The Shocking True Story of the National Enquirer

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S1: This past 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 Pekar for years.

S2: David Pecker is can I swear on this podcast? Sure. All by all means, he’s a famous and an accomplished star fucker 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.

S3: 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, Pekar turned the National Enquirer into a mouthpiece for his friend, Donald Trump. The Enquirer ran a bunch of false stories about Trump’s political rivals. It made the first presidential endorsement in its history for Trump. Of course, it even bought and then buried the story of a Playboy model who alleged that she’d had an affair with Trump, a potential de facto campaign contribution that wound up earning David Pecker a visit from federal prosecutors. The Enquirer is pro. Trump’s swerve was nice for Trump, but it didn’t do anything for the Enquirer’s bottom line.

S2: 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.

S1: So you’re probably familiar with some of the Enquirer’s nutty cover stories. You might have read about its shady reporting tactics. What you probably don’t know is the business story behind the brand. For decades, the Enquirer circulation was in the millions and then its success evaporated.

S3: The National Enquirer is living out what might be its final days in a sad sort of squalor. It was recently merged with a company that sells corkscrews, umbrellas and hand sanitizer. What happened to this? Once proud, once feared tabloid inquiring minds are about to find out.

S4: I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism. Today on the show, a tabloid tabloid, the shocking true story. You won’t get anywhere else without the National Enquirer.

S5: I’ll be very happy to answer your questions and don’t worry about embarrassing me, because, you know, if your editor for that almost 25 or more years of the National Enquirer, you know, you have to develop a pretty thick skin.

S1: Ian Calder became a professional journalist at age 16. He’d worked at three different newspapers by the time he was 21. In the mid 1960s when he was 25. He started working for the National Enquirer, running its London bureau. He eventually rose to the top of the masthead as the right hand man of the Inquirer’s founder, Generosa Pope, an eccentric and inscrutable mogul of legendary stature. What was your impression of him, what kind of guy was he?

S5: Oh, my God, he was incredibly imposing. It was strange, but he was a genius in many ways, very, very confident, brusk. You could tell he wanted what he wanted. And if you didn’t give it to him, you were gone.

S6: Generosa Pope’s family were Italian American royalty, they had connections to powerful politicians and also to the Mafia in 1952 when Jean Pope decided to forge his own path by buying a rinky dink newspaper called The New York Enquirer, the money for the sale reportedly came from a Pope family friend who was a former mob boss. There’s the story that the Enquirer was started with money that came from the Mafia. Is that your understanding?

S7: Well, I don’t think it ever came from the Mafia. However, it came that part of it came from a mafia figure.

S1: It’s a subtle distinction in any case, Jeanne Pope’s New York Inquirer, under his energetic direction, grew steadily in the 1950s, climbing from a circulation of under 20000 to above 150000. But Pope wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to make a bigger splash one day out for a drive in his car. He was inspired to change.

S8: The paper’s focus is driving past an accident, a road accident. It looks pretty bad. And the cars are all stopping and rubbernecking suddenly hit them. People want me to get them. So he went into the gold period and the Gore period, as I remember one story they had where it was a horse that had been hit by a car while its head was on one side of the street and the body was in the other.

S7: And that was a big picture in the paper. And that was it got up to about 750000 circulation.

S3: The Gore period featured ghoulish photos and macabre stories. Mom Boyle’s baby alive, that kind of thing.

S1: It found an audience, but the market for Gore had a ceiling and circulation growth stalled out around a million. Jean Pope still wasn’t satisfied, so he revamped the paper again.

S3: In 1957, he changed the New York Enquirer to the National Enquirer. He dropped a lot of the gore and he shifted the coverage to human interest stories, medical oddities, diets and celebrity gossip, not gossip about happy celebrities like other magazines did at the time. Instead, the Enquirer specialized in celebrities going through hardships because that made them more relatable. The circulation client Ian Calder, who’d come on board during this time, says readers loved the new editorial mix.

S9: We make them happy. We’d make them angry. We’d make them sad. And that really nice, but give them an experience that they weren’t going to get anywhere else.

S3: In 1971. Pope moved the paper’s headquarters to Lantana, Florida, a small town where office space and overhead cost a fraction of what they had in New York. And he spent the money he saved on getting scoops. He spared no expense going after a story.

S9: If it was an exclusive, I could hire a jet plane without asking them and send six people on a story on an I’d put 20, 25 people on a story he wanted to win.

S8: Jim didn’t mind spending the money would go into debt if he could get the kind of stories that will sell the paper, he said.

S4: For every nickel we spend on editorial, we got a dime back to family and friends of Elvis Presley today paid their last respects to the rock and roll idol in 1977 when Elvis died.

