In the tabloid business, the practice is called “catch and kill.”
That phrase was circulating on Saturday after the Wall Street Journal’s solidly reported story that the National Enquirer — no stranger to checkbook journalism — had laid out $150,000 in August to a former Playboy magazine Playmate, who says she had a lengthy adulterous affair with Donald Trump a decade ago.
The paper paid for exclusive rights to Karen McDougal’s story but never published it, the Journal reported. Thus: catch and kill, otherwise known as trapping a story to keep it out of the public eye, for one reason or another.
The tabloid, run by Trump pal David Pecker, is one of a tiny handful of papers to endorse Trump for president. (The Enquirer’s parent company claims that it paid McDougal not only for rights to an unspecified personal story, but also to write a fitness column.)
Trump, through a spokeswoman, has denied the affair. And of course, such a story would not have revealed anything new about Trump’s character, nor would it have been disqualifying to his candidacy.
The Enquirer, which Trump has repeatedly said deserves to win a Pulitzer Prize for its revealing of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards’s “love child,” also published an evidence-free story on Saturday that Hillary Clinton is addicted to narcotics.
Combine this with the debunked reporting by Fox News of a likely Clinton indictment after the election, and then add in the much-tweeted photo of CNN’s paid pundit Corey Lewandowski shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump’s campaign brass, labeled “teamwork,” and the conclusion is obvious: We’re ending this campaign deep in the journalistic gutter.
The worst of the media is on full display, as if someone had set out to show just how terrible we hacks could look in these last moments before Election Day.
To be sure, some great journalism has been published over the course of the campaign. But it largely has been drowned out by the unsavory.
“Yes, there has been terrific reporting by The Washington Post and others, but it’s been like one of those beautiful houses that survives in a blighted neighborhood,” Micheline Maynard, a business journalist and educator, wrote on Facebook.
“The big picture is that the neighborhood is blighted,” she added. “And I don’t know how we’re going to get people to move back in.”
She’s right. The media, never well loved, is less trusted than ever. It’s under attack — often for valid reasons, but not always. And the good actors, an ever-smaller core, get drowned out by the bad.
Consider: Fox News’ Bret Baier had to apologize last week after reporting that an indictment could be expected to result from an FBI investigation of the Clinton Foundation.
But the indictment stories, based on next to nothing, had already been blasted out into the political ecosystem — exaggerated beyond recognition and taken as duly reported fact.
Over at CNN, head honcho Jeff Zucker has been in high dudgeon about Donna Brazile’s ethical blunder, which caused her to be summarily (and properly) dismissed as a network pundit, after she leaked a debate question to the Clinton campaign.
But he has expressed no qualms about Lewandowski’s continued presence on the network, even as Twitter featured the compromising photo from Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway: Lewandowski, herself and spokeswoman Hope Hicks, showing them all working together toward the same end.
Lewandowski’s hiring at CNN after leaving the Trump campaign is one of the worst embarrassments in a campaign season in which the competition for such a dubious prize is fierce indeed. Not only had Lewandowski carried out Trump’s blacklisting of news organizations, including The Post, but he also had signed a nondisclosure agreement, which meant his on-air commentary was by definition tainted.
Meanwhile, fake news is everywhere. The Drudge Report, in one of the most bizarre examples, has been promoting a story about Clinton campaign adviser John Podesta drinking bodily fluids at a secret Satanist dinner. Though absurdly false, the tale had plenty of believers, inspiring hundreds of thousands of related tweets and plenty of “news stories” on right-wing sites.
You could chalk a lot of this up to the “silly season” that always precedes a big election. And you could hope the hysteria and disinformation dies along with the weirdest campaign in memory.
But even as the worst of media grows exponentially, the best is deeply threatened. The Wall Street Journal — whose journalistic standards are historically top-notch — is laying off reporters this month to reduce costs.
And as print advertising revenue slips into something perilously close to free fall, much more of that is sure to come.
In this case, the Journal let us know what the Enquirer had done. That takes time, money, skill and reporting talent. When those wither, journalism will be in worse trouble.
Yes, that’s possible.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan