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It has been reported that the National Enquirer bought the exclusive rights to a story, not to report on it, but instead so that the facts do not become public:

[This] highlights a tactic called "catch and kill" -- where a publication buys the rights to a story and then buries the story as a favor to someone.

This seems like a somewhat unethical practice for a news organization to engage in.

The earliest reference I could find to "catch and kill" is this Wall Street Journal article from 2016; though their article sounds as if this were a previously existing phrase and practice.

I wasn't able to find any other examples apart from the National Enquirer though.

Is this a common practice? And if so, which media organizations use it?

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    Comments deleted. Please remember the purpose of comments on questions. They should suggest how the question could be improved. They are not for discussing the subject matter of the question. – Philipp Jul 26 '18 at 11:37
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    I don't think it's answerable because the very point of catch-and-kill is that it's completely secretive. But to answer the question, any "news" org that does this is clearly not a news organization to begin with. – user1530 Jul 26 '18 at 20:56
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    Even if we were to decide that this was on-topic, it is certainly Too Broad. There is no obvious limitation on this category. Perhaps every magazine has done this. Perhaps only hundreds. Perhaps this is mostly done by story resellers. – Brythan Jul 27 '18 at 3:11
  • Such a practice would generally apply only to national magazine or tabloid-style outlets, since newspapers and local TV generally won't pay subjects for stories and therefore therefore there are no contractual restrictions. – jeffronicus Jul 30 '18 at 15:08
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    This is absolutely an answerable question. Just because a group tries to keep something secret, doesn't mean it isn't externally knowable, nor that the information won't leak. – The Pompitous of Love Jul 30 '18 at 15:52
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It's certainly not a new thing at American Media Inc. (AMI) / National Enquirer. There's a 2005 LA Times story that they (AMI) did the same thing in 2003 with a story on Arnold Schwarzenegger, who at the time was developing a close business relation with AMI.

Days after Arnold Schwarzenegger jumped into the race for governor and girded for questions about his past, a tabloid publisher wooing him for a business deal promised to pay a woman $20,000 to sign a confidentiality agreement about an alleged affair with the candidate.

American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer, signed a friend of the woman to a similar contract about the alleged relationship for $1,000.

On Aug. 14, 2003, as candidate Schwarzenegger was negotiating a consulting deal with American Media, the company signed its contract with Mora, who said she received $1,000 cash in return. Goyette declined to say whether she received the $20,000 promised in her contract. [...]

But American Media was effectively protecting Schwarzenegger's political interests, said a person who worked at the company when the contracts were signed. At the same time, American Media was crafting a deal to make Schwarzenegger executive editor of Flex and Muscle & Fitness magazines, helping to lure readers and advertisers.

If American Media was buying exclusive rights to the women's stories, said the person, who has a confidentiality agreement with the company and spoke on condition of anonymity, "why didn't the stories run? That's the obvious question."

"AMI systematically bought the silence" of the women, said the person. Schwarzenegger "was a de facto employee and he was important to their bottom line."

Schwarzenegger biographer Laurence Leamer wrote in his book, "Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger," that Schwarzenegger understood the tabloids would not skewer him if he was entering a business relationship with the company -- although Schwarzenegger told Leamer he did not specifically seek such assurances.

Indeed, during the recall campaign, American Media put out a 120-page magazine celebrating Schwarzenegger as an embodiment of the "American dream."

The Enquirer did run a story repeating allegations in the British media that Schwarzenegger had an extramarital affair. The story was published first on its website before the election, and then in the newspaper three weeks after his election victory. But it was not prominently displayed, running on Page 24.

The phrase "catch and kill" is not used in that 2005 article, so the term-phrase may be newer than the practice. (N.B. there's a much more widely used term "kill fee" which refers to a freelancer getting only a small payment for a non-published story.)

And in 2009, the Guardian reported [in a headline] that

US golfer gave exclusive interview to sister paper of National Enquirer in return for tabloid's silence

This story doesn't clearly involve outright buying anything because it's not made clear where photos originated from (National Enquirer's own photographers or bought from freelance paparazzis). Although Woods denied any blackmail, there was again a source inside National Enquirer claiming otherwise:

Representatives acting on behalf of Tiger Woods brokered a deal two years ago to bury a tabloid story of an extramarital affair, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. It said representatives for the golfer acted after the National Enquirer threatened to publish pictures of Woods taken in a parked car with Mindy Lawton, a Florida waitress.

The alleged deal, which the Wall Street Journal claims was made in August 2007, saw Woods give an exclusive cover interview and photo spread to a sister magazine of the Enquirer, Men's Fitness.

It is the second such claim to be made after the publication of a similar story in the New York Post earlier this month.

American Media, owner of the Enquirer and Men's Fitness, said descriptions of such a deal were "inaccurate, false" and "misinformed". It claimed the interview, headlined Tiger!, and in which a beaming Woods appeared on the cover, was a result of the golfer's previous link with the interviewer, Roy Johnson.