S3: The Enquirer snapped an exclusive photo of the king in his coffin, making for an all time best selling cover story.

S10: Kathy Evelin Smith, a former backup rock singer, will plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and three lesser charges in the drug overdose death of comedian John Belushi in 1982.

S3: Enquirer reporter got the woman who’d been with John Belushi when he died to say that she’d killed him.

S1: An admission that ended up in court in 1994. The Enquirer found photos of O.J. Simpson wearing the pair of Bruno Mali shoes that left tracks at the murder scene, which led to his being found liable in a civil case.

S11: Do you ever buy shoes that you knew were on my shoes? No. But I know if Bruno Magli makes shoes that look like the shoes they have in court that’s involved in this case, I would have never won those ugly shoes if those were ugly issues. Yes.

S1: In each case, the Enquirer spent whatever it took to beat other outlets. And unlike those other outlets, it had no qualms about paying its sources, something no mainstream publication would do.

S5: When Elvis died, for instance, I had like 25 people took over the whole hotel, I mean, the whole of a hotel in Memphis. And I think at least two groups rent was 50000 dollars in cash and, you know, on a bank.

S1: But even more than its big scoops or its unorthodox reporting methods, it was the Enquirers distribution strategy that really sent its circulation booming for a long time. The Enquirer was dependent on newsstand sales. People walking down a busy city street would pass a newsstand, see a flashy cover photo or a lurid headline and plunk down their money.

S5: But people started moving to the suburbs and the 60s, certainly into the late 60s. So what happened was there were fewer people going past these newsstands.

S1: The circulation started going down the suburbs, had fewer pedestrians and no city slicker newsstands to walk by. Everybody was in cars. So how could you get the cover of the Enquirer in front of them?

S5: The pope came up with the idea saying, well, go to the people supermarket. Let’s go to the supermarket.

S3: The Enquirer beat almost every other national news outlet to the realization that a supermarket checkout aisle was an ideal newsstand. You have people waiting in line with nothing to do. This was before smartphones. So they’d start perusing headlines and before they knew it, they’d throw a copy of the Enquirer in with their milk and bread. Convincing the big supermarket chains to let the Enquirer invade the checkout aisle was a challenge. But Jean Pope tackled it in typical fashion by hiring a Hollywood star to show up at a conference of supermarket executives.

S9: A door opens at the site, and this very voluptuous woman walks in with an evening dress on very low cut and she smashes up towards the podium. But this time it’s all stopped. The chairman speaks talking. She walks up to him and says, Mr. Chairman, I just wanted to give you the latest copy of your National Enquirer. Now, everybody suddenly recognized it with Jane Mansfield, who is the second most famous blonde after Marilyn Monroe. I mean, she was huge at the time and the whole place erupted suddenly. Be quiet with the talk of the whole place.

S12: Once the Enquirer got the Go-Ahead from supermarkets, its plan was an immediate success.

S5: And what we did was we put up stand alone racks and said we guarantee these will sell 70 percent of the papers.

S3: And it was like 100 percent were sold out with all its own copies selling the Enquirer then realized it could add more pockets on its racks in sublet them to other publications.

S5: And as time went on, anybody wanted to be in the pocket to go to us. But we were the ones who designed the book and we were the ones that were the bagman for all the money and. Get this money from all these different companies and then we’d hand over collectedly to the supermarket, so we were like untouchable as far as the supermarket with its supermarket distribution strategy in place.

S1: The Enquirer rolled through the 1970s, the 80s and into the 90s with a massive paying audience selling four or five million copies a week, sometimes more. And it brought in big scoops. Probably the most consequential came in 1987 when the paper ran a photo of Democratic candidate Gary Hart aboard a motor yacht called Monkey Business, with his mistress sitting in his lap, which was curtains for Gary Hart’s presidential hopes.

S12: With its mixture of exclusive reporting, news of the bizarre and heartstring tugging features, the Enquirer seemed to have its finger on the pulse of middle America. And it got so much mail from its highly engaged readers that at one point its Florida headquarters were given their own zip code. Gene Pope died in 1988. The Enquirer successful run continued until it met a pair of obstacles it could not conquer. The first was the Internet. The second was David Pecker.

S2: It’s been a long time since they’ve had a scoop and it has had a long downward toboggan ride toward irrelevance.

S12: More on that when we come back.

S1: After Jeanne Pope died in 1988, his family sold the Enquirer for more than 400 million dollars. The new owners began to buy up the Enquirer as tabloid rivals The Star, The Globe and the National Examiner.

S2: So they had basically cornered the tabloid celebrity publication market, but unfortunately, at a time when that was becoming increasingly irrelevant.

S1: Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast says the Enquirer’s death spiral began with the advent of the Internet. The key distribution spot was no longer in supermarkets. It was on people’s computers and smartphones.

