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The tabloid coverage of a case about a tabloid

Tabloid stories don’t get any better: Manhattan real estate developer has an affair with a porn star shortly after his wife has had a baby. He pays hush money to keep the whole thing quiet, is ratted out by his lawyer, then is indicted for covering it up. If only we weren’t talking about the former president of the United States.

Donald Trump has a knack for befouling most everything he touches. The scene in lower Manhattan this week was a vivid reminder of that. It was also a moment of diminishment for the press that covered it, returning us to the worst media moments of 2016, with the live shots of Trump’s branded airplane or rally of sycophants. And both the coverage and the substance of the case against Trump were a throwback to his decades of manipulation of the tabloid press, especially in New York City.

Reporters in New York cling to the notion that they gave Trump as much as they got from him, but that’s an optimistic view. The truth is that many of his shell-game business tactics, his retrograde—even racist—politics, and his lewd behavior were open secrets in New York media for years, but were ignored by reporters who needed Trump for airtime and copy. Lloyd Grove covered Trump as a gossip columnist for the Daily News, then as a reporter for the Washington Post and the Daily Beast. In 2017, Grove wrote for CJR about his experience, and how it was reflected in the wider media coverage of the 2016 election. Grove’s piece is worth re-reading today, as a reminder of how expert Trump is at manipulating the profession that is supposed to serve as his watchdog. “Through a combination of ego, ruthless energy, laser-like focus, utter availability, and even charm, he controlled the narrative about himself for the better part of four decades—especially in the New York tabloids, of which I was a part—and turned his name into a valuable commodity,” Grove wrote.

Grove tells, for example, the story of how Linda Stasi, a former gossip writer for Newsday and the Daily News, was sent—on pain of losing her job—to get an exclusive from the Florida hospital where Marla Maples, Trump’s then-wife, was giving birth in 1993:

Stasi called Trump, who, after she begged and said she would lose her job otherwise, agreed to let her into Maples’s hospital room.

“I know it’s insane, but he let me into her room right after the baby was born. Marla’s reaction was, ‘What is she doing here?’ And Trump said, ‘Well, she’ll get fired if she can’t be here.’ And I said, ‘Can I take a picture of the baby?’—because I’d brought a photographer who was waiting outside. And Marla said no. And Trump said, ‘What if I just take this blanket and pretend I’m holding the baby?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ ”

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Of course, the fascination ran the other way, too. A.J. Benza—a former Daily News gossip columnist who once fought with Trump on Howard Stern’s radio show after Trump called in to brag that he had “stolen” Benza’s girlfriend—told Grove:

“He doesn’t check his pulse to see if he’s alive. He checks the papers and the internet so he can know that he exists. He’s been in a battle with the media his whole life, but opportunistically, we were there to get him where he wanted to go. We’re complicit with him being president right now. Don’t you agree?”

Trump continues to lure reporters in, continues to cut corners, continues to treat national affairs as a tabloid story—not least in the run-up to, and during, his arraignment. There were serious storylines that unfolded inside and outside the courthouse this week, and those weren’t ignored. (The press and legal pundits still can’t seem to decide whether Alvin Bragg, the district attorney in the case, nailed the indictment or whiffed.) But the far more prevalent storyline was the circus itself, which played into Trump’s argument that the indictment was a stunt. Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be more reporters than protestors outside the courthouse. The Naked Cowboy, of Times Square fame, was there, too. Hilarious. Except that we are nearing yet another epochal election and the prospect that a major-party nominee could be in the middle of criminal proceedings as it unfolds. Things can get unfunny fast. Politics is not a tabloid world.

Or at least, it shouldn’t be: the substance of the case against Trump involves serious claims about the suppression of newsworthy information during an election, with the complicity of a tabloid. According to Bragg’s indictment, shortly after Trump announced that he was running for president in 2015, David Pecker, then the chief executive of the publisher of the National Enquirer, “agreed to help with the Defendant’s campaign, saying that he would act as the ‘eyes and ears’ for the campaign by looking out for negative stories about the Defendant and alerting Lawyer A before the stories were published.” (“Lawyer A” here is Michael Cohen.) During the campaign, leaders at the Enquirer paid to hush up two potentially embarrassing stories about Trump—a practice known as “catch and kill”—and knew about another such deal, though it was Cohen who principally orchestrated it. According to Bragg, Pecker also vowed to “publish negative stories about the Defendant’s competitors for the election.”

In a 2019 piece for CJR, Simon V.Z. Wood wrote about what happened to the National Enquirer after it went all in for Trump. “There’s a temptation, in a story like this, to write about the sorry ‘TMZ-ification’ of American media. About how a gossip rag like the Enquirer laid the groundwork for the rise of fake news and a mendacious president,” Wood wrote. “But the real shame is that, in the Trump era, the Enquirer strayed from its underappreciated penchant for muckraking.”

Mainstream reporters tend to look down on their tabloid colleagues. They would certainly never engage in catch-and-kill schemes like the one outlined in Wood’s piece and, now, Bragg’s indictment. But in a broader sense, tabloid sensibilities touch us all. How different, really, are tabloid journalists from the cable-news anchors who were forced to keep riffing this week over video of Trump’s motorcade stuck in traffic in lower Manhattan? You can read Wood’s piece here and Grove’s piece here.

Some news from the home front:
To better understand the challenges journalists face in  covering our current politics, CJR and Columbia Journalism School are convening a two-day event—Faultines:Democracy—on April 25-26. Join us—along with some of the world’s top journalists, historians, and academics—for a series of conversations about the threat to democracy and the media’s role in covering it. You can find more information here

And, take a new look at CJR’s homepage today, at We’ve redesigned it to better showcase our work. We hope you like it as much as we do.

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

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