On Wednesday, the tabloid publisher AMI signed a non-prosecution agreement with prosecutors in New York, admitting that the company had paid the former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 as part of a “catch and kill” deal—AMI never intended to publish her account of an affair with Donald Trump—with the Trump campaign.
In broad strokes, the public has known most of that story for some time now. The Wall Street Journal reported the general outline days before the 2016 election. The close relationship between Trump and AMI CEO David Pecker was known even before that—coming into focus when AMI’s National Enquirer ran a bogus story claiming that Rafael Cruz, the father of Trump’s GOP-primary rival Ted Cruz, was somehow involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination.
The big news in the agreement is legal. First, as my colleague Adam Serwer notes, AMI acknowledged that it bought McDougal’s story “to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.” That phrase conflicts with Trump’s claim (well, his latest claim, after long denying any knowledge at all) that the agreement was private and unrelated to politics. Prosecutors believe that it was related to politics and that Trump violated campaign-finance law. The agreement also suggests that AMI is working with prosecutors on issues not related to the McDougal payoff.
Only AMI and prosecutors know what that might entail, but it’s clear that Pecker’s assistance to Trump did not end with the catch-and-kill, or even with the outlandish Cruz story. As Quartz’s Heather Timmons documented a few months ago, the National Enquirer and its sister publication the Globe ran 35 covers with anti–Hillary Clinton stories. It’s worth considering whether these stories helped decide the outcome of the election.
The anti-Clinton stories ran the gamut from the false but vaguely plausible (“Hillary Failed Secret FBI Lie Detector!”) to workaday, equally bogus conspiracy theories (“Hillary: Six Months to Live!”) to the completely batty (“Hillary Gains 103 Lbs!” as though the public wouldn’t notice if that had happened, and “Hillary Hitman Tells All.”)
It’s very easy to dismiss the supermarket tabloids, to say they’re not well read or they’re obviously bogus. Jack Shafer, who dubbed the National Enquirer “Pravda on the Checkout Line” in a deep dive in 2017, explained why dismissing the audience is wrong, even though subscriptions have tumbled from nearly 6 million in the 1970s to the mid-300,000s now:
There are 37,000 supermarkets in America, with an average of about 10 checkout stands each, and many stands feature a wire rack displaying the Enquirer, the Globe, often the company’s other tab, the National Examiner, and celebrity magazines. According to an industry study, American households make an average of 1.5 trips to the supermarket each week.
Or as the eminent media scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson told me, “You don’t plan to see the National Enquirer. You go to the supermarket checkout, you’re waiting in a long line, and it’s there. You at least read the front page because once you learn to read, you can’t help it.” The result, said Jamieson, who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is that “the number of people who are exposed to it who don’t subscribe is extraordinarily high.”
Of course, one might retort that while lots of people see the Enquirer, they also know that it’s, well, a supermarket tabloid, and everyone knows it’s false—the original fake news, long before the internet or Russian trolls. But Jamieson notes that studies show that sustained exposure to even information people consciously recognize as bogus can have an effect.
“Even as we look at extreme content and say, ‘That’s ridiculous, I dismiss that,’ it changes our sense of where the middle of the distribution of the content is,” she says. “It pushes open our acceptance of extreme content.”
Beyond that, many of the stories in the National Enquirer echoed, or inspired, conspiracy theories that circulated online, creating even more familiarity and exposure.
Jamieson says the fade of tabloids might have actually made them more likely to penetrate. Many supermarkets have slimmed down their tabloid offerings in favor of more legitimate magazines, from O, The Oprah Magazine to Good Housekeeping.
“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.
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.
But even if AMI was acting in coordination with the Trump campaign, it probably wouldn’t violate the law, says Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center. The law grants an exemption for outlets working within their “legitimate press function,” which would include even the National Enquirer’s trademark hogwash. Publishing attack stories on Clinton doesn’t withhold useful facts from the public. Besides, news outlets coordinate with campaigns all the time, either with the offer (implicit or explicit) of a friendly interview or to accept opposition research that turns into good stories.
“Media companies are given broad leeway to talk about candidates, attack or support candidates, and they’re not brought within the ambit of campaign-finance law unless they are found to not be acting as a press entity within its legitimate press function,” Fischer says.
Whatever the reasons for AMI’s decisions, the company is no longer boosting Trump. As Brian Stelter reported on Wednesday, Clinton vanished from its covers in 2017. And then this spring, shortly after the FBI raided Michael Cohen’s office, Trump quickly vanished from the covers and pages of the National Enquirer as well.