Long before there was “fake news” there was the National Enquirer.
It’s not as though obviously false stories written for entertainment, and to make a buck, were anything new. The Enquirer, however, gave the form a brand name. Anyone stuck behind a person with a full shopping cart came to know Bat Boy, Lobster Boy, Bigfoot, and a parade of celebrities doing awful things. It was a chuckle usually wrapped around a sneer – “Who reads this stuff?”
Though this rag was known for publishing nearly anything, what it deliberately didn’t publish turns out to be much more interesting.
The process is known as “Catch & Kill.” The owner of a media outlet, such as David Pecker of AMI, would go into negotiations with someone who had a juicy story to tell. Most of them were probably eager to tell it for various reasons, and of course the prospect of a lot of money was always enticing. But under specific circumstances the Inquirer, chronicler of the life and loves of Bigfoot, was not there to publish a story. It was there to buy the rights and prevent it from ever going anywhere.
It’s unclear if Pecker did this for more people than Donald Trump. What we do know is that their relationship goes back decades to the rise of Trump’s star power. It’s also unclear what Pecker received for his efforts and how he might have been paid back.
What we also know is that during the campaign, this close relationship became much hotter. Stories about Ted Cruz and later Hillary Clinton literally filled the cover, none of them remotely credible. We can trace the “Lock her up!” chant, for example, directly to a National Enquirer cover in November 2015. It appears to be the first reference to this as a prospect, and of course has as much basis in reality as Bat Boy.
The National Enquirer was the minor league for slogans and memes. It was where nonsense about Trump’s enemies was tried out before being perfected.
It’s not the only such outlet, of course. All of this has moved away from the checkout lane to the internet where you can see it all in real time. This includes strange connections to the same Bigfoot stories. Softening up people with harmless looking conspiracies does seem to lower their defenses to genuine propaganda. The Enquirer may not be needed as much as it used to be, by itself, but it still stands as an effective feeder and center to the entire universe of fake news.
As this is exposed, it will come down as an effective strategy for a number of reasons. The public will be immune to it, as I suspect everyone under 50 probably is already. The business practices will be exposed. And, it is noted, some people may wind up in jail over it. But what laws might have been broken?
Catch and Kill is not only not journalism, it is Not-Journalism. While the publication of a story is protected by the Constitution, there is no protection for Not-Journalism. It is definitely subject to campaign finance restrictions and disclosure. But it is not the only activity of AMI which may be over the line.
Citizens United famously threw out many of the restrictions on campaign speech, freeing up the Enquirer to publish whatever it wants. But that case was based on an FEC ruling, upheld, which required disclosure of the expenditures associated with all campaign activity. The law outlining a “Press exemption” from campaign finance rules limits what is not Constitutionally limited, but it must be disclosed so that caveat lector, let the reader beware, can be applied.
What defines campaign activity? Coordination with the campaign certainly does, which would be collusion for those synonymically minded. So does intent, as difficult as this would ever be to prove without eyewitness accounts and documentation. Campaign activity is also Not-Journalism, after all, and the Supreme Court let that stand.
If there are tapes or receipts showing exactly how Pecker was prompted and paid, we may have a new lesson coming in just what Not-Journalism is. The brand name which gave us something to do while standing in line to pay for our groceries may yet give us greater definition as to what journalism actually is, largely as a reflection of Not-Journalism.
This is important not just for the laws it will create and the people it might send to jail. Ultimately, in a nation defined by a free press, this will help the population develop the skills it takes to recognize BS when the see it and turn away from pure propaganda.
Fake news itself, or gossip for the sake of entertainment, will still be with us. As long as it is not a political platform, as it is now, we might be allright.