But Neal Boulton, former editor in chief of Men's Fitness at the time of the alleged deal, fuelled further speculation after claiming that he left his post because of the incident. "[American Media CEO] David Pecker knew about Tiger Woods' infidelity a long time ago … He traded silence for a Men's Fitness cover," Boulton told the New York Post.

Also, An AP story has a bit more background on NE's interesting approach to journalism:

Though sometimes dismissed by mainstream publications, the Enquirer’s history of breaking legitimate scoops about politicians’ personal lives — including its months-long Pulitzer Prize-contending coverage of presidential candidate Edwards’ affair — is a point of pride in its newsroom.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Enquirer published a string of allegations against Trump’s rivals, such as stories claiming Democratic rival Hillary Clinton was a bisexual “secret sex freak” and was kept alive only by a “narcotics cocktail.”

Stories attacking Trump rivals or promoting Trump’s campaign often bypassed the paper’s normal fact-checking process, according to two people familiar with campaign-era copy.

The tabloid made its first-ever endorsement by officially backing Trump for the White House. With just over a week before Election Day, Howard, the top editor, appeared on Alex Jones’ InfoWars program by phone, telling listeners that the choice at the ballot box was between “the Clinton crime family” or someone who will “break down the borders of the establishment.” Howard said the paper’s coverage was bipartisan, citing negative stories it published about Ben Carson during the Republican presidential primaries.


Simply offering hush money for silence, legalized as an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) is a much wider practice. The usual way this is done is through lawyers. "Catch and kill" is basically the same thing done by a media organization, possibly with the addition of a duplicity element, if the source does not suspect the story is being bought just to be buried. As people are often enough represented by lawyers in such dealings with the tabloid media, it comes with little suprrise that the duplicity element apparently extended to the lawyer representing one of the sources in Trump story, but the duplicity was not maintained all the way through, either by the laywer or by AMI (in this case):

Ms. McDougal maintains that she was duped by a “catch-and-kill” scheme in which Davidson, ostensibly her lawyer, colluded with Cohen and American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer. In such a scheme, a media company buys the exclusive rights to a story but then buries it, rather than publish it. AMI’s chief executive, David J. Pecker, is reputed to use the catch-and-kill tactic on behalf of allies, and is said to be a friend of Trump’s.

McDougal decided to tell her story in May 2016 — when Trump was plowing through the GOP primaries. Through a mutual friend, she found Davidson, who told her that a deal with AMI could result in a “seven-figure publishing contract” with an initial $500,000 payment in an escrow account. But after an AMI official interviewed her extensively, the company initially declined to buy the story and Davidson confessed that there was no escrow money. AMI explains that it chose not to publish the story because it could not be verified, but concedes discussing McDougal’s allegations with Cohen “as part of its reporting process.”

Weeks later, though, when McDougal was in negotiations with ABC News, Davidson informed her that AMI had a new proposal: AMI would buy her story but not publish it owing to Pecker’s relationship with Trump. The company would pay $150,000 (a sizable chunk of which went to Davidson). The deal was especially attractive to the model-turned-fitness-instructor because she was additionally promised that AMI would run her fitness columns and feature her on at least two publication covers. As the details were being ironed out on August 5, 2016, Davidson was in email and phone contact with Cohen, assuring him the deal was done. McDougal signed it the next day. The story was buried but the fitness columns and covers never materialized.

So at least this "catch and kill" affair devolved simply into a somewhat elaborate hush money/benefits in return for silence; of course, then there was a non-fulfillment (even potential fraud) of the contract by AMI. But my point with this last snippet is that the line between "catch and kill" and just hush money (promises) can sometimes be blurry.

  • Is the premise of this answer that this is only a NE practice that no other newspaper uses? Or just more background on the NE? – Bobson Jul 30 '18 at 12:52
  • @Bobson: no, it's not a premise, but the most obvious place to look for antecedents. I was also hoping to find something in these stories pointing to historical precedents by other organizations, but none of the articles I quoted offer that. The idea of buying stories (exclusivity) in order to kill them thus seems pretty "advanced", as opposed to simply killing (not publishing) stories for various reasons; one can surely find many more examples of the latter. – Fizz Jul 30 '18 at 13:19
  • @Bobson: As for more background on NE, well that sorta came out from these two stories, i.e. morally/ethically dubious practices like "horse trading" with the subject of the story (if not outright blackmail) seems to often go along with "catch and kill" (the story from the source). The deep political partisanship also seems to play a role in the last incidents (Trump-related), but are less obvious for the previous ones (Schwarzenegger) and very unlikely for the Woods affair. So "catch and kill" as practiced by NE seems to have wider scope than just offering political support for someone. – Fizz Jul 30 '18 at 13:35
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    @Fizz, Re "not a new thing": Relatively. Perhaps the intro might note that while the NE has published sleazy stories since the 1950s, prior to it's purchase by Trump's good friend David Pecker in 1999, it used to be more of an equal opportunity offender. I've not heard of the pre-1999 NE doing catch and kill -- and I believe it used to get sued more often... – agc Jul 30 '18 at 17:12
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Not a complete answer, but certainly an earlier example from Pittsburgh, circa 1909, which establishes that journalistic catch and kill is not a recent innovation:

