical records of Australian Football League players that got him fired from a television sports job in Australia; a 2012 sexual-harassment investigation that resulted in his abrupt departure as bureau chief of AMI’s L.A. office; the end of a brief stint running the Celebuzz site after a similar internal investigation of alleged misconduct in 2013; and the allegation that, as AMI’s chief content officer, he collaborated with Harvey Weinstein to gather damaging intelligence on the disgraced movie mogul’s female accusers.
None of the above has prevented Howard from preaching on the importance of journalistic ethics, especially regarding spreading baseless rumors, especially when stories critical of Trump are involved. (The Daily Beast has approached Pecker and Howard for comment for this article, and will update it should any comment be forthcoming.)
During the May 31 episode of his podcast, All Rise With Dylan Howard, he complained about a Daily Beast investigation revealing that TMZ and its Trump-friendly founder, Harvey Levin, attempted to purchase a video recording—which may or not exist—of Donald arguing bitterly in a Trump Tower elevator with his third wife, Melania.
Levin’s possible intention was to protect the president by taking the supposed video out of circulation.
“This is what grates on me,” Howard said during a phone chat with former Daily News gossip columnist A.J. Benza. “We, as the media, are now turning on each other. And the media is now reporting stories that other media organizations investigate and report that existence, that investigation, as a news story.”
“It’s so unfair,” Benza agreed.
“Is this type of reporting an assault on journalism?” Howard asked rhetorically. “I think there are two sets of standards in the journalism industry in 2018. I think there is an insatiable appetite to try and bring down the president, whether you like him or not. My personal opinion doesn’t matter. But there’s also an insatiable appetite from those, particularly in the liberal-left media, to try and bring down those that are also supportive of the president. My personal opinion is we have thrown our procedures and protocols and standards in pursuit of that agenda.”
It’s bracingly ironic, of course, to hear the top editor of the regularly fact-challenged Enquirer inveigh against rumor-mongering.
Even more surprising was Howard’s angry reaction when former reality-TV star Jon Gosselin—of the 2007 hit series Jon & Kate Plus 8—posted on his Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts the phone number and address of a female Radar Online reporter.
The reporter had been repeatedly phoning his girlfriend and her hospitalized mother, Gosselin told The Daily Beast, in pursuit of stories about his ugly child-custody battle with his ex-wife, Kate.
On June 14, Howard left a threatening voicemail message with Gosselin’s talent manager: “The clock is ticking,” he declared in his message, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast. “Your client has posted one of my staff member’s personal information, including her cellphone number and address, on social media—thus encouraging and inciting people to stalk, harass, and intimidate this individual. That is a felony. Your client must remove these details within five minutes or we will be filing a criminal charge and also a civil suit. Your client has been warned. Proceed at your peril.”
The talent manager, who asked not to be named, told The Daily Beast that she was baffled by Howard’s message—she wasn’t aware of Gosselin’s social-media posts—and that in a subsequent threatening phone call, Howard changed the subject when she brought up the Radar Online reporter’s alleged harassment of Gosselin and his family.
“Dylan’s just mad I don’t talk to any of his reporters,” said Gosselin, who is under a judicial gag order forbidding him from discussing the custody battle with the media. “But when his reporters go after my family, I’m gonna do something about it, because I’m a regular citizen now. I’m not on television. I’m not under contract. I haven’t been filmed in nine years. And now you’re gonna come after me?”
Gosselin added: “You can come after me all you want, but when you start calling my girlfriend and her family—who have no clue—and then try to goad them into talking, I’m either gonna show up at your doorstep or I’m gonna call you out.”
Gosselin said he waited half an hour, not five minutes, before taking down the reporter’s details, and he said she hasn’t called back. As for Dylan Howard, he said: “Every time I come to New York, I pray that I bump into him.”
An AMI spokesperson responded that the reporter was assigned to contact Gosselin’s adult family members because he had been posting videos and photographs with his daughter for weeks on social media, and fans were speculating that he had gotten legal custody of her.
Gosselin called the reporter and erupted (according to quotes provided by AMI that he confirmed): “Do not call my family members. You do not have permission. No one is allowed to talk about custody... Do not call my family. You will know when I fucking feel like releasing the information. That’s it. I’m not giving exclusives. I’m not talking to Radar. I’m done. If you have an issue, I will fucking call my attorney and they will call your attorney.”
The AMI spokesperson added that once Gosselin posted the reporter’s personal information and “encouraged his fans to call her... they did in large numbers.”
Jerry George, a former National Enquirer Los Angeles bureau chief and assistant managing editor of all the AMI titles—who spent 28 years at the supermarket tabloid after being hired by its founder, the late Generoso Pope Jr.—told The Daily Beast that while Pope “basically left it alone and let it do its thing”—namely aggressive, checkbook-fueled reporting and and scandal-mongering, without fear or favor—“when Pecker took over in the late ’90s, everything changed. That became evident from Day One. The edict came down that no negative Trump stories would ever appear in an American Media publication.”
