Peter Bart: Trapped In A Circus Of Sleaze, David Pecker Had Looked For An Escape Route

David Pecker stabbed impatiently at his veal piccata. We’d been having a cordial business lunch, but he was growing frustrated. The publisher of the National Enquirer was pitching an ambitious deal to me involving major money — not a Stormy Daniels sort of deal — but my disinterest in it puzzled him.

“This could be an important journalistic venture,” he said.

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“That may be true,” I replied, “but I don’t care to be part of it.”

We exchanged a friendly handshake and he picked up the tab, but no deal was made.

A decade later, Pecker is wallowing in another journalistic venture, albeit perversely different. The Donald Trump hush-money criminal trial, in which he is a key witness, hinges on a controversial Pecker deal, this one with Trump. It involves a “catch and kill” genre story — one at which Pecker had become a master.

Pecker, having made a deal with prosecutors, testified that he paid for a bogus story from a doorman alleging that Trump had fathered an illegitimate child. The story was “catched,” then “killed,” as were other even more devastating stories involving Trump’s alleged sexual liaisons.

The Enquirer, long a suppository at newsstands nationwide, practiced what Pecker himself described as “checkbook journalism.” Insiders were paid for stories, real or fabricated, and often paid more for killing them upon demand.

But Pecker had wanted more. Although newsy and widely discussed, the Enquirer had also become dangerous, its toxic stories steeped in litigation.

Having climbed the CBS ladder on the financial side, Pecker had become a major figure in the Hachette-Filipacchi publishing empire with stakes in magazines and books worldwide. He was infamous for his Enquirer role, but he had decided the time had come to diversify.

Hence our business lunch. “You have written hundreds of important byline stories in The New York Times,” he told me. “Then you moved on to become a Hollywood executive and insider. You know the newsmakers, so now it’s time for you to find a new venue to exploit them.”

His proposal: Start a publication with the clout and reach of the Enquirer but with a more rigorous mandate of accuracy. It would offer sensation without sleaze — a sort of populist Variety with bigger stars and sexier subtext.

Personally, I rather enjoyed Pecker’s company and his veal piccata and guiltily liked his war stories. His ambition, however, clearly had become a fatal trap, committed to the poisonous pursuit of Trump. He himself inevitably would become a victim of its destructiveness.

In retrospect, I was not flattered by his business offer.

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