For years, Dylan Howard, a skilled and controversial practitioner of the dark arts of tabloid journalism, beat the scandal drum often and loudly.
As an editor and later the chief content officer of American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer and its slew of entertainment-gossip and fitness magazines, Howard spearheaded some of the most explosive celebrity exposés of recent vintage from revealing Charlie Sheen’s HIV status to identifying Arnold Schwarzenegger’s maid as the mother of his child.
But no longer.
A central figure in such tawdry media tsunamis as Jeff Bezos’ blackmail claims and President Trump’s secret money payments, Howard quietly left the company on March 31.
Howard’s spokesman, Howard Bragman, said that his client declined to comment. A representative for AMI said the company and its chief executive, David Pecker, also declined to comment on Howard’s recent exit, which was first reported by Variety. An individual familiar with the parties confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that Howard left the company after his contract was not renewed last month.
Howard’s abrupt departure came just as the kind of rough-and-tumble tactics that regularly put AMI’s coverage in the spotlight had worn thin, according to those familiar with the company. In recent years, Howard became the subject of two internal investigations for alleged misconduct, while his involvement with Harvey Weinstein brought further unwanted scrutiny to the company. And his buying up and then burying potentially damaging stories about Trump put Howard and AMI in the sights of a federal probe.
Days before Howard’s contract expired, AMI, based in Boca Raton, Fla., and which also publishes Us Weekly, RadarOnline and InTouch, announced salary cuts of 23% to offset losses and avoid layoffs amid the coronavirus outbreak, according to an internal company memo.
In February, AMI shuttered the New York editorial office of Men’s Journal, slashing staff and relocating the title to California, where it was absorbed into the Adventure Sports Network.
The pandemic has further winnowed the market for gotcha celebrity stories and paparazzi shots that have floated the National Enquirer and its sister publications for decades.
Howard, 38, Pecker’s longtime lieutenant, did much to transform America’s tabloid culture during his tenure at AMI, but few were surprised by his exit.
“It’s no shocker that Pecker cut him loose, his value ran out,” said Stu Zakim, a former senior vice president of corporate communications for AMI between 2004 and 2006 who now runs Bridge Strategic Communications in New York. “Guys like Pecker are survivors and the fact that he didn’t pick up his contract has nothing to do with anything but self-preservation.”
Even by the standards of the National Enquirer, Howard garnered a singular reputation as a no-holds-barred gossip hunter, serving up salacious scoops. It was Howard who blew the lid on Mel Gibson’s inflammatory and offensive rant toward his former girlfriend, Russian singer Oksana Grigorieva, releasing audiotapes of them on RadarOnline in 2010.
As Howard once told Bloomberg, “We do good old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground reporting that much of the mainstream media doesn’t do today. My checkbook is big, and it is open.”
Lately, however, Howard’s bare-knuckled methods drew more than titillation and newsstand sales.
Howard became part of the story when, in 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that AMI paid $150,000 to buy the rights but not publish Playboy model Karen McDougal’s claims of having an affair with then Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, in a practice known as “catch and kill.”
However, the hush money scandal triggered a federal investigation into Trump that netted his personal attorney Michael Cohen a three-year prison sentence for tax evasion and federal campaign-finance violations.
Howard, along with AMI and Pecker, cooperated with federal prosecutors and were granted immunity from prosecution.
“What’s so interesting about the Enquirer in general is that it’s had a reputation for being sleazy for so long,” said a person who was a target of the tabloid and who declined to be named. “Then Trump came along. It’s ridiculous how they became an extension of Trump.”
In his book “Catch and Kill,” journalist Ronan Farrow accused Howard of compiling a list of negative stories about Trump from AMI’s archives, never running them and later destroying the documents. According to the book, Howard maintained to colleagues that the documents had not been destroyed.
Last year, he threatened to sue Farrow and his publisher over the bestselling book.
Farrow also reported extensively about what he termed Howard’s alliance with Weinstein, the former movie mogul. AMI struck a production deal with the now convicted rapist. His book detailed how Howard directed AMI reporters to dig up negative material on women who had directly or indirectly made claims of Weinstein’s misconduct, including publishing Howard’s email exchange with the movie producer about the actress Rose McGowan.
In a statement, Howard told Farrow he was “seeking out truthful information” in order to protect AMI’s interests. “To the extent I provided ‘off the record’ information to Mr. Weinstein about one of his accusers — at a time when Mr. Weinstein was denying any harassment of any woman — it was information which I would never have allowed AMI to publish on the internet or in its magazines.”
By last year, however, Howard’s once unchallenged editorial power at AMI appeared to dwindle, according to people close to the operation.
The murmuring surrounding Howard’s status came in the wake of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ claims that the National Enquirer and parent company AMI had threatened to publish intimate photos of him unless he torpedoed an investigation into how the paper had acquired text messages and information about his extramarital affair with former TV personality Lauren Sanchez.
In February 2019, Bezos detailed his allegations in the online publishing platform Medium, revealing a series of emails from executives at AMI, including Howard.
“I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our news gathering,” Howard wrote, going on to say that the Enquirer had a “below the belt selfie” of Bezos, along with several other shots. Howard added, “It would give no editor pleasure to send this email. I hope common sense can prevail — and quickly.”
