Washington Post picks up the pieces in Bezos drama

Issues of the National Enquirer on Feb. 14, 2019. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When the National Enquirer published its 12-page expo in January on Jeff Bezos’s extramarital affair—complete with intimate text messages between the world’s richest man and television personality Lauren Sanchez—the newspaper Bezos owned pretty much ignored it. All The Washington Post could muster was an obligatory story saying Bezos and his wife are divorcing.

Weeks later, though, the usually unresponsive Bezos freed up his security chief Gavin de Becker to talk to Post reporters about the “political motivations” behind leaked texts published by the Enquirer, pointing to Trump associates. Suddenly the Post newsroom dropped its reticence at covering a sex scandal involving its owner: this was now a political story.

What resulted February 5, though, was not another Post story showing Trump behaving badly. Instead the 2,800-word piece seemed to cast a wary eye on people around Bezos, and the wispy conspiracy claims they were pursuing on his behalf.

Post reporters and editors already have the delicate task of covering a torrent of news about Bezos and Amazon, the company he leads. In the weeks since the first disclosures, dismay has settled into the newsroom that Bezos is now in the middle of a high-profile feud centered on his own embarrassing behavior. Longtime Post journalists say they were proud of the paper’s arms-length handling of the story, but annoyed that the paper was being dragged into it at all.

Reporter Marc Fisher and two colleagues depicted somewhat comedic efforts by de Becker and talent agent Michael Sanchez, brother of Bezos’s girlfriend, to learn how the Enquirer got his texts and prevent publication of any more. The two Hollywood reputation brokers, at first suspecting a hack, worried Bezos could have been targeted by “deep state” actors, the Israeli Mossad, or a foreign government. Then an aghast de Becker learned that Sanchez, a Trump supporter, was seeking advice from two of his Trump-supporting friends: self-described political dirty trickster Roger Stone, and Carter Page, the once-obscure energy consultant who was wiretapped by the government after being  catapulted for a time into the Trump Russia investigation. “Depending on whom you believe, the Enquirer’s exposé on Bezos’s affair was a political hit inspired by President Trump’s allies, an inside job by people seeking to protect Bezos’s marriage, or no conspiracy at all, simply a juicy gossip story,” wrote the reporters.

ICYMI: Jeff Bezos’s bad week

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Two days later Bezos himself dropped a bomb on AMI, the Enquirer’s parent company, accusing it of trying to blackmail or extort him. In a blog post on Medium.com, he publicly released a letter from AMI showing that company officials threatened to publish explicit photos of him, including a “below-the-belt selfie,” unless he publicly stated he had no basis for suggesting their coverage of him was politically motivated.

Bezos wrote that he would not be blackmailed. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.’’

Bezos’s pushback was initially hailed as gutsy, and the exposure of the company’s correspondence created instant legal problems for AMI, which had an immunity agreement in the criminal case against Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen requiring that it refrain from criminal activity for three years. Prosecutors and AMI’s own board immediately began reviewing Bezos’s allegations.

Bezos’s post suggested a Trump connection and added another sensational theory: that AMI was targeting him because someone was unhappy about the Post’s “essential and unrelenting” coverage of the October murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government operatives. AMI has pursued business in Saudi Arabia.

It was a claim so speculative—and potentially so explosive—that the Post declined to mention it when it was promoted by de Becker days earlier, according to a journalist knowledgeable about the handling of the February 5 story. When Bezos himself asserted it in his blog post, the Post had no choice but to report it but pushed it well down in its story. A scrap with a tabloid was now elevated to an international contretemps, dragging in the Post and its murdered columnist.

Perhaps Saudis or Trump associates will at some point be found to have had a role in AMI’s targeting of Bezos. At the moment, evidence is scant, creating an awkward tension in the newsroom of Post Editor Marty Baron, a journalism rock star widely credited with using the Bezos largesse to transform the newspaper.

The paper’s skeptical handling of the Bezos team’s claims so far has won quiet plaudits from both inside and outside the newsroom. Leonard Downie, the former longtime Post executive editor, said the paper was right to be skeptical about Bezos’s conspiracy theories. The Saudi allegation “is kind of a thin reed,” he says. “You’ve seen that in the Post coverage. ‘’

The New York Times and other news outlets have reported the lack of solid evidence for the Bezos team’s conspiracy claims. It was dubbed “front-page fantasia” by Wall Street Journal columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. who wrote that Mr. Bezos and his associates deliberately promoted a Hollywood-sized misdirection, with spies and political conspiracy extending all the way to the White House and Saudi Arabia.”

The Post and the Daily Beast both have reported that Michael Sanchez provided the Enquirer with some of the texts published in January. Sanchez did not explicitly deny doing so in an interview with the Post, but he did deny providing the Enquirer explicit photos of Bezos. He blamed his sister for that, claiming she showed the photos to friends, who may have provided them to the Enquirer. The New York Times, citing anonymous sources, reported that Lauren Sanchez showed texts from Bezos to her friends, and that AMI paid a single source for all its texts and photos of Bezos. A lawyer for AMI has said the source was someone known to Bezos and Lauren Sanchez; he has publicly denied Saudis, Trump, or Stone were involved.

ICYMI: Bezos, de Becker, Pecker, and the Post

The Post has published almost nothing more about the Saudi claim since the Bezos blog post. The paper’s editorial board ran a fiery endorsement of Bezos’s refusal to knuckle under to AMI’s demands, branding the company “an insidious model of intimidation and corruption masquerading as journalism.” The editorial page has crusaded for bringing Saudi Arabia to justice for Khashoggi’s murder; it has not weighed in on whether that coverage led AMI to go after Bezos.

