The National Enquirer’s pending break from Trumpworld

Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House has had several bizarre side effects. The central political relevance of The National Enquirer, a bottom-of-the-barrel celebrity gossip rag, is one of them. The Enquirer has dallied in politics before: in 2007, it exposed that John Edwards, a Democratic presidential candidate, was having an affair. But it’s taken Trump to make the tabloid an enduring subject of Washington intrigue, a node in headlines about illegal “hush money” payments, sweeping investigations into presidential impropriety, alleged Saudi spying on a US billionaire, and more.

The Enquirer’s improbable relevance may be about to end. Its chief tie to Trumpworld has been David Pecker—the chairman and CEO of the magazine’s owner, American Media Inc. This week, The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison and Marc Fisher reported that AMI is ready to offload the Enquirer. A sale has been in the works since last summer, when AMI and two of its top executives finalized a cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors over the Enquirer’s role, during the 2016 campaign, in buying, then killing, a story about Trump’s affair with a former Playboy model. According to the Post, AMI’s board wanted rid of the “hassles” that come with Enquirer ownership.

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More recently, Anthony Melchiorre, the hedge-fund manager who controls AMI, added reason to sell. Melchiorre was reportedly “disgusted” by tactics that the Enquirer had used to break a story about Jeff Bezos—who owns the Post and Amazon—revealing his affair. That story blew up when Bezos, in a Medium post, suggested that publishing the story was politically motivated (Trump hates Bezos). AMI later said that Michael Sanchez, the brother of Bezos’s love interest, was the Enquirer’s source; Gavin de Becker, the security expert Bezos hired to investigate the matter, insists that Saudi Arabia hacked his client’s phone. (Bezos is apparently meeting with federal prosecutors about this, though no clear evidence has been made public.) Confused? Same.

Who would want to inherit this mess? Yesterday, Edmund Lee and Andrew Ross Sorkin, of The New York Times, reported that Ron Burkle, who made his fortune trading supermarkets in California and buying distressed companies, has been in talks to take on the Enquirer. (Given the Enquirer’s present political leanings, Burkle’s past ties to Bill Clinton raised eyebrows.) Lee and Sorkin cautioned that the deal could collapse; after their story published, Burkle dismissed it, asserting, through a spokesperson, that he’s not interested in the Enquirer. According to Lee and Sorkin, Burkle’s team was upset that its talks with AMI had been made public. AMI is keen to press ahead. By the end of yesterday, however, rumors were circulating about alternative suitors: The New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly namechecked Paul Pope, the son of the Enquirer’s founder; James Cohen, CEO of Hudson News; and—surely you saw this one coming—Bezos. (A source close to AMI called the Bezos speculation “idiotic.”)

Amid the political headwinds that have buffeted AMI and the Enquirer, it would be easy to overlook the financial aspect. The Washington Post reported that AMI has a recent history of financial woes, and that the Enquirer’s sales figures are not what they once were—since 2014, they’ve fallen by more than half. Kelly, at the New York Post, is expecting “a fire sale, far below earlier deals.” Once the “money-losing tabloids” are gone, he points out, AMI will still have Us Weekly, Men’s Journal, In Touch, and other magazines in its stable.

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The Enquirer’s centrality to our politics has been a fleeting historical quirk. Money troubles are perennial; so, too, is the Enquirer’s central function as a purveyor of cheap sleaze. Its pending disentanglement from Trumpworld probably won’t change that. But it might mean that we can soon forget about it.

Below, more on The National Enquirer and its potential buyers:

  • The Young Pope: According to Kelly, Paul Pope is the only Enquirer suitor to have gone public with his intentions. Pope “has hoped to one day regain control ever since the Pope estate sold it in 1989 for $412.5 million” and “has blasted the management style of Pecker for injecting a political agenda into its coverage,” Kelly reports. (Pope is estranged from his immediate family.)
  • Burkle up: In 2012, Connie Bruck profiled Burkle for The New Yorker. After Bill Clinton left his orbit, in 2010, Burkle “finally went public with a bid to enter the movie business, working with Harvey and Bob Weinstein,” Bruck reported. “Weinstein brought Burkle along to the Sundance festival, and announced that they were partners in the purchase of several movies. They have since worked together on a half-dozen films.”
  • Aftershocks: The Washington Post’s James Hohmann writes that four of yesterday’s big stories—the pending sale of the Enquirer; the arrest of Julian Assange; the retirement of Maryanne Trump Barry, Trump’s sister, as a federal judge; and the indictment, in connection with the Mueller probe, of Greg Craig, a counsel in the Obama White House—can all be viewed as “aftershocks” of the 2016 election.
  • “Revealed!”: Last week, MSNBC’s Headliners broadcast a documentary on the Enquirer’s history of bending the rules. You can catch clips here.

Other notable stories:

  • Shortly after Assange’s arrest yesterday, news broke that the US government is charging him not under the Espionage Act, but under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: prosecutors allege that he assisted Chelsea Manning’s efforts to hack classified computer systems. (By this point, Manning had already started to download information.) Debates raged all day. Is Assange really a journalist? (No, said Tim O’Brien.) Would his prosecution under the law in question really threaten journalism? (Yes, said Margaret Sullivan.) Will further charges follow—CNN says they will—and if so, on what grounds? For CJR, Sam Thielman lines up the “righteous scumbags” the First Amendment has required us to defend.
  • Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo checks in with staffers at the LA Times, which is undergoing a revival under Patrick Soon-Shiong, its new owner, after years of Tribune/tronc turbulence. “At the same time, there’s been a cloud hanging over Soon-Shiong’s rescue operation,” Pompeo writes. Protracted union negotiations at the paper have held up salary increases for rank-and-file employees.
  • Yesterday, The New York Times’s opinion section launched what it’s calling The Privacy Project, a long-term initiative exploring the disputed boundaries of our privacy. As part of the package, A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, reflects on the paper’s monetization of reader data. Sulzberger says that the Times is more careful with this data than many of its rivals; nonetheless, he acknowledges, “we aspire to more than simply being better than average in a digital ecosystem that is in obvious need of reform.”
  • For CJR, Martin Goillandeau and Makana Eyre report on a new plugin—launched by the cofounder of Gab, a far-right social network—that allows anyone to comment on any page on the internet. One user compared the plugin to “graffiti painted in the alley on every web page. You can take a look around and see what passersby are saying.”
  • The New York Post drew rebukes for yesterday’s front-page attack on Ilhan Omar, the freshman Democratic representative from Minnesota. Channeling right-wing claims that Omar minimized 9/11—in a speech last month, she said “some people did something”—the Post ran a full-page photo of the collapsing towers with the headline, “Here’s your something: 2,977 people dead by terrorism.” As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explains, Omar’s remarks were taken out of context.
  • For Stars and Stripes, Kim Gamel reports that food courts, malls, and other common areas at US bases around the world will no longer show TV news channels “due to their divisive political nature.” This week, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which oversees retail services at military installations, ordered facility managers to play sports programming instead.
  • Following a disputed election late last month, authorities in the Comoros, an Indian Ocean archipelago off the east coast of Africa, detained a prominent editor, and seized copies of his newspaper and two other titles, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
  • And on Galley, CJR’s discussion forum, Peter Sterne, the former head of the US Press Freedom Tracker, is seeking input on a piece he’s writing for CJR about prior restraint, which occurs when the government preemptively blocks the publication of information by a news outlet or other third party. US media enjoy broad protection against prior restraint, but that’s not the case in other countries. You can weigh in here.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.