ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The National Enquirer is known for covering scandals about celebrities. Right now it's immersed in a scandal of its own. The tabloid has been accused of burying stories about President Trump's alleged affairs with two women. It was reported last week that the chief executive of the paper's parent company, David Pecker, has gotten immunity from prosecutors for his cooperation. NPR's Jim Zarroli looks at how the paper has changed under Pecker.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: A lot of people dismiss the National Enquirer as a sleazy scandal sheet, but not President Trump. Here he was in a 2016 ABC interview.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I mean, you can't knock the National Enquirer. It's brought many, many things to light, not all of them pleasant.
ZARROLI: As Trump frequently points out, the Enquirer has published major exclusives about OJ Simpson and former Democratic senator John Edwards. In its heyday, the Enquirer had 5.7 million weekly readers. It could afford to send teams of reporters to cover major scandals. But there's another factor behind its success breaking stories - it isn't afraid to pay sources. Jerry George is the former Los Angeles bureau chief.
JERRY GEORGE: On most celebrity stories, for instance, you'd be using information that you obtained from sources that you paid on a regular basis.
ZARROLI: George said reporters typically cultivated the friends, co-workers and relatives of big celebrities and then paid them for tips. He says for really big exclusives like a first picture of a major celebrity's baby, payment could reach $100,000. Stu Zakim was senior vice president of the Enquirer's parent company AMI. He says over the years, the paper has developed a sharp sense of what kinds of stories sell papers. And Zakim says one big reason is the man in charge, AMI's chief executive, David Pecker.
STU ZAKIM: He is hands-on. He looks at the article lineup. He looks at the design of the issue. He looks at the covers. He has final sign-off on all that stuff.
ZARROLI: But Pecker has sometimes buried stories that make celebrities look bad. Zakim says he does that so he can demand something in return later on.
ZAKIM: Taking someone's story off the market is a - you know, you create a favor. So how am I going to call that favor in?
ZARROLI: The New Yorker reported last year that the Enquirer canceled a torrid story about Tiger Woods after he agreed to do a cover story for one of AMI's other magazines, Men's Fitness. And another celebrity Pecker has protected is President Trump, at least according to federal charges issued last week in the Michael Cohen case. At one time, the Enquirer regularly ran stories about Trump. But after Pecker arrived, it was suddenly harder to get a Trump piece into the paper, says Jerry George.
GEORGE: Each time a story was pitched, it was NG-ed. It was no good. A line was drawn through it. So I mean, he just wore everyone down.
ZARROLI: Why Pecker has spared Trump isn't really clear. But former AMI executive Stu Zakim believes it's not just about personal loyalty. Like most print publications, the Enquirer's circulation has plummeted, and it continues to struggle with debt. Zakim says Pecker may have calculated that Enquirer readers like Trump. And Zakim says the Enquirer's ties to Trump have been good for the paper.
ZAKIM: He's getting access to the president of the United States. He's getting positioned by the president of the United States as an important media company.
ZARROLI: And Zakim says Pecker almost always puts business first. That may be why Pecker is said to have agreed to cooperate in the investigation into Trump's alleged affairs in exchange for immunity. He and Trump may have a long friendship, but even friendship has its limits. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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