The real fake news
Besides seeking the truth and verifying it, the most important function of journalism is independence.
Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover. Why? Because freedom of the press, which is guaranteed in the U.S. and Canadian constitutions, exists primarily so that journalists can serve as independent monitors of power. Their scrutiny ensures that our leaders are always working for us, rather than the other way around.
If the news media are beholden to advertisers, or shareholders, or presidents, they cannot do that essential job for democracy and they cannot be trusted. And if they cannot be trusted, there is no one else around qualified to perform the job.
That is why the latest revelations about President Donald Trump’s friends are so disturbing.
One of them is David Pecker. He is the chairman and CEO of American Media and publisher of most of the salacious celebrity gossip magazines you see at supermarket check-out lanes. We’d like to believe no one reads the National Enquirer, Star, Sun, Weekly World News and Globe, but they do. Millions every week.
He's also on the board of directors of Postmedia--something Canada's largest newspaper chain should think twice about.
Pecker and AMI have been under U.S. federal investigation for using so-called "catch and kill" payments in which AMI would buy exclusive rights to stories that might have damaged or derailed Trump's 2016 campaign for president. The “kill” part of the transaction was that AMI never printed them. In other words, a publisher was so in thrall to the candidacy of his best friend that he buried news that would certainly hurt or destroy him.
That’s not journalism. It’s hush money. It’s covering up the truth. It might also be illegal, the sort of "in-kind" campaign donations that are banned under Federal Election Commission rules.
The stories in this case were about Trump’s alleged affairs with stripper Stormy Daniels and former Playmate-of-the-year Karen McDougal. Trump has denied having affairs with them even though he acknowledges paying Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about it, and found out later that his team had paid AMI to buy McDougal’s story for $150,000, providing it would never see the light of day.
This week, when Trump’s one-time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, turned on the president and pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and making illegal campaign donations, we found out shameful details about that betrayal of journalism.
Speaking in court on Tuesday, Cohen said he arranged the payments “in coordination with, and at the direction of, a candidate for federal office.”
Meaning Donald J. Trump.
You know, the guy who often complains about “fake news” and reporters who try to make him look bad.
For the first time, prosecutors spelled out the role Pecker and AMI played in deals to buy the silence of both Daniels and McDougal. The New York Times quoted evidence showing that as early as August 2015, Pecker agreed to turn the organization’s tip line into a trip wire that could detect potential trouble for presidential candidate Trump. Pecker agreed to “help deal with negative stories” about Trump’s “relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided,” prosecutors said.
The affairs took place in 2006, shortly after the birth of Trump’s youngest son, Barron, with Melania. Trump ran into McDougal at a pool party at the Playboy Mansion while filming an episode of his NBC hit “The Apprentice.” McDougal has said “I was into his intelligence and charm. Such a polite man … We talked for a couple hours – then, it was ON! We got naked and had sex.”
Trump intelligent? Trump charming? Let's leave that aside. McDougal said she broke off their relationship in 2007 because she felt guilty about being involved in an extramarital affair. But in 2016, she decided to sell her story.
She hired a Los Angeles lawyer, Keith Davidson, to help her do it. Davidson had worked with AMI and other gossip publishers before, both in selling information and in seeking to block stories that might damage clients’ reputations. He arranged for them to meet Pecker and his top editorial executive, Dylan Howard, and they immediately tipped Cohen. The prosecutors allege Cohen then urged AMI to buy her story in order to suppress it.
AMI initially agreed to a $150,000 payment to McDougal after Cohen promised the company that it would be reimbursed. The deal, arranged through a shell company, was coming together around the time that Cohen taped a conversation with Trump in which they seemed to realize that their loyal Mr. Pecker might not always be in place to protect Trump’s secrets. “Maybe he gets hit by a truck,” Trump said on the tape. At the last minute, according to prosecutors, AMI backed out of the deal and told Cohen to destroy related paperwork. He did not. It is now in the possession of federal prosecutors.
As the federal election loomed, AMI finally made its deal with McDougal, swearing her to silence.
Of course, she wasn’t the only one. At the same time McDougal was seeing him, Trump was also apparently seeing Stormy Daniels, a stripper who had starred in pornographic movies like Space Nuts and Love Potion 69. They met at a golf tournament and, you know, started playing with the balls.
Just before the election, prosecutors say, an agent representing Daniels approached Howard, the AMI editor, saying that she was willing to tell all. Howard and Pecker alerted Cohen that they had another problem.
Cohen used his shell company to pay Daniels $130,000. When this news became public, Cohen said he’d paid her out of his own pocket. According to federal prosecutors, however, he got reimbursed by presenting executives at the Trump Organization with the bill in 2017. They say that Trump executives paid Cohen $420,000, which included a $60,000 bonus.
What are AMI, Pecker and the National Enquirer saying about this serious breach in journalism ethics? Not a thing.
What did Cohen say about the sycophantic relationship between the president of the United States and America’s trashiest newspaper?
“Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction (with Daniels), and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,” Cohen said in a statement a few months ago.
That was a lie. Testifying under oath on Tuesday, Cohen said he arranged the payment to Stormy Daniels at Trump’s direction “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
Who else in this tawdry tale is telling lies? There are reports Pecker has reached a deal for immunity in return for testimony against Trump, so it looks like we’ll soon find out.
NOTE: This column has been edited to correct the charges Cohen pleaded guilty to. (Aug. 24)