Thus the National Enquirer’s Donald Trump-friendly parent company, American Media Inc.—which also owns RadarOnline, Star, Us Weekly, Soap Opera Digest, Men’s Fitness, Men’s Journal, and other popular magazines and celebrity gossip sheets—dismissed Tuesday night’s sensational Associated Press exposé detailing allegations of lewd and intimidating workplace misconduct by the company’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard.
It was a brazen, some would say tone-deaf, act of corporate defiance against the zeitgeist, in which once-invulnerable alpha males—everyone from Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose to Matt Lauer—are being held accountable by brave women and a few good men coming forward to testify against these celebrated authority figures’ sexual misconduct and abuse of power with colleagues and underlings. (The indefinite suspensions Wednesday of WNYC radio personalities Jonathan Schwartz and Leonard Lopate are only the latest examples.)
AMI’s stout defense of the 35-year-old Howard—an Australian import who reportedly forced female employees to watch pornography and listen to him describing his sexual exploits and speculating about their sex lives, and nicknamed himself “Dildo” while running AMI’s Los Angeles office in 2012—comes at an especially inopportune moment.
Time magazine just named “The Silence Breakers”—that is, the army of women, and some men, who have gone public in recent weeks with the alleged misconduct of the likes of NBC’s Mark Halperin, NPR’s Michael Oreskes, and Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey, among many others—as its 2017 Person of the Year.
Meanwhile, Howard’s past collaboration with Harvey Weinstein to discredit the movie mogul’s accusers was front and center in Thursday’s exhaustive New York Times report on how the Hollywood producer used his clout, connections and cash to thwart press investigations of alleged misconduct—which Weinstein denies, claiming all his sexual encounters were consensual—that ran the gamut from groping to rape.
With regard to Howard’s activities on behalf of Weinstein, AMI has taken a more traditional stance, releasing a chagrined statement of innocence that places the blame on the mogul instead of its chief content officer: “AMI apologizes for any part it unwittingly played in Mr. Weinstein’s well documented manipulation of his business and personal relationships in his efforts to combat his accusers.”
It’s in this environment that AMI spokesman Jon Hammond was toiling Tuesday to dismiss and deride the AP’s report, based on interviews with 12 former employees, as the unfounded complaints of the “disgruntled.”
Ditto an AMI lawyer, Cam Stracher, who minimized Howard’s allegedly loutish behavior, which included expressing the desire to create a Facebook account for a female underling’s vagina, as “what you would call… horsing around outside the office, going to bars and things that are not uncommon in the media business.”
In a brief phone interview with the AP, Howard himself called the complaints against him “baseless.”
Howard’s boss, AMI Chief Executive David Pecker, is a longtime Trump friend and ally who seems to have put the National Enquirer at the service of the candidate and now president—weaponizing the supermarket tabloid against Trump’s adversaries, whether it was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries or Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski as they ramped up their criticism of his presidency.
In this context, AMI’s retort is decidedly Trumpian.
“They’re saying it didn’t happen, and if it happened, it’s not a big deal,” said author and women’s rights activist Jaclyn Friedman, whose latest book is titled Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All.
“Maybe they were thinking, ‘Look, who is the National Enquirer’s audience?’ They’re more conservative folks, folks who aren’t as well-educated perhaps. The Zeitgeist has not reached every corner of the United States. Who else is defying the Zeitgeist right now? Roy Moore is defying the Zeitgeist. Donald Trump is defying the Zeitgeist. The National Enquirer has a pretty accurate read on who their audience is, and they can get away with it.”
Dawn Bridges, a former top communications executive for Time Inc., Al Jazeera America, and the music industry, told The Daily Beast: “This is sort of in the same vein as Dustin Hoffman saying this is what goes on during film productions, or Geraldo Rivera saying ‘the news business is a very flirty business.’ But things have changed… I spent my twenties in the 1990s running around the world with rock stars and the stuff that went on then would not pass muster today. The old-world rules don’t apply today.”
Former Time Warner executive Ed Adler, a partner in the PR powerhouse Finsbury, called AMI’s response to the AP’s report “an extreme outlier” compared to how other media companies such as NBC Universal and CBS, among others, have handled such allegations.
Yet, against all odds and the consensus view of the media elite, defiance and denial worked like a charm for Trump during the presidential campaign, when he brushed aside the multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault of nearly two dozen women.
“A PR expert would never have recommended the things that Trump has said and done over the last year and half,” Adler told The Daily Beast. “Things that you would prescribe as the right way to handle certain issues are not accepted by everyone in today’s media world. If you analyze what Trump has done or said, a PR expert would never have recommended it, but it seems to have worked for him.”
Referring to the Times account of Howard’s collaboration with Weinstein, Dawn Bridges said, “The National Enquirer has never been held up as paragon of great American world-class journalism, and they’re already in the middle of this particular story. Not to express a bit more sensitivity to the situation, given everything that’s going on at the moment, seems a bit surprising.”
Bridges added, however, that by deriding the allegations against Howard, AMI could be following the playbook that has worked for Trump during his four decades as a tabloid-ready public figure.
“Maybe it’s the Trump philosophy—ride out the Access Hollywood scandal because the core Trump supporters weren’t going to change their opinion of Trump or their hatred of Hillary because of the tape,” Bridges said. “Maybe the core National Enquirer audience doesn’t care about journalistic purity, and maybe all of this is just inside baseball for people in New York media circles.”