Bezos’ Enquiring mind wants to know ... it all
Jeff Bezos, the digital retail titan and media baron, took to the internet 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 recently told Bezos that it had come into possession of several potentially embarrassing photos. The scandal sheet already had published an exposé 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.
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. The Washington Post, of course, has published seminal 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. Back in 2015 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. 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 — a practice known as “catch and kill.”
Pecker may be sitting on years of Enquirer stories about Trump that were never published and would presumably be of interest to authorities.
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 it could be prosecuted for “any federal criminal violation” that authorities already know about. That may explain why AMI tried to wring a false statement out of Bezos. Specifically, AMI demanded 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.”
AMI has tried to bully the wrong person. Bezos is the world’s richest man and he’s willing to put his own reputation in play before the Enquirer does to make a point and to discover how the publication got his texts and photos.
“If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” Bezos wrote. “... 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, 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.)
AMI’S chief content officer, Dylan Howard, notes in his correspondence with Bezos that the private photos 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 exercised bad judgment and camera skills in all of this, and he possibly has caused his wife acute pain. Working conditions at Amazon have drawn criticism recently and the company’s size and reach need monitoring. But Bezos has chosen to joust with the most powerful man in the world and with a publication that aided and abetted the president’s ascent. And he’s doing so in service to the indispensable idea that people are entitled to have private lives that strangers can’t pickpocket.
Three cheers for Jeff Bezos.