[…] The Enquirer is defined by its predatory spirit—its dedication to revealing that celebrities, far from leading ideal lives, endure the same plagues of disease, weight gain, and family dysfunction that afflict everyone else. For much of the tabloid’s history, it has specialized in investigations into the foibles of public personalities, including politicians. In 1987, the Enquirer published a photograph of Senator Gary Hart with his mistress Donna Rice, in front of a boat called the Monkey Business, which doomed Hart’s Presidential candidacy. Two decades later, the magazine broke the news that John Edwards had fathered a child out of wedlock during his Presidential race. When Donald Trump decided to run for President, some people at the Enquirer assumed that the magazine would apply the same scrutiny to the candidate’s colorful personal history. “We used to go after newsmakers no matter what side they were on,” a former Enquirer staffer told me. “And Trump is a guy who is running for President with a closet full of baggage. He’s the ultimate target-rich environment. The Enquirer had a golden opportunity, and they completely looked the other way.”
Throughout the 2016 Presidential race, the Enquirer embraced Trump with sycophantic fervor. The magazine made its first political endorsement ever, of Trump, last spring. Cover headlines promised, “donald trump’s revenge on hillary & her puppets” and “top secret plan inside: how trump will win debate!” The publication trashed Trump’s rivals, running a dubious cover story on Ted Cruz that described him as a philanderer and another highly questionable piece that linked Cruz’s father to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
It was even tougher on Hillary Clinton, regularly printing such headlines as “ ‘sociopath’ hillary clinton’s secret psych files exposed!” A 2015 piece began, “Failing health and a deadly thirst for power are driving Hillary Clintonto an early grave, The National Enquirer has learned in a bombshell investigation. The desperate and deteriorating 67-year-old won’t make it to the White House—because she’ll be dead in six months.” On election eve, the Enquirer offered a special nine-page investigation under the headline “hillary: corrupt! racist! criminal!” This blatantly skewed coverage continued after Trump took office. Post-election cover stories included “trump takes charge! success in just 36 days!” and “proof obama wiretapped trump! lies, leaks & illegal bugging.”
Pecker and Trump have been friends for decades—their professional and personal lives have intersected in myriad ways—and Pecker acknowledges that his tabloids’ coverage of Trump has a personal dimension. All Presidents seek to influence the media, but Trump enjoys unusual advantages in this regard. He is also in close contact with Rupert Murdoch, whose empire includes Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. (While the Times and the Washington Post have produced repeated scoops about Trump and Russia, the Journal, which employs a large investigative staff, has largely been silent on the issue.) Unlike Murdoch, Pecker heads a fading and vaguely comic archetype of Americana; sales of the Enquirer are down ninety per cent from their peak in 1970. But the impact of the tabloids, particularly their covers, remains substantial. A.M.I. claims that a hundred million people see the Enquirer in more than two hundred thousand checkout lines around the country every week. And the Enquirer’s covers invariably include statements about celebrities that are deeply misleading, if libel-law-compliant, as well as claims about politicians that are outright lies.
Pecker is now considering expanding his business: he may bid to take over the financially strapped magazines of Time, Inc., which include Time, People, and Fortune. Based on his stewardship of his own publications, Pecker would almost certainly direct those magazines, and the journalists who work for them, to advance the interests of the President and to damage those of his opponents—which makes the story of the Enquirer and its chief executive a little more important and a little less funny.