The approval of AT&T’s $85 billion purchase of Time Warner – the home of Warner Bros movie studio, HBO and CNN – dwarfed a far smaller media deal also announced last week. That deal barely registered, though its impact could outweigh its size.
The deal, for an undisclosed price, involved Bauer Media’s sale of 13 gossip and celebrity magazines to American Media Inc.
The transaction, involving underperforming titles in a shrinking marketplace, would be unremarkable were it not to involve David Pecker, 65, a brash, Bronx-born publishing mogul best known for his close friendship with President Donald Trump.
Mr Pecker has been accused of using his publications to kill stories damaging to Mr Trump, working with Mr Trump’s “fixer,” attorney Michael Cohen, to pay off individuals who think they’re selling their stories for publication, only to find their tales entombed in American Media’s files.
In the past few months, publications from The New York Times to the New Yorker have been filled with tales of Mr Pecker’s unseemly service to Mr Trump.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, for example, Mr Pecker is said to have used one of his supermarket tabloids, the National Enquirer, buy up and then bury Playboy model Karen McDougal’s account of an earlier affair with Mr Trump. (She has since been freed of her non-disclosure agreement and is free to talk.)
Just where the $150,000 payment came from remains unclear, though an answer may be found in the files of Mr Cohen, whose records are now in the hands of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.
Similar accounts of “catch and kill” have been made against Mr Pecker involving a former Trump Tower doorman, who was paid $30,000 for his account of a reputed Trump love child.
Mr Pecker has also cashed in on his closeness to Mr Trump, forging relationships with Saudi royals eager to curry favour with the White House. He also been accused of trying to help disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein dig up dirt on his accusers, allegedly using his Australian-born editorial director, Dylan Howard, as his go-between.
With these purchases from the German-based Bauer, Mr Pecker now controls almost the entire celebrity/gossip magazine category in the United States, a suite of magazines and websites ranging from the bawdy and venerable Enquirer to more upmarket (if journalistically dubious) titles like Us Weekly and In Touch. The only titles beyond his grasp are People (which I edited for eight years) and the website/TV show TMZ.
I’ve never been one to unduly fear media concentration. I worked for People’s publisher, Time Inc, then part of Time Warner, for 16 years, and never felt any corporate pressure to say or not say anything. But in this case, having so many titles in the hands of one company, and one man, is cause for worry.
Mr Pecker has repeatedly used his brands as a cudgel on behalf of his friend Trump.
He has peddled false stories about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama without any regard for the facts. That’s regrettable if it’s one or two publications. But now he has control of 13 different magazines with an estimated readership of 38 million, a virtual monopoly on the eyeballs of supermarket and Walmart shoppers. What’s to stop him from using those titles from launching unfounded attacks on Mr Trump’s political foes, his Hollywood critics, unwanted immigrants?
The celebrity magazine sector, regrettably, has never been a place to celebrate journalistic probity and ethics. Despite the recent investigations into Mr Pecker’s past tactics, most mainstream media still find it hard to take the tabloid/celebrity sector seriously.
It’s precisely that squeamishness that’s allowed Mr Pecker to behave so cavalierly. His track record suggests he’ll continue to do as he wishes with only occasional and muted blowback. Expectations are low, and Mr Pecker seems sure to meet them.
I can imagine Mr Trump saying that Mr Pecker’s work on his behalf is merely levelling the playing field against the “fake media”. And many Americans will believe that.
As the US heads into this year’s mid-term elections and then the next presidential race, I’m betting these once-dismissed titles best known for covering the Kardashians will become a new front in Mr Trump’s war against established media, with results we can yet determine.
It’s time the established media hold Mr Pecker and AMI to the same standards it used to analyse last week’s other media megadeal, whose consequences may seem more benign in retrospect.