The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
In August, David Pecker was ousted from his leadership role at the National Enquirer after 20 years. It was the end of an era, and not an especially dignified era. Just ask Lloyd Grove, editor at large at the Daily Beast, who’s been reporting on Pecker for years. He says Pecker is “a famous and accomplished starfucker who, I guess, sees his value as a human being by how many celebrities he knows and claims friendships with. And primary among those celebrities is Donald Trump.”
The National Enquirer has always been a little absurd, and it hasn’t always been scrupulous about journalistic ethics, but in its heyday, it was known for landing legitimate scoops, finding real dirt on politicians and celebrities, until David Pecker changed that. In 2016, Pecker turned the National Enquirer into a mouthpiece for his friend Donald Trump. That swerve was nice for Trump, but it didn’t do anything for the Enquirer’s bottom line.
Grove says, “The National Enquirer, over the last couple of years, has been what Donald Trump would call a failing publication. Its circulation consistently plunged year after year. Its revenues, through newsstand sales principally, have likewise plunged, and the journalism, which years ago attracted so much attention, is no longer doing that.”
For decades, the Enquirer’s circulation was in the millions. The death spiral, Grove says, began with the advent of the internet. The key distribution spot was no longer in supermarkets—it was on people’s computers and smartphones. “They just never got a coherent strategy to deal with online news,” he explains. “They never really understood it, they didn’t know how to take advantage of it, and that’s principally why they find themselves in the trouble they are in today.”
The internet’s assault on the gossip industry came in two phases. Phase 1 was when online outlets like TMZ started beating the Enquirer at its own game—paying sources, enlisting spies in courthouses and hospitals, and catching celebrities in their worst moments. Phase 2 came when those celebrities turned the tables. Now, Grove says, “celebrities themselves control their own images through their Instagram accounts, which are far more powerful than magazines that are distributed at newsstands and often charge a very aggressive price.”
Despite its decline, the Enquirer managed a few more scoops during the internet era. Perhaps the biggest was in 2008, when it reported that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had fathered a child with his campaign’s videographer. It was impossible to miss the echoes of the way the paper had brought down Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1987, and the way the paper got the story was old-school Enquirer too. After an editor there got a tip about Edwards’ relationship with Rielle Hunter, the paper spared no expense, putting dozens of reporters on Edwards’ trail across the country for 18 months, before one of them confronted him during a late-night stakeout at the Beverly Hilton.
This was legitimate news, and mainstream outlets were forced to acknowledge that the Enquirer broke the story. The Enquirer had now dashed the hopes of two presidential candidates, earning itself newsstand sales, glory, and even a modicum of respect—so you’d think the paper’s editors would have been thrilled to get an opportunity to pull the trick a third time. But it didn’t go that way.
During the 2016 campaign, the Enquirer got its hands on a scoop that presidential candidate Donald Trump had cheated on his wife, just months after she’d given birth, with a Playboy model named Karen McDougal. The Enquirer pursued the story aggressively, paying McDougal $150,000 for the exclusive rights, but curiously, the story never appeared. At the behest of the Trump campaign, the Enquirer did what’s called a catch and kill: It bought the story and then locked it in a safe. McDougal certainly thought it was an effort on behalf of the campaign—which brings us to the second thing that ruined the Enquirer: David Pecker.
“He’s the son of a bricklayer from the Bronx who sort of pulled himself by his own Gucci straps to become a publishing executive,” says Grove. “Basically, Pecker is not a journalist. He has no journalistic expertise. He’s a marketing guy and an accountant. He took that magazine and basically drove it into the ground.”
David Pecker was part of a group that bought the Enquirer in 1999. According to Lloyd Grove, this was perhaps not coincidentally the moment that Pecker suddenly became a person of great interest to Donald Trump: “They formed an alliance, and maybe a friendship, 20 years ago. Pecker would ride on Trump’s plane back and forth to Florida and hang out with the guy and then boast about it to his employees.”
For Trump, the appeal of this relationship was obvious. It gave him influence over a media outlet that appeared in supermarkets all over the country. The Enquirer stoked Trump’s fame and covered him the way he wanted to be covered. When Trump eventually ran for president, the Enquirer’s fawning covers during the 2016 campaign and its vicious covers about Hillary Clinton were like free advertising—they served as little billboards in the checkout aisle. For David Pecker and the Enquirer, though, it’s much less clear what the upside of this was. Grove says, “If you talk to veterans of the Enquirer, the weaponizing of the publication to benefit Donald Trump’s campaign and trash all his opponents was very, very bad for the publication.”
Former Enquirer editor-in-chief Iain Calder watched from afar with puzzlement: “The Trump kick, that struck me as very strange. Why alienate potentially half of your audience?” He couldn’t fathom why the Enquirer endorsed Trump, the first time in its history that it made a presidential endorsement. That wouldn’t have happened on his watch. “You’d never have known who the Enquirer was for or against,” he says. “We weren’t for or against anybody.”
After Pecker buried the story about Trump’s infidelity with the Playboy model and another story involving a porn star named Stormy Daniels, Pecker ended up cutting a deal with federal prosecutors. He was eager to avoid punishment for his role in the scheme, which was a possible campaign law violation. Later, Pecker got himself into a high-profile standoff with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Bezos accused Pecker and the Enquirer of trying to blackmail him with nude pictures—Bezos called them below-the-belt selfies that the Enquirer had somehow obtained. Neither of these wound up as exclusive stories in the Enquirer, and none of this benefited the publication.
As the Enquirer’s circulation and revenue plummeted, it started looking for a buyer to rescue it, and some news reports in 2019 claimed it found one in James Cohen, a friend of David Pecker’s who is the heir to the Hudson News chain. Cohen was reportedly planning to pay $100 million for the Enquirer, but that purchase never actually happened. Lloyd Grove says he suspects the whole thing was a red herring: “I don’t think Jimmy Cohen ever wanted, nor intended, to spend $100 million on a failing journalistic property. I think he did it as a favor to his friend, David Pecker, as sort of a stopgap measure to at least buy some time while Pecker figured out how he was going to save his business.”
Pecker never did save the business. He just presided over its demise, which was accelerated when the COVID-19 pandemic decimated foot traffic at American supermarkets, which were still the Enquirer’s main point of distribution. In August, Pecker was transitioned out of his CEO role and, as Lloyd Grove puts it, was put out to pasture. The Enquirer itself might not be far behind. According to Grove, “circulation plunged from over 4 million weekly to around 100,000 today. It’s to the point now where it’s losing money hand over fist. The parent company [AMI] was merged into another company that sells COVID-19 masks and hand sanitizer. It’s a sad story, and people don’t hold out much hope that the Enquirer will last much longer.”
Maybe it will devolve into a hand sanitizer and face mask catalog. “Before the sale of AMI was announced,” Grove says, “the Enquirer for weeks on end was running pictures of celebrities wearing masks, COVID masks, alongside full display ads of masks that are sold by its parent company.”