That Time American Media Laid Me Off—And Tried to Take Away My First Amendment Rights
As a journalist, I’m thrilled to watch Jeff Bezos take a huge stand against American Media (AMI) and David Pecker. But, as a former employee of AMI, I’m actually ecstatic. Now, while nothing of that magnitude happened to me during my time there—I watched a lot of shady and unethical journalism unfold. Some I questioned—and was immediately silenced over—and some things I didn’t know about until it was too late.
I worked at AMI from October of 2012 until September of 2014, dubiously taking the job and only accepting because I was lied to about a “pivot to digital” the company was making. Money was thrown at me, outrageous promises sealed the deal and for a while, I did have my dream job. But that’s the dirty little secret of AMI . . . they hype people up, give them what they want and then tear them down. In the grand scheme of things, my time at AMI is just a blip on my career path and the emotional damage done was minimal. But the things I witnessed make it anything BUT surprising that Pecker’s in cahoots with Donald Trump and will so blatantly tear Bezos down.
On September 19th, 2014, I walked into AMI’s NYC headquarters a few hours late and not knowing it was for the last time. I’d gotten held up at a sonogram appointment. I was six months pregnant and already worried about job security once my daughter was born. AMI had ZERO maternity leave—despite the fact that they published Fit Pregnancy and despite the fact that Fit Pregnancy’s editor-in-chief was pregnant too. She broke the news to me that Pecker had not a shred of interest in creating a paid maternity leave plan. Apparently, Pecker believed he had no reason to—as that’s why “short term disability” existed.
So, imagine my utter disbelief and devastation to find the head of human resources waiting for me at my desk. My boss was nowhere to be found—and the team that reported to me? Not a one was at their desks. My team and I were part of a mass exodus of “surprise” layoffs. The top tier people—all men, by the way—were told to “hide” and “wait out” the blood bath at a restaurant down the street. They all enjoyed a 5-star lunch on Pecker’s expense account while the shots were fired.
The head of HR delivered my fate swiftly and callously . . . I needed to pack up my belongings, hand over my ID and vacate the premises immediately. “But don’t you know I’m pregnant? I meekly asked, a glimmer of hope that it would change everything. . . yet knowing it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference. The head of HR didn’t flinch, respond or react. He handed me a packet with the details of my separation—a pitiful two weeks severance and a document that I HAD to sign if I wanted to receive the money.
If I accepted, I could never write ONE word—fiction or non—that even reflected or hinted at my time at American Media and more specifically, could not paint David Pecker in a negative light. This also went for any TV or radio interviews I ever did. In a nutshell, the words “American Media” or “David Pecker” or anything I uttered that even alluded to either of them was strictly—and forever—forbidden from my pen and my lips.
I took the separation agreement to an employment lawyer who told me that he’d never seen such a blatant violation of the First Amendment. “Don’t sign it,” the lawyer said. “You’ll find other ways to make up the money.”
Yes, two weeks salary could have bought a lot of diapers or pay our rent and give us a tiny boost as I figured out my next move. But two weeks salary would NOT and could NOT buy my silence and crush my first amendment rights. No amount of money could. While I was always wary of working for American Media, I was very careful to navigate my time there in a way that produced positive celebrity journalism amid a sea of misogynists, liars and corrupt leaders fighting me every step of the way. David Pecker was rarely seen—but his presence was ominous. Many times I was handed press releases on business men or international leaders that I HAD to post about on the OK! Site—per David Pecker. If I didn’t comply, well, that was not an option, “Is it really worth starting a battle you’ll lose over one tiny post?” my boss would ask me, exasperated and with his head in his hands, every time I complained that it was unethical and off brand for me to write about these people, people that I now know were likely funding my paychecks. That toxic company culture was a direct result of Pecker’s his outrageous demands, insane expectations and ruthless work ethic that did not even remotely resemble journalism.
Here’s the thing—I was hired as part of a new regime at AMI that wanted to enter the 21st century and bring its media brands into the digital age. General managers were hired to oversee the entertainment, men/fitness and women’s titles. A long time friend/colleague became the men/fitness general manager and begged me to take the job as OK! Magazine’s digital director. I was dubious—but came in for a meeting. Promises were made that I could break free from the “tabloid” style of the magazine, use the OK! web site as a space to create a completely new (and respectable) lifestyle brand, have complete creative control and freedom, have very tiny traffic goals to hit and an entire staff to hire/manage on my own.
But the biggest selling point?
No “stress” and lots of “fun.” Why? Millions were being pumped into this “digital overhaul” so we had YEARS to stress over traffic numbers and worry about turning a profit. I was tasked with making great content, hiring a superstar team and building the brand online. Easy peasy!
But the lies sounded great.
Still, I hesitated.
So, they threw 20K more to the six figure salary they were offering. I said I needed to think about it. I’d barely got in the taxi to head home and process this opportunity when I got a call from HR offering me the job. I was so shocked that I accepted. News spread quickly and many media friends called to warn me that AMI, and more specifically, David Pecker, loved to make promises that could never ever be kept. . . that women never got very far in this company . . . and that I should be prepared to only last a few months. AMI liked to hire and fire for sport.
I didn’t listen. Which is why the following shouldn’t have surprised me:
On my first day, I had to fire around five unsuspecting staffers . . . but FIRST make them think all was fine and they were keeping their jobs so I could pump them for tons of info (like passwords to the server) that I needed to move forward.
I would NOT have a private office and I could not fight for one. It didn’t matter that all the MEN with the EXACT same job and title as me all had their own office space. I could not have one too—end of story. This was one of many examples of the gross discrepancies between men and women leaders at AMI.
One day, my boss was fired. No one really sat me down to explain why what that meant for my team and the future. My friend who brought me into the company was now my boss. He avoided any and all uncomfortable or negative conversations/confrontations by using our meeting times to show me YouTube videos of his annoying pop culture obsessions.
After meticulously hiring and building my team—surprise (not really)—I had to lay off at least three less then a year later. No, I couldn’t be in the room with HR to break the news. My friend turned boss would handle it by lying to the three girls who were unknowingly losing their jobs. He told them they were coming to sit in on a sales meeting . . . he even made small talk about TV shows on the elevator ride up to the “meeting” . . . and then bolted out of the conference room as soon as the girls saw the lone HR manager instead of a sales meeting in the room.
And, a few months after I was hired, Pecker brought on a new editorial lead for Radar. Of course he had an office. And no less than ten current AND former employees warned me that this guy had once worked in the LA office but due to a barrage of sexual harassment complaints, was now banned. If he wanted a job, he had to work in NYC . . . he was too valuable to Pecker so he never was punished for his vile behavior. Instead, he got a “fresh” start with an unsuspecting staff in NYC. Lovely. This guy now runs every tabloid owned by AMI, including, you guessed it, The National Enquirer.
A few days before I was laid off, I noticed that Mr. “Banned from LA” was given access to ALL my meticulously created documents about running the OK! web site from my mission statement to style guide. I asked my “friend turned boss” what was going on. His response was a smattering of BS—everyone, including Pecker, apparently was impressed with the things I did for the OK! site, especially the celebrity penned columns we launched and original video content we posted. My “friend turned boss” assured me that Mr. “Banned from LA” simply wanted to review and implement some of my ideas and best practices for Radar.
Sigh . . .
I’ll end by saying that on the day that I was laid off, I was told that my position was “being eliminated” because of “restructuring.” Except, that very afternoon, Mr. “Banned from LA” told all my contacts that he’d officially taken my job . . .