How Tabloids Used ‘Catch-and-Kill’ to Trade on Secrets of Celebrities

The term was coined by old-time tabloid editors for buying the exclusive rights to stories, or “catching” them, for the specific purpose of ensuring the information never becomes public, or “killing” them.

Why would anyone want to spend money on a story that it never intends to publish? In the world of tabloid journalism, where ethical lines are blurry, deciding what to publish and why is often a calculus that covers favors doled out and chits called in.

David Pecker, the former publisher of The National Enquirer, who also oversaw other tabloids such as Star and lifestyle publications such as Men’s Fitness, was a master of the technique, according to people who have worked for him.

In 2003, Mr. Pecker’s company, American Media Inc., bought several muscle magazines founded by a mentor of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bodybuilding legend and movie star. When Mr. Schwarzenegger, who was often featured in those magazines, jumped into the recall election to replace California’s governor, Mr. Pecker ordered his staff to buy up negative stories about him in order to protect his investment, former employees said.

Staff members called it “the David Pecker Project.” American Media paid $20,000 to a former mistress of Mr. Schwarzenegger so that she would not speak about their affair — though news of it had previously been published. The company paid another $1,000 to her friend and $2,000 to a man who had a video of Mr. Schwarzenegger dancing lewdly in Rio de Janeiro 20 years earlier. Mr. Schwarzenegger was elected governor.

Mr. Pecker’s publications made deals with other celebrities as well, though not always for money. He traded away dirt about the golfer Tiger Woods in exchange for an exclusive interview in Men’s Fitness in 2007, according to people with knowledge of that episode.

And, according to the prosecutors in the Manhattan trial of Donald J. Trump, Mr. Pecker employed “catch-and-kill” tactics in the 2016 presidential election, paying a doorman and a Playboy model to suppress negative stories about Mr. Trump and boost the candidacy of his longtime associate.

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