In his explosive blog post Thursday accusing the owner of the National Enquirer’s parent company of attempting to blackmail him with salacious personal photos, Jeff Bezos called out his opponent with the excellent title: “No thank you, Mr. Pecker.”
The Pecker he is addressing here is David Pecker, longtime CEO of American Media Inc. Those who have kept track of the various scandals stemming from the Trump campaign will have some familiarity with the tabloid figure. A longtime friend and admirer of Donald Trump, Pecker worked with Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen to organize a “catch-and-kill” payment of $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who has said she had an affair with Trump—with the express purpose of buying her silence to aid the Trump campaign. (The president has denied the affair.) Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for not disclosing the expenditure as a politically motivated one, and AMI entered into a nonprosecution agreement with the Justice Department.
After Bezos’ new allegations, it’s hard to know exactly how AMI’s standing with the DOJ will be affected. Bloomberg reported Friday that federal prosecutors were looking into whether AMI’s behavior would violate that nonprosecution agreement, as not committing any further crimes—allegedly extortion, in this case—was a term of the agreement. The potential consequences of that, too, are complicated, but it struck many an exceedingly dumb move for a company in such a dubious position to allegedly try to blackmail the richest man on the planet.
The Enquirer makes no pretense of following journalistic norms, and its parent company has a longer history of ethical indiscretions. The warning signs have been there, from David Pecker’s early years in magazine publishing.
Pecker’s publishing scandals began before his time at AMI, when he was president and CEO of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines. He had already earned a reputation in the magazine publishing world. As the New York Times put it in 1998:
He bought foundering publications and cut the staffs to reduce costs and make the magazines profitable. He offered deep discounts and snazzy marketing ideas for big advertisers. He rejected membership in the Magazine Publishers of America, the industry association. He bought a full-page ad in large newspapers to criticize a competitor’s ad strategy. And he killed an article in one of his magazines to appease a big advertiser, prompting his top editors to quit.
Pecker killed an investigation in the movie magazine Premiere into the financial problems of Planet Hollywood, a celebrity-themed restaurant chain with business ties to billionaire Ronald Perelman, who was also a partial owner of Premiere. When reporters complained, he told one, “The last time I looked, I am the C.E.O. of this company,” and made a business pitch for why investigations were bad for the company, according to a 2017 article in the New Yorker.
As Mickey Kaus wrote in Slate in 2007, the clash, the last straw after a number of advertiser-focused stunts, caused the editor-in-chief to resign in frustration, and Pecker’s “idea was apparently to turn Premiere into more of a toothless fan mag,” ultimately leading to its demise.
Pecker’s ethical inclinations became apparent in 2005 through his work with AMI to secure an exclusive interview with Bill Cosby soon after the first sexual misconduct accusation against the comedian had come out.
As the Daily Beast reported in May, Cosby admitted in a deposition in a civil suit that the tabloid had come to him with allegations from an accuser named Beth Ferrier. Rather than publish her story, the Enquirer and Cosby struck a deal: In exchange for an exclusive interview, the Enquirer would bury the story.
In the interview, which ran in March of 2005, Cosby essentially accused Andrea Constand of trying to extort money from him. As part of his deal with the publication, Cosby was allowed to see the story before it ran, and AMI agreed not to run any stories for two years about Cosby having affairs or drugging or assaulting women.
Ferrier, who joined in the civil suit against Cosby as a Jane Doe, alleged she had had an affair with Cosby when she was a 24-year-old model in 1984 and that on one night he drugged her and assaulted her. Cosby, who has since been sentenced to three to 10 years in prison for drugging and raping Constand in 2004, admitted to having an affair with Ferrier but denied the assault.
According to Ferrier, she took a lie detector test at the Enquirer’s request, and the tabloid promised her $7,500 but never paid her or told her they decided against running the interview. An AMI spokesman also said that Ferrier was never paid. She soon took her story elsewhere and came forward publicly in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News.
Constand sued the Enquirer for defamation, and in a settlement, AMI paid her $20,000.
Two years later, in 2007, AMI landed Tiger Woods on the cover of its magazine Men’s Fitness with some similar scheming.
According to the New Yorker, the Enquirer had received a tip from a woman that her daughter, a waitress named Mindy Lawton, had been sleeping with Woods. Reporters for the Enquirer hid in the bushes behind the diner where Lawton worked and “captured evidence” of their sexual encounter in the parking lot.
Men’s Fitness had reportedly asked Woods to appear on the cover many times before. After the Enquirer asked Woods for comment on his rendezvous with Lawton, he agreed to negotiate for a cover story.
Pecker’s fawning relationship with Donald Trump started long before the scheme to help his campaign.
As the New Yorker noted, Pecker created a custom-publishing division at Hachette when he was president, in which he would produce magazines for clients. He launched and produced Trump Style, a glossy magazine dedicated to Trump’s wealth and extravagance, for five years. Through it, he met, and came to admire, the future president.
While the coverage of Trump was consistently sycophantic over the years Pecker ran AMI—he made no secret of looking out for his friend—that devotion crossed into scandal in 2015, when he paid $30,000 to Dino Sajudin, a doorman at Trump World Tower, to stop him from going public with (somewhat dubious) allegations that Trump had had an affair in the 1980s that resulted in a child. AMI sources later told the New Yorker that the company had kept Cohen up to date with its investigation into Sajudin, and Cohen told the Associated Press that he had “discussed Sajudin’s story with the magazine when the tabloid was working on it.”
From there, Pecker and AMI would continue to do what they could to protect Trump’s reputation before the election.
And Now: Bezos
The most recent scandal began in early January, when the Enquirer published a 12-page spread dedicated to Bezos—a man Trump openly despises—and his alleged affair with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez. The magazine included intimate texts sent between the two, but not the private photos it later threatened to release. Hours before the Enquirer first teased its big exposé, Bezos announced that he and his wife were divorcing.
It’s still not clear how the Enquirer obtained the messages between Bezos and Sanchez. Bezos hired private security consultant Gavin de Becker to investigate, and according to the Washington Post, de Becker concluded that Bezos had not been hacked and instead the texts came from a “‘politically motivated’ leak meant to embarrass the owner of The Post—an effort potentially involving several important figures in Trump’s 2016 campaign.”
If true, that would be quite the twist. There’s no denying that Trump campaign figures have pushed past the line of decency in their efforts to get him elected. And it’s on record that Pecker was a co-conspirator in at least one scheme. But campaign officials working with Pecker in this alleged act of extortion just to embarrass the owner of a newspaper the president doesn’t like would be an almost cartoonish plot.
Pecker repeatedly brought his philosophy of business to the world of publishing and celebrity, and in doing so helped make the tabloid what it is today. If there’s one thing that seems clear from the long list of AMI’s unethical behavior, it’s that the sleaziness that Pecker infused into his businesses has found a much larger place in our national news cycle than he, or we, could have ever predicted.