The company denied it attempted to blackmail and extort Bezos. “American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully,” AMI had said in a statement.
The fallout continues. Sanchez’s brother Michael is suing the National Enquirer. The suit names Pecker and Howard as defendants, with Michael Sanchez claiming that American Media issued a “false and defamatory press release” last March naming him as the source for its reporting of the Bezos affair with his sister. AMI has maintained that Michael Sanchez was the source for the story.
Last April, AMI announced it had agreed to sell the National Enquirer to James Cohen, a longtime friend of Pecker’s and heir to the Hudson News newsstand chain, for $100 million. The status of the deal remains unclear.
Portly, with pale skin and owl-rimmed glasses, Howard was born in Geelong, Australia, a city southwest of Melbourne. He got his start in journalism in 1999 at his hometown paper, the Geelong Advertiser, before becoming a local television reporter. By 2004, Howard moved to Melbourne establishing himself as a bloodhound sports reporter at the Channel Seven network.
In 2008, Howard obtained the medical records of Australian Football League players and used them to reveal confidential details of their drug use, prompting a police investigation, according to media reports. Though the police cleared Howard, a year later, his network contract was not renewed and he decamped for New York.
Once there, Howard landed a job reporting for the American arm of Crocmedia, an Australian-American radio and TV distribution company. The two soon parted ways.
In a podcast interview, Croc founder Craig Hutchison said, “His methods make me uncomfortable, that’s probably the best way to put it.”
After a stint at Reuters in 2009, Howard arrived at AMI as a senior executive at the supermarket tab Star magazine and its online sister publication RadarOnline.
Howard quickly made his mark, injecting a sharp-elbowed sensibility while sparring with celebrities and power brokers.
His rise in Pecker’s tabloid empire was swift. By 2014 Howard was named AMI’s chief of content, holding sway over its growing stable of titles that now includes OK!, In Touch, Life & Style and Closer.
According to one vet, once Howard arrived, everything changed.
“We were real gossipy people, we did crazy antics, we paid sources but in the name of getting a true story,” said this person who declined to be identified because they had signed a nondisclosure agreement after getting laid off from AMI. Under Howard, “we were told to go after people we never went after.... People want to see Cher and read about what Wayne Newton’s up to in Las Vegas. They don’t care about politics or bashing Hillary [Clinton].”
Yet, while Howard trafficked in the foibles and misdeeds of marquee names, questions about his own conduct faced internal scrutiny in 2012.
The Times spoke with five former staffers who worked with Howard in Los Angeles during this period. Most would not go on the record fearing retaliation and because they had signed nondisclosure agreements.
They described the organization that Howard steered between 2009 and 2012 as a testosterone-fueled work environment, where the lines between the personal and professional were often blurred; socializing with sources and one another was the norm, and a place where sexual exploits and speculation about the sex lives of female reporters were commonplace.
In December 2017, the Associated Press chronicled a series of sexual misconduct allegations against Howard. Among the claims: Howard openly described his sexual partners in the newsroom, discussed female staffers’ sex lives and forced women to watch or listen to pornographic material. The AP report also cited employees referring to his “self-proclaimed” nickname, “Dildo.”
Howard and AMI told the AP that the allegations were “baseless.” The publisher’s lawyer told the AP that the internal investigation cleared Howard of any serious wrongdoing, chalking up his behavior to “horsing around.”
The former staffers that The Times spoke to largely supported the allegations made to the AP.
Maxine Page worked at AMI from 2002 to 2012, with a few detours; her last position was as an executive editor working with Howard at RadarOnline. “AMI as a company, as you would expect of the tabs, is incredibly misogynistic. It was a real dinosaur culture, old boys’ club. They reward a lot of bluster, a lot of testosterone. That’s why Dylan Howard did so well.”
One former staffer who worked in the Los Angeles office for several years said the work was fun at first but it quickly became “insanely stressful,” with long hours and “sexually inappropriate comments.”
“The newsroom ran on the premise, ‘we own you, 24/7,’” said this person. “Everyone was too terrified to go to HR. They protected the company. I can’t convey how bad it was. I blocked it out. A group of us stay in touch, we joke around that we are AMI survivors.”
Page filed a complaint against Howard to HR in 2012 on behalf of two female employees claiming sexual harassment. According to Page, two months later, she was let go.
Soon after, Howard left too. In early 2012, he became editor-in-chief at Celebuzz, an entertainment website.
According to a report in the AP, at Celebuzz, Howard resumed making inappropriate, sexually charged comments in his new workplace. An internal investigation by Celebuzz concluded that Howard violated the company’s sexual harassment policy, according to the AP.
Howard resigned from Celebuzz in spring 2013, citing the company’s response to the “unfounded allegations against me.”
He returned to AMI and was elevated to chief content officer. More recently, he churned out true crime books on subjects like Princess Diana and podcasts on Jeffrey Epstein among others through a deal with Endeavor Audio that has since ended.
Howard’s future remains unclear.
“Once Dylan leaves AMI he can’t go anywhere,” one former staffer speculated. “AMI owns all the tabloids. What’s left?”