Clash of the ti­tans and the tabloids

Bil­lion­aires Be­zos and Thiel took different tacks with me­dia op­po­nents

The Washington Post - - STYLE - BY MANUEL ROIG- FRANZIA

Both men have gobs of money. They didn’t make it the old­fash­ioned way, with steel and brick, but in­stead with big, dis­rup­tive, life-chang­ing ideas.

Af­ter they got rich, af­ter they’d achieved a ti­tan sta­tus imag­in­able only in the dig­i­tal age, that’s when the tabloids came for them.

And that’s when they went to war.

Theirs is a tale of two bil­lion­aires — Jef­frey P. Be­zos of Ama­zon.com fame and Peter Thiel, who birthed PayPal. So different in style and tem­per­a­ment, the two men have each found their sex lives splashed in pub­lic against their wills in sep­a­rate tabloid “gotchas.” But they have tan­gled with the mer­chants of salac­ity in com­pletely op­po­site ways.

Be­zos, who also owns The Wash­ing­ton Post, blasted his dis­dain into the maw of the In­ter­net, es­sen­tially de­liv­er­ing the equiv­a­lent of a lawyer’s open­ing state­ment with the en­tire planet sit­ting in the jury box. Thiel op­er­ated in sotto voce fash­ion, se­cretly ma­neu­ver­ing to ex­act re­venge and not sur­fac­ing un­til he had tri­umphed.

Be­zos is locked in a con­flict with the Na­tional En­quirer, which last

month pub­lished in­ti­mate text mes­sages he’d sent to Lau­ren Sanchez, with whom he was hav­ing an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair, and pho­tos of them to­gether. In a Medium post Thurs­day, Be­zos ac­cused the su­per­mar­ket tabloid, which is owned by Amer­i­can Me­dia Inc., of black­mail and ex­tor­tion for threat­en­ing to pub­lish ad­di­tional in­ti­mate photographs if he and his rep­re­sen­ta­tives did not agree to stop their in­ves­ti­ga­tion of how the ma­te­rial was ob­tained. Be­zos sug­gested that the tabloid, whose par­ent com­pany is run by a friend of Pres­i­dent Trump, had po­lit­i­cal mo­tives to run sto­ries about his af­fair. Trump has fre­quently at­tacked Be­zos over his own­er­ship of The Post.

Thiel’s bat­tle took place against Gawker, the sassy and some­times raunchy web­site that earned his eter­nal en­mity by out­ing him as gay in 2007. He got back at the site in 2016 when he sur­rep­ti­tiously funded a suc­cess­ful law­suit by Terry Bol­lea, bet­ter known as the wrestler Hulk Ho­gan, over the site’s 2012 pub­li­ca­tion of a tape de­pict­ing Bol­lea hav­ing sex. Gawker went out of busi­ness af­ter a jury awarded $140 mil­lion in dam­ages.

“They are two fun­da­men­tally different ap­proaches to sim­i­lar prob­lems,” said Ryan Hol­i­day, au­thor of “Con­spir­acy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Ho­gan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of In­trigue.”

When Thiel’s in­volve­ment in the Bol­lea case was re­vealed, Be- zos was less than en­thu­si­as­tic about his fel­low tech ti­tan’s ac­tions. At a con­fer­ence in June 2016, Be­zos was asked about the Thiel-Gawker slugfest. He re­sponded with an old say­ing: “Seek re­venge and you should dig two graves, one for your­self.”

“Is that re­ally how you want to spend your time?” Be­zos went on to say. “As a pub­lic fig­ure, the best de­fense to speech that you don’t like is to de­velop a thick skin.”

Those re­marks came to mind for Be­zos watch­ers af­ter his post­ing on Medium, a self-pub­lish­ing web­site.

“It did make me think he was re­con­sid­er­ing that po­si­tion,” said Hol­i­day, who also works as a me­dia strate­gist. But was he? In the first para­graph of Be­zos’s post, he frames his de­ci­sion to pub­li­cize let­ters he had re­ceived from the Na­tional En­quirer as ev­i­dence of wrong­do­ing — a step be­yond be­rat­ing the tabloid for pub­lish­ing de­tails of his pri­vate life.

“Rather than ca­pit­u­late to ex­tor­tion and black­mail, I’ve de­cided to pub­lish ex­actly what they sent me, de­spite the per­sonal cost and em­bar­rass­ment they threaten,” Be­zos wrote.

The saga is drenched in a hail­storm of the­o­ries and counter-the­o­ries. Be­zos’s team, headed by famed se­cu­rity con­sul­tant Gavin de Becker, has cast a sus­pi­cious eye on Michael Sanchez re­gard­ing the leak of the texts and pho­tos. Sanchez is the brother of Be­zos’s girl­friend, for­mer TV host Lau­ren Sanchez. Michael Sanchez is a Trump sup­porter, and his po­ten­tial in­volve­ment is part of a the­ory that the leak is a po­lit­i­cal hit.

Michael Sanchez has de­nied in­volve­ment and sug­gested that de Becker might be in­volved, sup­pos­edly in an ef­fort to de­stroy the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Be­zos and his sis­ter and re­pair the Ama­zon founder’s mar­riage to MacKen­zie Be­zos.

