DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The National Enquirer - you know, it's usually on sale at grocery store checkout stands with its sensational headlines. You might have read some as you've been waiting in line. Well, it is now up for sale. Its parent company, American Media, Inc., says it intends to sell several of its tabloids, including the Enquirer. And this comes after some controversial years. For one thing, AMI reportedly tried to help President Trump's campaign by buying and suppressing a story from a former Playboy model who claims she had an affair with Trump. In February, Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post and CEO of Amazon, accused the Enquirer of extortion and blackmail. And now comes this potential sale. Let's talk to NPR's David Folkenflik about it.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: So there was Karen McDougal, former Playboy model. There was Jeff Bezos and his accusations. I mean, just remind us about all these controversies the magazine has faced.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, think back to what we now know about the 2016 race. Karen McDougal had claimed to have a significant relationship - extramarital affair with the president. And we were subsequently introduced the phrase catch and kill. The Enquirer...
FOLKENFLIK: ...Facilitated a $150,000 payout to McDougal, ostensibly to pay her to write a column for a sister publication, Men's Journal - actually to ensure that that story never saw the light of day during the election season. Separately, Jeff Bezos, in January, took to Medium - posted a platform and basically said, hey. By the way, not only have I been having an extramarital affair with my girlfriend, but the Enquirer is all over it. And furthermore, I became aware that they're all over it. And they have been trying to blackmail me and extort me into issuing a statement saying that no way was this politically motivated because of their ties to President Trump. And they were threatening to publish very intimate photographs of me. I'm not going to stand for it. Here's what I have to say.
GREENE: I mean - and it's worth just pausing and reflecting at Trump's ties to all of this. I mean, he's close to the guy who runs the magazine, right?
FOLKENFLIK: That's right. This is not in any way an accident. David Pecker, the chairman and the controlling - executive at American Media, Inc., the parent company, has long had ties with Donald Trump. They consider each other friends. And Trump grew up in the sort of Moray and Maras of tabloid news here in New York City - doing business with Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, doing business with the National Enquirer, ensuring favorable coverage and trying to tamp down on negative coverage of him. Well, you saw that play out on its pages with cover story after cover story raising questions about Hillary Clinton's morality, Bill Clinton, about her health. And you saw that about positive and sort of glowing coverage of Trump and also the lack of coverage of the kind of scandals that the Enquirer usually traffics in.
GREENE: So the company is saying this is a business decision. But I mean, there is a report in The New Yorker that as recently as 2017, the company was thinking about how to actually expand its portfolio of magazines. So I mean, is this the controversies that really changed fortunes for them? Or is this story more complicated?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, you could say both. You know, in 2010, the parent company declared bankruptcy. There's significant debt surrounding and hanging over National Enquirer's parent company. But you can't separate this from the scandals. The Washington Post, in its reporting, claims that the hedge fund manager who's sort of controlling owner now of American Media says that he's disgusted by what he's learned. This is not really anything new for the Enquirer, but don't forget the legal trouble the Enquirer has been in. You know, it got dragged into the investigation of Michael Cohen and others. It had to, essentially, negotiate with prosecutors in order to avoid prosecution. And indeed, the Bezos scandal may raise the legal stakes once more.
GREENE: I mean, we've probably all joked at the grocery store checkout stand, like, looking at the headlines - who would ever buy the National Enquirer? Well, now it's like a more serious question. Who would buy the National Enquirer?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, in a straight world, you might say TMZ, the digital gossip site. It's hard to know. It's a damaged brand. It is a notable brand. Somebody may buy it as a plaything, or there's been speculation Jeff Bezos would want to strangle it, buy it and put it out...
GREENE: Wow. That would be...
FOLKENFLIK: ...A different kind of catch and kill.
GREENE: ...Another chapter of the story, yeah. NPR's David Folkenflik.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.