“No thank you, Mr. Pecker.” With those words, addressed to David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media Inc., Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and The Washington Post, launched into an extraordinary story last night on Medium, outlining an “extortion and blackmail” attempt against him by the National Enquirer, which is owned by AMI. The Enquirer threatened to publish explicit images of Bezos (please, read the details for yourselves) unless he publicly renounced the finding, reached by a team of private investigators he’d hired to look into the Enquirer, that its coverage of him had been politically motivated.
How did we get here? Last month, the Enquirer published an exposé on Bezos’s love life, boasting that it had tracked him “across five states and 40,000 miles” to reveal an alleged affair with Lauren Sanchez, a former TV news anchor in LA. (Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, said they were divorcing after a “long period” of “trial separation.”) Bezos swiftly retained Gavin de Becker, security guru to the stars, to find out who had leaked incriminating texts to the Enquirer. Last week, The Daily Beast reported that investigators suspected a political game was afoot: Pecker is a long-time ally of Donald Trump, who has, in turn, volubly assailed Bezos, including over the Post’s coverage of the White House. (Trump certainly revelled in the story of the affair once it published; “So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo,” he tweeted.) Last night, in his Medium post, Bezos also alluded to a “Saudi angle” involving an AMI tabloid called “The New Kingdom.” He wrote that Pecker was “apoplectic” about the private investigation.
As details of the boss’s affair have came to light, journalists at the Post have grappled with how best to cover them. (Despite its persistent assertion of editorial independence, missing a Bezos story will raise questions.) Last month, Post sources told Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo that “tabloid-style extramarital affairs aren’t typically in their wheelhouse” and yet “they don’t want to appear to be ignoring the story.” On Tuesday, the Post finally published a detailed report—bylined by Marc Fisher, a senior editor; Manuel Roig-Franzia, a features writer; and Sarah Ellison, a media reporter—on the Enquirer exposé, asking whether it was “just juicy gossip or a political hit job.”
The Post had no hesitation reporting on Bezos’s Medium post; an article covering it sits high up on the paper’s homepage and above the fold of its print edition this morning. Indeed, Bezos using a blog to allege media extortion is newsworthy, especially when he ties his treatment to the Enquirer’s role in the investigations surrounding Trump and his associates. Bezos lays out a (very) explicit example of the dirty tricks the Enquirer plays to manipulate targets—echoing, in some way, the “catch and kill” tactics it used during the 2016 campaign to buy, then bury, sleazy stories about Trump. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, AMI has been cooperating with federal prosecutors investigating Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, for his possibly illegal role in coordinating those hush payments. Bezos’s revelations about AMI’s more recent conduct cast new doubt on that cooperation (though at least one lawyer doubts the Bezos blackmail constitutes a crime).
In other words, the stories that appear in the Enquirer are often far less newsworthy than the stories that don’t. As the Bezos episode has evolved, the Post seems to have struck an appropriate balance in covering AMI’s salacious tabloid gossip (less important) and shady business strategy (more so). Getting caught in the crossfire of the stuff very rich people do is an occupational hazard when your owner is a very rich person. Given all Bezos has done for the Post, perhaps it’s a price well worth paying.
Below, more on Bezos, the Enquirer, and the Post:
- “We’ll ruin you”: After Bezos hit publish, journalists who have investigated AMI’s dodgy tactics said they, too, had been threatened by the company. Ronan Farrow, of The New Yorker, tweeted that he was told to “stop digging or we’ll ruin you.” And Lachlan Markay, of The Daily Beast, reported recent legal threats from AMI’s attorneys.
- “Scared and alone”: While Bezos won widespread plaudits on media Twitter last night, HuffPost’s Maxwell Strachan sounded a different note. “I would urge you to think of people much less wealthy than Bezos who found themselves in a similar situation with a tabloid—they are left feeling scared, alone and like they have no other choice but to capitulate to the demands, whatever they are,” he wrote.
- Mistaken identity: “@JeffBezos make it stop pls,” @Enquirer tweeted last night. @Enquirer is the handle of The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Pulitzer-winning newspaper in Ohio, not the National Enquirer.
- Pleasing Mr. Postman? In December, CJR’s Mathew Ingram evaluated the Post’s coverage of Amazon’s relationship with the US Postal Service. “A newspaper’s ownership can influence coverage in more subtle ways than outright calls for censorship, including self-censorship,” Ingram writes. “And the price of being owned by one of the world’s richest men is that some will inevitably see bias even where it might not exist.”
Other notable stories:
- Ingram recaps the plagiarism allegations swirling around Jill Abramson’s new book, which includes an apparently unattributed passage cribbed from one of his articles for CJR. “Do I feel as though something has been stolen from me? Not really. It was a factual description, not something creative that I agonized over for weeks,” Ingram writes. “And yet, it’s still irritating that there seems to be no mention of where it appeared at all.” Abramson pledged yesterday to fix passages where “the language is too close… and should have been cited as quotations in the text.”
- The Virginian-Pilot, a local newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, found a bevy of racist images and slurs in an old yearbook edited by Tommy Norment, the Republican majority leader of the State Senate. The scoop deepened Virginia’s governance crisis, sparked a week ago by Big League Politics, a pro-Trump website, when it publicized a racist photo in the medical school yearbook of Ralph Northam, Virginia’s governor—a Democrat—and has since embroiled Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor, in a sexual assault allegation, and Mark Herring, the attorney general, in his own blackface scandal.
- Yesterday morning, press freedom advocates appeared near the White House to demand justice for Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist, ahead of today’s deadline for an official US government response to his case. CNN’s Michelle Kosinski reports that the administration is likely to double down on its defense of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Times’s Mark Mazzetti added new context yesterday: in 2017, MBS reportedly said he was prepared to use “a bullet” on Khashoggi.
- CJR’s Amanda Darrach checks in with Doug Mills, the photographer whose shot of Nancy Pelosi clapping at Donald Trump went “global viral” following Tuesday’s State of the Union. “On Twitter, people called it the ‘f-you clap,’” Mills recalls. “Oh my gosh, I don’t want my name on that.”
- In the Financial Times, Lindsey Hilsum, who wrote a biography of Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times war correspondent killed in Syria in 2012, reflects on her role in stoking Colvin’s myth. “Since the biography was published, a stream of young women have told me, either in person or on Twitter, that they see Marie as a role model,” Hilsum writes. Colvin’s story, however, “is not just exemplary, but also cautionary… there was nothing glamorous about her suffering.” A Private War, a movie about Colvin, just came out.
- Paul Mozur and Li Qiqing of the Times report that China has emerged as a leading source of advertising revenue for Facebook even though it’s blocked in the country. (Two other Times reporters, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, are writing a book on their extensive coverage of Facebook.)
- Spencer Dukoff is only 26 and has already been laid off from jobs at Slant, the New York Daily News, and Mic. “I had a front-row seat for the decision-making processes and warped priorities of publishers, who chase scale with abandon, pay gobs of money for traffic, and preach an ethos of independence while quietly maneuvering toward a lucrative exit for themselves following a merger or acquisition,” he writes for CJR.
- Officials in Garden City, a tony Long Island suburb, have stripped The Garden City News, a small local paper, of its designation to publish paid public legal notices—a move its editor says amounts to retaliation over tough coverage. Corey Kilgannon writes for the Times, “While this seems like just a small-town controversy, it reflects the existential crisis engulfing the newspaper industry. As print advertising dries up, public notices—dry as their prose may be—provide an increasingly vital source of revenue.”
- And finally, congratulations to everyone who was nominated for a National Magazine Award. (Some good news for CJR: we’ve been included among the honorees for general excellence in the special interest category.)