Tabloid King Spills His Guts!

David Perel, the editor who brought down John Edwards, takes on a new challenge at 'Star'
David Perel

David Perel | Photo by: Elizabeth Lippman


David Perel is stretched out on the couch in a conference room in the Manhattan headquarters of American Media Inc., the parent company of the celebrity magazine Star, where he’s just taken over as editor. It’s a rare slow news day for him, and he’s in a reflective mood (only natural, since, as he points out, he is lying on a couch talking about his life). He’s trying to explain how he became the consummate outsider that he’s been over his 30 years in journalism. It goes back to his childhood in Baltimore, he says, in a time and place where the topic of race dominated the national discussion—and his family’s kitchen table. His father worked in a meat-packing plant, his mother was a bookkeeper. “I grew up in a big civil-rights household,” he says. “Everyone in the extended family was part of that.”

Then a curious thing happens. He says, offhand, that he left home when he was only 17. But asked to elaborate, he becomes visibly uncomfortable and clams up. “I’m just not going to answer that,” he says. “I’ve been on my own a long time.” And with that, the analysis session is over.

If the tables were turned—if Perel were a former football star accused of murdering his ex-wife, a top talk radio host with a painkiller problem, or a presidential candidate with a hippie mistress and a love child—there is no question what he’d do. He’d send a team of reporters to Baltimore, have them spend months tracking down his family. He’d have photographers following himself. He’d spend thousands convincing reluctant sources to come forward, and commissioning psychological analyses of himself. He wouldn’t rest until he had the full story. But apparently even the former editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer has some secrets he’d rather keep out of the public eye.

When he was in school at the University of Maryland, Perel worked on the college newspaper, The Diamondback, with a young man named David Simon, who’d go on to become one of the icons of modern-day journalism as the former Baltimore Sun reporter behind HBO’s The Wire. Simon can be vicious about reporters and editors he doesn’t respect—the last season of The Wire featured characters who were thinly veiled representations of some of his old journalistic enemies. But when it comes to Perel, Simon has nothing but praise.

“Perel was one of the guys who did it right,” Simon says of their days together on the college paper. “He seemed to be cut out for newspapering.”

Some years later, when Perel was editing the Enquirer and Simon was at the Sun, the two reconnected by phone.

“When he told me he was the editor in chief of the Enquirer, I remember saying, ‘Dude, with the possible exception of Johnny Apple at The New York Times and whoever gets to write the page-one headlines at the New York Post, you have maybe the best job in journalism,’” Simon recalls, adding that Perel replied, “No shit.”

Perel has been beating even the biggest papers to stories for years now, but he really made his mark during the 2008 presidential race, when the Enquirer, under his leadership, broke the story that former senator and Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards had an extramarital affair and fathered an illegitimate child. Last week, Edwards was indicted on federal charges related to money allegedly paid to cover up that affair—charges that might never have been filed without the work of Perel’s team.

For getting the story that no one else could, and eventually forcing Edwards in to a confession, the Enquirer finally earned a begrudging measure of esteem from the rest of the media.

Perel claims not to care. “It’s all about breaking the story—it’s about breaking the story,” he insisted over lunch near his office last week.

That’s been his attitude for decades now. The National Enquirer may be the Rodney Dangerfield of newspapers—it gets no respect—but Perel had his chance to go mainstream. He preferred the Enquirer. After graduating college, he worked for a short time covering sports for The Washington Post and Gannett’s Florida Today. But he was seduced by the Enquirer and the seemingly unlimited resources it devoted to stories. After taking a year off to travel the world, he joined the Enquirer as a reporter in 1985. By 1996, when O.J. Simpson went on trial for murder, he’d worked his way up to senior editor. It was his coverage of the Simpson story—the Enquirer was the first to report on Simpson’s now-infamous Bruno Magli shoes and the knife he bought shortly before he allegedly stabbed his ex-wife and her friend Ron Goldman, and it was first to publish Nicole Brown Simpson’s diaries—that really brought him to the attention of David Pecker, the chairman, president and CEO of Enquirer parent AMI.

“David was the go-to guy,” Pecker says. “He was very aggressive. He lived on a kibbutz in Israel. He was at The Washington Post. He had that kind of inner creativity, aggressiveness. I also saw that he could manage.”

Pecker gave him more responsibilities, including the weight-loss magazine Looking Good Now and Bat Boy Lives!, a book based on the mutant creation of AMI’s Weekly World News.

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