S13: They just never got a coherent strategy to deal with online news. 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.

S1: The Internet’s assault on the gossip industry came in two phases. Phase one 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 two came when those celebrities turned the tables.

S2: If people want to read about celebrities, 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.

S1: The Enquirer managed a few more scoops during the Internet era in 2006.

S10: Two years ago, I made a very serious mistake.

S1: Perhaps the biggest was in 2008, when it reported that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had fathered a love child with his campaign videographer. It was impossible to miss the echoes of the way the paper had brought down Gary Hart. And the way the paper got the story was old school Enquirer, too, after an editor there got a tip about Edwards, his 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.

S6: 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.

S10: So dozens of times you were together dozens of times. More intimate doesn’t. Many times.

S3: The Enquirer pursued the story aggressively paying McDougal 150000 dollars 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.

S10: You’re convinced now this was an effort to do a favor for Donald Trump in the last few months of the presidential race? Unfortunately, yes.

S1: Which brings us to the second thing that ruined the Enquirer. His name is David Pecker.

S2: 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. And basically, Packer is not a journalist. He has no journalistic expertise. He’s a marketing guy and an accountant. And he took that magazine and basically drove it into the ground.

S1: David Pecker was part of a group that bought the Inquirer in 1999, according to Lloyd Grove. This was, perhaps not coincidentally, the moment that Pekar suddenly became a person of great interest to Donald Trump.

S2: They formed an alliance and maybe a friendship 20 years ago. And Pekar would, you know, ride on Trump’s plane back and forth to Florida and hang out with a guy and then boast about it to his employees.

S1: 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 in the Enquirer, though, it’s much less clear what the upside of this was.

S13: If you talk to veterans of the Enquirer, the weaponization of the publication to benefit Donald Trump’s campaign and trash all his opponents was very, very bad for the publication Ian Calder, who’d left the Enquirer around the time the family sold it, watch from afar with puzzlement.

S5: The Trump kick that struck me as very strange. Why alienate, you know, potentially half of your audience?

S1: 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.

S5: You’d never have known who the Enquirer was for or against we for or against anybody.

S12: After Pekar buried the story about Trump’s infidelity with the Playboy model and another story involving a porn star named Stormy Daniels, Pekar 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, Pekar got himself into a high profile standoff with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Bezos accused Packer and the Enquirer of trying to blackmail him with nude pictures. He’s also called them below the belt selfies that the Enquirer had somehow obtained.

S14: 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, who is the heir to the Hudson news chain.

S12: Cohen was reportedly planning to pay 100 hundred million dollars for the Enquirer, but that purchase never actually happened.

S14: Lloyd Grove says he suspects the whole thing was a red herring.

S13: I don’t think Jimmy Cohen ever wanted nor intended to spend 100 hundred million dollars on a failing journalistic property, I think he did it as a favor to his friend David Pecker, as a sort of a stopgap measure to at least buy some time while Pekar figured out how he was going to save his business.

S15: Pekar never did save the business. He just presided over its demise, which was accelerated when the covid pandemic decimated foot traffic at American supermarkets, which were still the Enquirer’s main point of distribution. In August, Pekar was transitioned out of his CEO role and as Lloyd Grove puts it, was put out to pasture. The Inquirer itself might not be far behind.

S16: So the circulation plunged from over four million weekly to around 100000 today, it’s to the point now where it’s losing money hand over fist. The parent company was merged into another company that sells covid-19 masks and hand sanitizer. So it’s a sad story and people don’t hold out much hope that the Enquirer will last much longer.

S14: Is the Enquirer actually doing like promotional stories about these hand sanitizer prints?

S16: Funny you should mention that before the sale of EMI was announced, 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.

S15: Maybe the Enquirer will devolve into a hand sanitizer and face mask catalog, or maybe it will rise again one day, revived in some new form under new management. Perhaps celebrities and politicians will come to fear it again. Until then, it’s like one of those strange human interest stories that used to run in its pages. A tale too wild to believe. It turned out the National Enquirer was the last thing David Pecker managed to catch and kill. That’s our show for today. This episode was produced by Jess Miller with help from Cleo Levin and Atia Solutia, technical direction from Merritt. Jacob Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. If you like this show, one simple way to support us is to just subscribe. Go ahead and push that button in your favorite podcast app. If you haven’t already, you can also rate and reviews on Apple podcasts. Thanks so much for listening. Next week on the show, when bad behavior starts to hit your bottom line, when their representative asks, can I ask why you’re deciding to close this account?

S17: I said, Well, I’m just tired of banking with a bank that’s constantly in the news for scandalous practices. And I don’t want to put my money in a place that actively discriminates against black people like me.

S15: That’s next week on Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.