Jeff Bezos applauded for going public about Enquirer 'extortion' attempt
Posted February 8, 2019 12:44 a.m. EST
CNN — A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos has been the subject of unflattering headlines for several weeks — even in his own newspaper.
The National Enquirer revealed Bezos' relationship with Lauren Sanchez last month, just hours after Bezos and his wife MacKenzie said they were getting divorced. The Post followed up earlier this week with a story titled "Was tabloid exposé of Bezos affair just juicy gossip or a political hit job?"
That question is now even more relevant in light of an extraordinary blog post that Bezos published on Thursday. He alleged an "extortion and blackmail" attempt by the Enquirer's parent company American Media Inc. And he published multiple emails to back up the claim.
Those unflattering headlines about his love life have receded into the background for the time being. On Thursday night, the consensus in media and tech circles was that Bezos did a brave and admirable thing by going public. He has won a lot of goodwill by exposing American Media's alleged activities.
It's "amazing that the National Enquirer has been so repulsive that the whole Internet is rooting for a billionaire who got busted for an affair," WIRED editor Nicholas Thompson tweeted.
Linking to the Bezos blog post, Recode co-founder Kara Swisher said "I don't love @JeffBezos in general, but I LOVE Jeff Bezos in particular here."
"What an incredibly effective response to extortion," BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith added.
Karen Tumulty, a columnist for the Post, commented that Bezos "just broke the National Enquirer's business model."
The trigger for the alleged "extortion" attempt was apparently security expert Gavin de Becker's private investigation for Bezos. De Becker was charged with figuring out the source of the leaks to the Enquirer, and he concluded that it was "politically motivated." (We don't know on what basis he concluded that or what evidence he may have.)
Something about de Becker's probe, or the stories coming out about it, sparked a reaction inside AMI. According to Bezos, "several days ago, an AMI leader advised us that Mr. Pecker is 'apoplectic' about our investigation." So, Bezos wrote, AMI made an offer: "They said they had more of my text messages and photos that they would publish if we didn't stop our investigation."
In the blog post, Bezos published multiple emails from AMI. In one email, a lawyer for the media company proposed that Bezos would disavow any belief that the Enquirer's coverage was "politically motivated," and in exchange, AMI would not "publish, distribute, share, or describe unpublished texts and photos."
Here's what we don't know
-- What is American Media's version of events? The company has not commented.
-- We've been trying to call, text and email spokespeople for AMI and Pecker. My calls have been going straight to voicemail.
-- Will either side, Bezos or AMI, share any other emails or other evidence?
-- Will AMI publish private photos of Bezos?
-- AMI struck an immunity deal with federal prosecutors in exchange for cooperation in the Michael Cohen case. Will those prosecutors be looking at Bezos' allegations to see whether they compromise the deal.
-- Will Trump weigh in somehow?
Ronan Farrow says this isn't the first time...
"I and at least one other prominent journalist involved in breaking stories about the National Enquirer's arrangement with Trump fielded similar 'stop digging or we'll ruin you' blackmail efforts from AMI," Ronan Farrow tweeted Thursday night.
He added: "I did not engage as I don't cut deals with subjects of ongoing reporting."
The Daily Beast did some digging into the Bezos leak hunt last week... "In the process of reporting those stories, The Beast and a member of its staff were threatened by AMI's attorneys," The Beast's Lachlan Markay wrote Thursday night.
I've asked AMI for comment on these allegation too -- radio silence...
Source: "It will all come out now"
Oliver Darcy emails: There's one line in Bezos' post that stands out. Bezos wrote that people have contacted his investigation team "about their similar experiences with AMI, and how they needed to capitulate because, for example, their livelihoods were at stake." Who are these people? What other "similar experiences" was Bezos referring to?
A person familiar with the National Enquirer's operation told me Thursday evening that there were indeed other such situations. The person said that there will be other shoes likely to drop moving forward. "It will all come out now," the person predicted. Stay tuned...
Don't forget the Joe and Mika case
The Enquirer has been accused of blackmail before. Here's my 2017 story about Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski's claims that Trump and his W.H. used the possibility of a hit piece in the National Enquirer to threaten them and change their news coverage...
Is it a crime?
On "AC360" Jeffrey Toobin was candid: "I don't know," he said, straight up.
That's how other legal experts are reacting too. Renato Mariotti tweeted: "Was AMI's action slimy? Yes. Is it consistent with some of the questionable practices that AMI engaged in on behalf of Trump and others? Yes. But is this the sort of case federal prosecutors would charge as extortion? No."
Team Bezos chose Medium
How did his camp decide to release the blog post? By setting up an account on Medium. The letter was his first-ever post on the platform. It's a logical place to publish -- a neutral space where the emphasis is on the words, nothing else -- and kept the message away from any Amazon or Post-owned website.
"His blog post is, well, a blog post. But it is also so salacious, so bizarrely stimulating, that it overwhelms the thinking brain and presents instead as pure spectacle," The Atlantic's Robinson Meyer wrote Thursday night. "In a little more than 2,000 words, Bezos seemed to rip every headline out of the newspaper and bind them in an eternal neon braid: the mighty power of billionaires, the immiseration of American journalism, the thin smudge of porniness that smartphones have layered onto reality—all of that, and President Donald Trump..."
Read more of Thursday's "Reliable Sources" newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...
The Post is Bezos' point of pride
Katie Pellico flagged this parenthetical in the Bezos letter, which described his ownership of WaPo as a "complexifier" in his life:
"Even though The Post is a complexifier for me, I do not at all regret my investment. The Post is a critical institution with a critical mission. My stewardship of The Post and my support of its mission, which will remain unswerving, is something I will be most proud of when I'm 90 and reviewing my life, if I'm lucky enough to live that long, regardless of any complexities it creates for me."
The Post's new story about this case is on Friday's front page...