Be­zos’ En­quir­ing mind wants to know ... it all

The Times-Tribune - - OP-ED - BY TI­MOTHY L. O’BRIEN BLOOMBERG NEWS (TNS) TI­MOTHY L. O’BRIEN is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of Bloomberg Opin­ion.

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.

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