The whole episode points up part of the challenge for a newsroom owned by the richest man in history who, along with his companies, is in the middle of newsworthy events and controversies daily.

Amazon’s growth into myriad lines of business makes lots of news—about its financial relationship with the US Postal Service, the size of its tax bill, its decision to scrap a new headquarters in Queens, its foray into Hollywood filmmaking. Amazon and other Bezos enterprises are getting increasingly involved with government—in commercial space flight, cloud computing, surveillance technology—all important coverage areas for the Post’s national, local and business news staffs.

So ubiquitous now is news about the company that more than 100 Post stories in the past two months have had to carry the disclaimer that Amazon’s founder is owner of the Washington Post.

Some Post stories on whether Amazon’s huge delivery business is helping or hurting the US Postal Service—a complicated subject on which Bezos and Trump disagree—are tendentious. “Trump levels false attacks against the Post and Amazon in a pair of tweets,” was the headline on the Post’s July 23, 2018 story. Another fact-checker story assigned three Pinocchios to Trump’s argument.

Steven Pearlstein, a Pulitzer Prize–winning business columnist, has weighed in on the postal issue saying both arguments are right in some respects. As it happens, he has written some of the toughest criticism of Amazon in the paper. “Nobody says a word,” he says in an interview.

One of his columns pointedly questioned whether antitrust laws are adequate to police Amazon. “Some colleagues said ‘That was gutsy,’ but there was no pushback, not before or after.” Pearlstein says editors realize that if they are soft on Amazon, that itself will become a story.

“They might be worried about it, but any time they have the opportunity to back off, they don’t do it.”

After Amazon pulled the plug on negotiations for a second headquarters office in Queens, Pearlstein wrote, “While Amazon reflects many of the best attributes of American capitalism,” it also exhibits some of the worst traits. “The ruthlessness. The instinct to dismiss critics and criticism. The arrogance and insularity of top executives. The fixation on secrecy and control. The disdain for government and the disregard for the public interest. The too-easy acceptance of extreme inequality. “ The Post has signaled in several stories that local activists will be heard in their efforts to hold Amazon to the pledges it made for its planned  Crystal City headquarters.

Interestingly, Bezos and other American billionaires were being defended at the same time by the chief of the Post’s liberal editorial pages, Fred Hiatt. “To state the obvious, we at the Post feel fortunate to have a wealthy owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who has given us the space and time to find our footing in the digital age,” he wrote. Billionaires give to universities, non-profits, politically diverse think tanks and an array of media. “People should think twice before seeking to flatten every tycoon,” he wrote. “Billionaires can be good for democracy, and a bulwark against tyranny.”

Former Publisher Donald Graham declined to comment on the AMI controversy, except to say, “I’m a fan of Jeff’s management of the Post since the day he took over.”

Karen DeYoung, a reporter and associate editor, notes that the billionaire has invested money in the paper at a time when most other American newsrooms are shrinking. And yet she’s never had a conversation with Bezos. Pearlstein said he met Bezos but is pretty sure the Post owner has no idea who he is.

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The paper has openings posted for 11 more people to cover technology, including a  Seattle-based reporter to cover Amazon, which, the job posting notes, “is pushing into almost every part of society.”

The Bezos-AMI feud inevitably leads to comparisons of Bezos with the Graham family, known for its public reserve. The Post’s ownership of a for-profit education company resulted in controversy that drew media coverage, but the Grahams were careful to stay out of the political fray. Even crude threats to her anatomy from Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell during Watergate did not get a response from former Publisher Katharine Graham. “The whole thing is reckless,” said one longtime Post reporter, of Bezos’s scandal. “It’s dumb. He should know the impossibility of privacy in his position.”

As fallout from the scandal continues, the legal team handling it for Bezos will likely invite its own scrutiny. It includes lawyers who represented AMI in the past, and the New York firm Boies Schiller Flexner, which tried to intimidate witnesses and deceive reporters in its defense of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and of Silicon Valley fraudster Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos.

As a result of the Bezos claims of extortion, prosecutors are reviewing an immunity agreement with AMI. The firm cooperated in a federal case against former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, convicted in a scheme involving AMI chief and Trump friend David Pecker to pay hush money to women alleging they had sexual affairs with Trump. AMI’s correspondence shows executives were alarmed by Bezos’ accusations that they were doing Trump’s bidding again when they threatened to publish explicit photos of Bezos.

It is a scenario that could prove awkward for the Post if its owner ends up as a prosecution witness against AMI, nominally another newsgathering organization, however unsavory its methods.

The Khashoggi connection is especially sensitive for the Post. The paper’s editorial board has mounted a determined campaign to hold the Saudi regime accountable. It has announced the creation of a new global opinions program established in Khashoggi’s name and the award of its first fellowship to Saudi activist Hala Al-Dosari. A Bezos-commissioned commercial during the Super Bowl honored slain journalists, including Khashoggi. (Notably, it took the place of a commercial for Bezos’s space flight firm Blue Origins, on which Bezos and Lauren Sanchez worked together. The commercial was pulled after the scandal broke.) If Saudi Arabia turns out not to have been a factor in AMI’s targeting of Bezos, raising the coverage of Khashoggi’s death will be all the more embarrassing.

Two months have elapsed since the scandal broke. De Becker is reportedly compiling a voluminous report on AMI efforts to win favor with the Saudis.  At the Post, reporters are digging in to get to the bottom of any political or Saudi dimension, sources say, recognizing the importance of this story for newsroom credibility.

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Susan Schmidt is a Washington-based writer and researcher. She is a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winner who spent 25 years at The Washington Post.