“We consume, even in inadvertent exposure, in context,” she says. “If you see you’ve got Prevention and it’s next to this, there is a kind of legitimacy, versus ‘Elvis Reappears in Tulsa.’”
Finally, the tabloids use photos—which require less intellectual investment and tend to be taken as more legitimate, even if they turn out to be altered.
It helps that for all of its bogus content, National Enquirer occasionally commits real acts of journalism—most notably breaking the story of the former presidential candidate and Senator John Edwards’s extramarital affair. Trump was quick to mention that, wondering on the campaign trail in the summer of 2016 why the tabloid hadn’t picked up a Pulitzer for that effort.
And Clinton played into AMI’s hands. The tabloids had been saying for months that Clinton’s health was failing. Then, on September 11, 2016, she appeared to faint at a 9/11 commemoration ceremony. It turned out that she was suffering from pneumonia. The episode, and the appearance that the campaign had tried to cover up her illness, gave the National Enquirer rumors an aura of accuracy.
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Trying to handle the onslaught of conspiracy theories proved a challenge for the Clinton campaign, which found itself battling not only Trump’s facts and spin but also a robust market in conspiracy theories. Ignore the theories and they let them fester; respond and they dignified them.
“You can’t swing at every pitch, but at some point you have to take the bat off your shoulder,” says Jesse Ferguson, who worked on the Clinton press team. “You don’t want to promote each conspiracy theory they’re peddling, but at a certain point the cumulative impact reaches a point that requires you to dispel it.”
Quantifying the impact of tabloids is probably impossible. Jamieson has toyed with the question, but concluded that since so much of the impact comes through inadvertent, subconscious exposure, it’s effectively unmeasurable. But the anti-Clinton stories probably had some effect.
“The National Enquirer has been pushing conspiracy theories for decades, but typically the National Enquirer pushes conspiracy theories to boost their revenues,” Ferguson says. “In this case, it was to boost their ally. That’s what changed. It was no longer just profit making. It became presidency making.”
During the presidential campaign, AMI’s Pecker insisted that the editorial slant was just about business. When a rumor circulated that Trump had promised Pecker an ambassadorship, he denied it to the New York Post.
“The pro-Trump and anti-Hillary covers have seen newsstand sales pop 23 percent,” Pecker said. “That is the only poll data that I care about.”
Perhaps that was true. But AMI has dissembled about its relationship with Trump, including long denying any catch-and-kill agreement. What if it was lying about this as well? If Pecker simply decided to torch Clinton on his tabloids’ pages because he thought his old friend Donald Trump would be a better president than Clinton, he’d be clearly on the right side of the law.