Prosecutors say David Pecker was instrumental in burying the stories of two women who say they had affairs with Donald Trump before the 2016 election. The CEO of AMI, publisher of the National Enquirer and Globe supermarket tabloids, also did a great service for Trump by printing wild stories about his opponents—while spiking a few about him.
Here’s a look at how 35 covers built an over-the-top narrative of the dangers of a Hillary Clinton presidency and the benefits of a Trump one. Could decent Americans vote for a lying, dying, criminally minded candidate? Enquiring minds in checkout aisles across the US were told there was little reason to doubt Trump was the right choice.
They didn’t even have to buy a single copy to get the message.
The Enquirer’s screamers of the week
The Enquirer spent many weeks in the months in the run-up to the 2016 election bashing Clinton. She had everything from lung cancer to a husband with a teen sex ring, as Politico’s Jack Schafer detailed in an in-depth article after the election. The strategy had “all the hallmarks of classic propaganda,” he wrote, including publishing “wild story after wild story that ‘entertains, confuses, and overwhelms the audience,’ ” just like the Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” model.
The tabloid’s coverage trashed Clinton for weight gain, claimed that she had six months to live, and asserted she had blackmailed the FBI, as this compilation of 18 covers—courtesy of Politico—shows:
The weeklies also featured fawning coverage of Trump, promising to reveal the “Trump Nobody Knows!” while also explaining “How Trump Will Win Debate!” and spreading lies about his Republican rival Ted Cruz:
With its circulation reportedly down to less than 300,000, the National Enquirer doesn’t, technically, reach all that many US households. Its ubiquity in supermarket checkout lines—where even if shoppers don’t buy it, they can’t escape seeing the headlines—makes it highly visible.
David Pecker’s well-tested strategy
Back when Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for the governor of California in 2003, Pecker’s media empire, which also includes The Star and the Weekly World News, took a similar tack, Ann Louise Bardach explained in Los Angeles magazine in 2004.
Accusations of Schwarzenegger’s extramarital affairs had been fodder for tabloids in the past. As Schwarzenegger entered the race, Pecker commissioned “a series of brown-nosing stories on Arnold,” one former staffer told Bardach. In August, The Star ran a story “headlined ‘Vote Schwarzenegger!’ and accompanied by a half-dozen flattering snapshots,” she writes:
No more stories about Arnold’s two-hour weekly sessions with his hair colorist to keep the gray out of his hair and eyebrows. No more unflattering photos of his taut face. No more telephoto shots of Arnold and Maria looking less than fit or arguing on a street corner. Instead, The Star followed up with another tribute to “Arnold and Maria’s Family Life” and “Arnold: A New American Patriot,” in which he was likened to George Washington. In September 2003, AMI published a 120-page glossy special edition titled Arnold, the American Dream. It was sold on newsstands for $4.95, with the cover line “Camelot’s Future.” To complete the coronation, Weekly World News ran its own “exclusive”—“Alien Backs Arnold for Governor.”
AMI, aiming to suppress an embarrassing video, paid $2,000 in 2003 for the rights to a tape showing Schwarzenegger “grabbing a scantily clad woman and making other sexually suggestive gestures,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2005. At the time, Pecker was negotiating with Schwarzenegger to become executive editor of two fitness magazines AMI owned, for which he would receive a portion of the advertising revenue. The former bodybuilding champion signed the deal two days before he sworn into office. (Schwarzenegger cancelled his contract with AMI after it became public.)
In 2013, the former governor renewed his relationship with AMI, becoming executive editor of Muscle & Fitness and Flex once again.