When he was 19, Seldes went to work at the Pittsburgh Leader. ... He also interviewed a saleswoman who had filed a rape complaint against the son of the owner on a large department store, but the story was not published, and Seldes became outraged when the advertising department of the newspaper blackmailed the owner into buying more advertising.[1][2] ...
-- George Seldes: Early Life, Wikipedia

Seldes' own account offers more detail, (from Chapter 2 of his 1987 autobiography Witness to a Century):

The son of the owner of one of the largest department stores believed that, like medieval lords who had "the right of the first night" with the bride of every one of his serfs, he had the right to rape every pretty salesgirl. When I reported his court hearing, my city editor for the first time in my life gave me a sheet of carbon paper and said to make a copy. I made it. It was sent immediately to the business department. It was not printed. However, within a few days the Leader, along with all other papers, printed double that department store's advertising every Sunday. The price per page, so we were told, had also gone up. Not one Pittsburgh newspaper ever mentioned this rape story.

Even in the 1980s, more than sixty years later, Seldes, or his publisher's editor, was apparently still wary of providing the name of that alleged rapist, or the name of the large department store, which suggests various things:

  • the large department store, or the alleged rapist's powerful family, were probably still capable of various reprisals formidable and petty.
  • the practice of catch and kill was at that time city wide, and probably extant in all large American cities; the elderly and well-traveled Seldes did not specifically recollect that Pittsburgh was exceptionally corrupt, which is the sort of thing he would have noted if it was exceptional.

Certain necessary conditions in 1909 prevented due coverage of the newsworthy alleged rapist: large cities with large media outlets sponsored by advertisements of big businesses owned by protective wealthy families. These conditions have existed continually since then, and it's unlikely protective wealthy families will ever neglect those means available for preserving their overvalued and hard-won reputations.


Note: User Fizz advances a possible confusion -- that the Pittsburgh Leader was not practicing catch and kill so much as it was blackmailing an advertiser. Blackmail and catch and kill have certain features in common:

  • usually a crime or fault is perpetrated by a guilty party.
  • a second party who knows of the crime is rewarded by the guilty for not disclosing the secret.

But there are substantial differences:

  • Current US law, which we'll assume is not very unlike US law in 1909, describes the crime of blackmail as follows:

    "Whoever, under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law of the United States, demands or receives any money or other valuable thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both." -- 18 U.S.C. § 873

    The rape charge had already received a court hearing, the crime had been reported.

  • The blackmailer does not sell their own virtue as a good citizen, usually the blackmailer is himself another criminal, offering to commit a crime (of not reporting one) for money. Catch and kill is not generally a crime, it's just a sleazy journalism -- or perhaps how ad sponsored journalism survives in a sleazy and punitive environment.

  • Typically an unpaid blackmailer goes out of their way to publicize something they would otherwise not report. Here the paper certainly would have reported it as a matter of course, doing the job readers expected of it.

    An advertising sponsored paper however serves two masters -- foremost are its sponsors, who enable it to sell the newspaper at a loss, and its readers whose attention the advertiser is in effect buying. Catch and kill here would have been the cynical editor's #1 job -- the increased ad rates being more in the way of a bonus, for continued good service in only reporting good things, (its "be nice" policy, as it were), about its sponsor.

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    This is a story from over 100 years ago. While a historic perspective isn't entirely uninteresting, it would be a lot more useful for the reader if this answer would use a more recent example. – Philipp Jul 27 '18 at 8:19
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    It is still the same old story. And 1987 is still 31 years ago. If you would be able to find some example from the 21st century, then your point would be a lot stronger. – Philipp Jul 27 '18 at 13:51
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    @Philipp, The question is already premised upon several infamous instances from this century. The OP did note: "The earliest reference I could find to "catch and kill" is this Wall Street Journal article from 2016; though their article sounds as if this were a previously existing phrase and practice." Helping establish the fact of this practice's longevity seems quite relevant. – agc Jul 27 '18 at 16:21
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    This isn't quite the same thing though. The woman interviewed was apparently free to take her story to any other newspaper. I don't see the non-disclosure or exclusivity deal here, only the bury/non-publication aspect, which surely is worrying enough given the newspaper's obvious conflict of interest. I.e. there's the kill aspect (and some blackmail), but not clearly the catch aspect. – Fizz Jul 29 '18 at 17:52
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    @agc, no that's no what catching refers to. Blackmailing the subject of the story is a different aspect. Catching refers to ensuring/buying story exclusivity from the source so that it can't be published elsewhere. – Fizz Jul 30 '18 at 13:22
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Probably the most famous is Walter Duranty of the New York Times hiding the Socialist Soviet genocide in the Ukraine:

Ask any journalist to name the most disreputable figure in his profession, and one name immediately comes to mind—the late New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty. Duranty is known for reporting on the Ukrainian famine precipitated by Joseph Stalin in the early Thirties. As head of the Times’s Moscow bureau, Duranty covered up the deaths of hundreds of thousands of peasants and perversely ran false reports written from Moscow about the success of Soviet agricultural policy. More dismaying is that his reporting from Moscow won him the very first Pulitzer Prize given to The New York Times for its foreign coverage in 1932.

Or..

There is no consensus among historians as to the extent and causes of the famine. The estimates vary widely between 2.5 and 10 million people. In 2006, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law recognizing the famine as an intentional act of genocide by the Communist regime against the Ukrainian people. The current Russian government argues Communist Joseph Stalin’s disastrous economic policies caused the famine, but rejects the argument that it was a genocide specifically targeting ethnic Ukrainians.

Regardless of that dispute, the famine was definitely a tragedy of enormous proportions. Now, imagine that you live in the United States in the early 1930s and get your news from The New York Times (NYT). What do you know about this tragedy? The short answer is nothing.

The New York Times, Apologist for Communist Murder

The head of the NYT’s Moscow bureau at that time was Walter Duranty, an apologist for Bolshevism. American left-wing intellectuals enthusiastically greeted his dispatches from the Soviet Union. In 1931, Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles in the NYT that covered up Stalinism’s atrocities.

Some may believe that Duranty was acting independently as a foreign correspondent in the USSR, and not under the direction of the Times. However, research reveals that this assertion is untrue.

That Duranty was hardly a rogue reporter duping his employer is supported by the following recent revelation by Dr. James Mace:

In the 1980s during the course of my own research on the Ukrainian Holodomor [famine] I came across a most interesting document in the U.S. National Archives, a memorandum from one A.W. Kliefoth of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin dated June 4, 1931. Duranty dropped in to renew his passport. Mr. Kliefoth thought it might be of possible interest to the State Department that this journalist, in whose reporting so much credence was placed, had told him that, " 'in agreement with The New York Times and the Soviet authorities,' his official dispatches always reflect the official opinion of the Soviet government and not his own."

Note that the American consular official thought it particularly important for his superiors that the phrase, in agreement with The New York Times and the Soviet authorities, was a direct quotation. This was precisely the sort of journalistic integrity that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. -- "A Tale of Two Journalists: Walter Duranty, Gareth Jones, and the Pulitzer Prize," Ukraine List 203, July 15, 2003.

Journalists who want to keep their jobs and to prosper write what their employers want them to write, and, apparently, Duranty was no exception. All along, he was doing exceptionally well just what his professional masters at The New York Times wanted him to do. Really, how could anyone have ever doubted it? And, for its part, the Gray Lady was hardly out of step with the Roosevelt administration when it came to cozying up to Stalin's Soviet Union, as the McCollam reference above makes abundantly clear.

To be clear no one owns a story, just their interpretation of it. That the NYTs whore price to Stalin for his version of events was zero dollars doesn't make the NYTs less of a whore, rather it makes them more of one.

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    I'm not arguing one way or the other, but not sure an anecdotal second-hand quote is entirely 'proof' of that. – user1530 Jul 26 '18 at 21:21
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    Also...this doesn't really fall into 'catch and kill'. Unless I'm misunderstanding the story...there was no exclusive story here paid for in exchange for confidentiality agreement? (If anything, it's a good example of unethical and tainted journalism but not the same as getting paid off to kill a story that couldn't be printed elsewhere) – user1530 Jul 26 '18 at 21:22
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    I don't see how this answers the question. Did Duranty or the NYT buy the exclusive rights to this story so that nobody else could report on it? – tim Jul 26 '18 at 21:22
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    Plus, if this account is true (which it mostly seems to be) there's surely a better source than the Federalist or the New Criterion, both highly ideological publications. A criticism of newspaper bias that cites only fairly biased sources (and with similar leanings, no less) loses some of its potency. – Obie 2.0 Jul 26 '18 at 22:36
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    This answer would be better if the quotes were a bit clearer as to the virtual chain of custody regarding news of the famine. Please clarify as to whether WD was obstructive, or his editor, or publisher, and perhaps provide a bit of background as to how narrow the journalistic bandwidth was back then for foreign correspondents in Russia. Was this a world press problem, an American problem, or just NYC – agc Jul 27 '18 at 13:55

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