(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Jeff Bezos, the digital retail titan and media baron, took to the internet on Thursday evening to defend himself. In a remarkable post on Medium.com, he accused the National Enquirer — the flamethrower-cum-garbage-bin owned by American Media Inc. and overseen by its publisher, David Pecker — of blackmail and extortion.
The Enquirer, you see, recently told Bezos that it had come into possession of several potentially embarrassing photos. The scandal sheet had already published an expose on Bezos’s extramarital affair and that story included private text messages and photos, which spurred him to hire investigators to find out how the Enquirer got its hands on all that stuff.
The new round of 10 photos includes, according to Bezos, four yawners (i.e., “a selfie of Mr. Bezos fully clothed”), three so-whats (of his mistress), and three what-was-he-thinkings (involving the Amazon.com Inc. founder and Washington Post owner’s penis). AMI threatened to publish the new photos unless Bezos called off his investigation, according to copies of email correspondence he shared. In other words, AMI warned, we are threatening to make use of your private property, Jeff, in order to stop your inquiry into how we got our hands on your private property.
There’s another important wrinkle here: Pecker is a longtime friend, political supporter and confidant of President Donald Trump, and Bezos, Amazon and the Washington Post have been repeated targets of the president’s ire. Trump has complained that Amazon gets preferential tax and postal rates; in December the U.S. Postal Service proposed rate hikes on shipping services Amazon and other companies use after Trump ordered an audit of the agency’s rates (the USPS has said the proposed hikes were not in response to Trump’s criticisms of Amazon). The Washington Post, of course, has published seminal and award-winning coverage of Trump’s political and business dealings as well as his shortcomings, legal perils, and personal life.
Pecker guided the Enquirer’s coverage of Trump down a very different path than the Post. Back in the summer of 2015, shortly after Trump announced his presidential bid, Trump and his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, met with Pecker to talk about how best to bury negative news stories about Trump’s extramarital relationships with women. Pecker, who entered into a cooperation agreement with authorities in 2018 that granted him immunity from prosecution, has told law enforcement officials that he agreed to purchase possibly damaging stories about Trump and never publish them in the Enquirer — a practice known as “catch and kill.” Among those stories were accounts of Trump’s sexual encounters with a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal. Cohen’s payments to McDougal (and to another woman, a former porn star named Stormy Daniels) triggered a federal investigation of possible campaign finance fraud.
Pecker may be sitting on years of Enquirer stories about Trump that were never published and would presumably be of interest to authorities. It’s not clear if Bezos’s revelations on Thursday night will complicate matters for Pecker.
Under AMI’s own agreement to assist law enforcement, the company won’t be prosecuted and must cooperate for three years. Signed last September, the agreement clearly states that if the company engages in any criminal acts after that date then it could be prosecuted for “any federal criminal violation” that authorities already know about. That fact, Trump’s presence, and all of the other very obvious politics floating around this collision of money, power and gossip, may explain why AMI tried to wring a false statement out of Bezos in exchange for not publishing the new photos. Specifically, AMI demanded, per Bezos’s Medium post, that he assert publicly that he has “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
Ah, but AMI has tried to bully the wrong person. Bezos is the world’s richest man, he has ample resources and a spine, and he’s willing to put his own reputation in play before the Enquirer does — in order to make a point and to discover how the publication got his texts and photos.
“Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” Bezos wrote of his exchanges with the company. “These communications cement AMI’s long-earned reputation for weaponizing journalistic privileges, hiding behind important protections, and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism. Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption. I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.”
Bezos points out in his post that in addition to Trump considering him an enemy, Saudi Arabia — which has business ties to AMI and Pecker and the Trumps — might feel the same way due to the “Post’s essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi.”
Old-fashioned envy may be at a work here, too. Bezos has a fortune estimated to be worth about $134 billion, which likely grates on Trump given that the president’s own net worth is a fraction of the wildly inflated $10 billion he sometimes claims to have. (Trump unsuccessfully sued me for libel for a biography I wrote called “TrumpNation,” citing unflattering sections of the book that examined his business record and wealth — and which he said damaged his reputation.) Bezos explains in his Medium post how he made his money, while also fileting AMI’s rationale for threatening to publish the photos:
“AMI’s claim of newsworthiness is that the photos are necessary to show Amazon shareholders that my business judgment is terrible. I founded Amazon in my garage 24 years ago, and drove all the packages to the post office myself. Today, Amazon employs more than 600,000 people, just finished its most profitable year ever, even while investing heavily in new initiatives, and it’s usually somewhere between the #1 and #5 most valuable company in the world. I will let those results speak for themselves.”
For his part, AMI’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard, notes in his correspondence with Bezos that the private photos he got his hands on were “obtained during our newsgathering.” Really? If AMI paid someone to hack Bezos’s devices to steal photos and texts, or if AMI received purloined photos and texts from a third party, then I wouldn’t call that “newsgathering” — in much the same way that I wouldn’t call Russian hackers burglarizing the Democratic National Committee’s servers “opposition research.” I’d call both things for what they are: theft.
Bezos has undoubtedly exercised bad judgment and camera skills in all of this, and he has possibly caused his wife acute pain. Working conditions at Amazon have also drawn criticism recently and the company’s size and reach need monitoring. But Bezos has also chosen to joust with the most powerful man in the world and with a potent publication that aided and abetted the president’s ascent. And he’s doing so in the service of the straightforward and indispensable idea that people are entitled to have private lives and private moments that strangers can’t pickpocket.
Three cheers for Jeff Bezos.
To contact the author of this story: Timothy L. O'Brien at email@example.com
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Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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