Both Sanchez and de Becker have, at times, ex­plored the pos­si­bil­ity that the text mes­sages were ob­tained by a for­eign gov­ern­ment or a busi­ness com­peti­tor, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views and a Post re­view of emails and text mes­sages. Sanchez has even posited that Is­rael’s Mos­sad, Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence or the U.S. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency might be in­volved. (De Becker ul­ti­mately con­cluded that hack­ing was not in­volved.)

The Post’s re­port­ing on the pri­vate leak in­ves­ti­ga­tion seemed to have played a role in Na­tional En­quirer’s de­ci­sion to ap­proach Be­zos. Ac­cord­ing to one of the let­ters Be­zos posted on Medium, Dy­lan Howard, a top ed­i­tor at the tabloid, cited The Post’s ex­am­i­na­tion of the po­lit­i­cal hit-job the­ory and said he was pre­pared to pub­lish ad­di­tional pho­tos of Be­zos and Lau­ren Sanchez.

Pub­lish­ing the let­ters, with­out redact­ing the de­tailed list of images, was a move by Be­zos that fit into one of the cre­dos of the cri­sis man­age­ment busi­ness: Get out in front of a neg­a­tive story.

“It’s al­ways bet­ter to de­fine your­self than let the other side de­fine you,” said Diana Banis­ter, a vet­eran Wash­ing­ton cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ist with Shirley & Banis­ter Pub­lic Af­fairs.

It may have been a smart strat­egy, Banis­ter said, but the ex­e­cu­tion wasn’t per­fect. Banis­ter thought Be­zos’s tone, at times, dripped with “snark­i­ness.” She also thinks Be­zos’s let­ter was overly com­plex, not­ing his de­ci­sion to raise the pos­si­bil­ity that the Na­tional En­quirer’s re­la­tion­ship with Saudi Ara­bia might have some­thing to do with the se­quence of events. The Post has re­ported that the CIA has con­cluded that Saudi Ara­bian Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man or­dered the bru­tal mur­der of Post con­tribut­ing colum­nist Ja­mal Khashoggi. The En­quirer had raised eye­brows by pub­lish­ing a glow­ing spe­cial edi­tion about the crown prince.

The En­quirer has adamantly de­nied be­ing mo­ti­vated by pol­i­tics to pub­lish the Be­zos texts and pho­tos.

Be­zos, de Becker and an Ama­zon spokesman de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

Be­zos and Thiel both see their bat­tles as achiev­ing some greater good.

Thiel has de­cried the fact that even a wealthy per­son, such as Bol­lea, needed his fi­nan­cial help to take on a tabloid. Be­zos struck a sim­i­lar note in his Medium post, writ­ing, “If in my po­si­tion I can’t stand up to this kind of ex­tor­tion, how many peo­ple can?”

As de­scribed by Hol­i­day, Thiel con­sid­ered var­i­ous ap­proaches, in­clud­ing hir­ing a lob­by­ist, af­ter Gawker’s piece out­ing him.

“He set­tled on a le­gal strat­egy in se­cret as a way of set­tling the score,” Hol­i­day said.

Thiel thought he needed an “ele­ment of sur­prise,” Hol­i­day said, and fig­ured fund­ing Bol­lea’s law­suit was the “best way to put an end to what he felt was some­one act­ing out­side the bounds of hu­man de­cency.”

Thiel’s covert as­sault on Gawker has drawn crit­i­cism that cites the dan­gers of wealthy in­di­vid­u­als dic­tat­ing who is al­lowed to pro­duce news. But Thiel has re­jected those broad­sides, say­ing that Gawker was a unique case.

“It is ridicu­lous to claim that jour­nal­ism re­quires in­dis­crim­i­nate ac­cess to pri­vate peo­ple’s sex lives,” Thiel wrote in an Au­gust 2016 col­umn in the New York Times. “A free press is vi­tal for pub­lic de­bate. Since sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion can some­times be pub­licly rel­e­vant, ex­er­cis­ing judg­ment is al­ways part of the jour­nal­ist’s pro­fes­sion. It’s not for me to draw the line, but jour­nal­ists should con­demn those who will­fully cross it.”

Less than a week af­ter that col­umn was pub­lished, a no­tice ap­peared on Gawker’s web­site.

“Gawker.com is shut­ting down to­day, Mon­day 22nd Au­gust, 2016, some 13 years af­ter it be­gan and two days be­fore the end of my for­ties,” wrote ed­i­tor Nick Den­ton. “It is the end of an era.” Thiel had won. Now the ques­tion hangs in the air: Will Be­zos? And what would a Be­zos win look like?

“Jeff Be­zos is be­ing coura­geous in ex­pos­ing the un­seemly prac­tices of Amer­i­can Me­dia and its ti­tles, in­clud­ing the Na­tional En­quirer,” Charles Harder, a high­pow­ered at­tor­ney who rep­re­sented Bol­lea in the Gawker suit, wrote Fri­day in an email to The Post. “The com­pany pub­lishes dozens of su­per­mar­ket mag­a­zines and on­line pub­li­ca­tions which mil­lions of Amer­i­cans read. (Per­haps not for long.)”

From left, David Pecker, chair­man and CEO of Amer­i­can Me­dia Inc., Ama­zon.com’s Jef­frey P. Be­zos, and PayPal’s Peter Thiel. Be­zos and Thiel have both been the tar­gets of tabloid “gotchas,” but the bil­lion­aires have han­dled the sit­u­a­tions dif­fer­ently.

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