NEW YORK — The parent company of magazines including the National Enquirer, Us Weekly and In Touch has admitted to engaging in a journalistically dubious practice known as “catch-and-kill” in order to help Donald Trump become president.
Federal prosecutors revealed Wednesday they had agreed not to prosecute American Media Inc. for secretly assisting Trump’s campaign by paying $150,000 to Playboy model Karen McDougal for the rights to her story about an alleged affair with Trump. The company then intentionally suppressed McDougal’s story until after the election.
Wednesday’s development brought fresh attention to “catch-and-kill,” in which a publication pays for exclusive rights to someone’s story with no intention of publishing it, either as a favour to a celebrity subject or to gain leverage over that person.
Media organizations have a right not to run stories, but AMI acknowledged that its payments to McDougal were done specifically to assist Trump’s election bid and were made “in concert” with his campaign. Prosecutors said that makes the payment an illegal corporate campaign contribution. Prosecutors announced their non-co-operation agreement with AMI the same day that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for crimes including helping to orchestrate the McDougal payoff.
The non-prosecution agreement also requires AMI to train employees on federal election law standards and hire a lawyer to consult regarding any future payments “to acquire stories involving individuals running for office.”
The Associated Press has reported that AMI kept a safe that stored documents on hush-money payments to McDougal and other damaging stories it killed as part of its relationship with Trump, who is longtime friends with the company’s president, David Pecker.
The company, in keeping such secrets, ingratiated itself with celebrities and used the information to ask for favours in return.
Former National Enquirer employees told The Associated Press that damaging stories about Trump were deemed dead on arrival at the tabloid dating back to when Trump starred on NBC’s “The Apprentice.”
The president has denied the affairs and said the payments were “a simple private transaction,” not a campaign contribution.
According to AMI’s statement to prosecutors, Pecker approached Trump in August 2015 with an offer “to help deal with negative stories” about his relationships with women by identifying such stories “so they could be purchased and their publication avoided.”
AMI declined to comment Wednesday. It had previously denied killing stories for anything other than journalistic reasons.
Jim Mustian, The Associated Press