Indeed, Trump was once a favorite target of the Enquirer, fodder for headlines like “Caught! Trump & His Mistress,” “TRUMP’S MISTRESS CHEATS ON DONALD WITH TOM CRUISE,” and “TRUMP MISTRESS IS PREGNANT”—a reference to future ex-wife Marla Maples.
In other words, the Enquirer possessed a rich archive of Trump material, said AMI insiders who spoke on condition of anonymity, that could have been resurrected and re-reported—but wasn’t.
Pecker’s friendship with Trump, whether warmly sincere or merely transactional, goes back to well before 1999, when the former accountant, the son of a Bronx bricklayer, was named chief executive of AMI as part of the Evercore private-equity firm’s purchase of the company—with the Enquirer its flagship property—for $767 million.
Pecker’s eagerness to help Trump and his minions—which has already placed him in the crosshairs of federal investigators and earned him a subpoena in the criminal probe of the president’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen—has prompted him to spend AMI’s money to pay off Trump’s various accusers to suppress damaging stories (the practice known as “catch and kill”).
During the 2016 campaign—as The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison reported last week—Pecker submitted stories and photos concerning Trump and his opponents for Cohen’s thoughts before they were published.
Under Pecker, the Enquirer famously broke with its nonpartisan tradition to endorse Trump in the Republican nomination race—under the headline “TRUMP MUST BE PREZ!”—while regularly sliming his rivals.
Pecker, along with his sidekick Howard, has shown no reluctance to weaponize AMI’s publications against Trump’s enemies—be they Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski (the subject of a tawdry story about the engaged couple’s workplace affair) or Barack Obama.
Obama had barely taken the oath of office when the Enquirer dished dirt with tawdry headlines such as: “OBAMA MARRIAGE CRISIS”; “MICHELLE OBAMA BOOZE BINGES”; “BAM BANNED FROM BED!”—and other thinly sourced gossip and rumors.
Meanwhile, even though he was years away from his presidential candidacy, Trump could bask in such Enquirer headlines as “TRUMP EXPLODES AT OPEC!”; “TRUMP: OBAMA HAS MADE U.S. ‘WHIPPING POST’ FOR THE WORLD!’”; and “TRUMP ROCKS NEW POLLS!”
In early April 2011, when the birther virus was infecting the fever swamps of American politics, the Celebrity Apprentice star went on NBC’s Today show to allege that Obama had possibly been born in Kenya instead of the United States.
“Three weeks ago when I started, I thought he was probably born in this country, and now I have a much bigger doubt than I did before,” the de facto leader of the birtherism movement—who also happened to be marking his 11th season on NBC’s prime-time schedule—told a skeptical Meredith Vieira about the 44th president of the United States. “If he weren’t lying, why wouldn’t he just solve it?... If he doesn’t, it’s one of the greatest scams in the history of politics and in the history period. You are not allowed to be a president if you are not born in this country. He may not have been born this country.”
Trump added: “I have people that actually have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding.”
“You have people down there searching—I mean, in Hawaii?” Vieira demanded.
“Absolutely,” Trump agreed. “And they cannot believe what they’re finding.”
More than seven years later, Trump has provided zero evidence that he ever sent anyone to Hawaii to investigate the circumstances of Obama’s birth.
Yet the Enquirer eagerly reported at the time that Trump had “hired a team of detectives to dig deep in the archives to prove that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and would be then ineligible to be president.”
However, around the same time that the then-reality television star was making his baseless claim, the National Enquirer had indeed sent a staffer to Honolulu to look into Obama’s origins.
According to colleagues in AMI’s Los Angeles bureau, ace reporter Rick Egusquiza—the man who broke the John Edwards love-child scandal—was dispatched to the 50th state to prove that there was indeed something fishy about President Obama’s birth certificate.
Egusquiza—who now works for Bauer, at least until the sale is scheduled to be completed on July 1—declined to comment. But former AMI staffers speculate that David Pecker boasted to Trump about Egusquiza’s Hawaii trip, and Trump, on the Today show, was referring to the Enquirer’s man in Honolulu.
But the AMI spokesperson said: “Mr. Pecker never authorized anyone going to Hawaii or discussed it with Mr. Trump.”
“Rick was ordered to Hawaii and told, ‘Don’t come back until you get something to prove the birth certificate isn’t real,’” said former Radar Online Editor Maxine Page, who described herself as a friend of Egusquiza. “But he couldn’t prove that, because it was real.”
In the end, Egusquiza came back with interviews with the president’s childhood acquaintances and photos of the young Obama—including one of him as a toddler in a pirate’s costume—that the reporter managed to find at the apartment complex where his grandmother had lived.
“The curious thing is who benefits from this?” former Enquirer bureau chief Jerry George mused, noting that it’s unclear how AMI and Pecker engineered the Bauer purchase, and the Us Weekly acquisition last year, at a moment when circulation and sales are in decline. (An April 19 headline in The Wall Street Journal read: “National Enquirer Parent, Staunch Trump Backer, Faces Mounting Debt, Shrinking Sales.”)
“As a company, they live from hand to mouth and they don’t have a great cash flow, from my experience,” George continued. “It’s certainly not a news organization any more. It’s becoming Pravda.”