Ex-Gossip Columnist A.J. Benza on Trump's Press-Loving Past

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A.J. Benza

The Former 'New York Daily News' contributor recalls a time when Trump's relationship with the media was anything but contentious: "He didn't check his pulse in the morning to see if he was alive — he checked the papers."

Before Twitter. Before Tapper. And way before Tomi Lahren, the best way to check on all things Trump was to open a New York City newspaper and scan the gossip pages for a juicy item that spoke of the billionaire in bold-faced type. And, more often than not, it didn’t matter if the tidbit was placed there by the real estate baron himself. Back in the 1990s Trump played the game with a master’s touch. He was well-aware that the gossip and society pages were run on a barter system. And he truly knew how to give-to-get. When I was writing the Hot Copy and Downtown columns at the New York Daily News, from 1991 to 1997, I often said Donald Trump didn’t check his pulse in the morning to see if he was alive — he checked the papers.

But to say it was all a facade or that all those mentions were vacuous exercises in vanity, would be a lie. Truth is, Trump was always a big name that warranted bold type, even when he was crumbling under $3.4 billion in debt. Weight moves weight in the tabloid game. And Trump sold a lot of papers.

A call from him was always good for breaking a controversial building proposal or an explosive scandal in the Hamptons or even a ball-breaking divorce settlement. And sometimes those items weren’t even about him. Thing is though, as uncomfortable as it sometimes was to pay him back with glittering mentions in the columns alongside a super jock or a supermodel, it made the job easier. Readers bought what we were selling with his name wrapped around it. For whatever reason, our subscribers — whether blue-or white-collar — responded with polarizing interest. But it was interest just the same.

That’s why it’s odd for me whenever I hear him rail about his disdain for the press. That’s just not the Trump I remember. The Trump of the scandal-stained, Clinton ‘90’s seemed gracious to play a major role in the symbiotic relationship he shared with pages 1, 2, 3, 6 or otherwise. But the final irony is that it wasn’t Trump, or even “John Baron” for that matter, who caused his swift disappearance from our paper at the end of my run. That was an order that came from the top, when then-editor-in-chief Pete Hamill told me to scrub the column clean of the billionaire’s name. “Nobody cares about Trump anymore,” Hamill told me. “He through. Let’s move on.”

And here we are.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.