Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is accusing National Enquirer publisher David Pecker and his company AMI of attempted blackmail and extortion. In a blog post on Medium, Bezos laid out his communications with AMI, which apparently began after the National Enquirer published a series of texts from Bezos. As Bezos, who is in the middle of divorce proceedings, moved to discover how AMI had obtained his personal information, representatives of Pecker delivered a threat: They would publish more messages, along with nude photos, if Bezos didn’t halt all Washington Post investigations into AMI.
When Bezos didn’t immediately capitulate, a vice president at AMI sent a note to one of Bezos’ attorneys threatening to publish a series of pictures, including a “below the belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick,’” if the Post published anything suggesting that AMI’s motivation in going after Bezos was “political.” Then AMI went further. It provided a specific list of demands that had to be met to prevent publication of the images.
2. A public, mutually-agreed upon acknowledgment from the Bezos Parties, released through a mutually-agreeable news outlet, affirming that they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility.
Not only would any claim that AMI wasn’t politically motivated be an outright lie, but such a statement would undercut months of reporting at the Washington Post and possibly affect proceedings against AMI both in court and in Congress. For an extra round of gobsmacking irony, AMI followed up with a letter warning that the Washington Post had better play ball, or AMI would sue it for defamation of character.
Rather than give AMI what it wanted, Bezos went the other way—he published its threatening letters, showing in detail how AMI had attempted to use stolen personal information to extract benefit. It’s difficult to have a lot of sympathy for Bezos, who is not just the world’s richest man, but also someone who reached that position by ruthlessly wringing out every scrap of inefficiency in his system, even when that inefficiency came in the form of human beings doing human things. But in this case, he appears to have given the world … prime service.
For decades, the pages of the National Enquirer have been loaded up with the most outrageous stories. Not just about hidden aliens, Big Foot, and diets consisting of nothing but pineapple, but also stories about celebrities of all stripes. Those stories are often ludicrous, but they are not without effect. Using doctored images and screaming headlines, the supermarket dreadful is more than capable of leaving an ugly smear across anyone, including political candidates. That was certainly true in the 2016 election cycle, when the paper ran story after story touting the greatness of Trump, and splashed cover after cover with lurid photoshopped images of Hillary Clinton, claiming that she was dying, was crazy, had gained 100 pounds, was about to be arrested, or already had been arrested.
During that election cycle—and before—Pecker turned AMI and the Enquirer into tools for Donald Trump. Not only did the paper run story after story of Trump’s greatness and his readiness for command, but Pecker participated with Trump and Michael Cohen in a trap in which the Enquirer would promise to pay for stories about Trump’s sleeping around, only to bottle them up and keep the woman involved silent under a threat of lawsuit. As Bezos points out in his post, his wealth and position privilege him to stand up to AMI. That’s not true of many people who, at the risk of reputations and careers, would fold to its threats.
But there’s more to this story than just slimeball millionaire publisher David Pecker going after hardball billionaire publisher Jeff Bezos. The heart of the whole thing is that AMI became upset when Bezos’ team began to suggest that Pecker was making this run at Bezos for political reasons. In particular, according to Bezos, AMI was outraged by suggestions that it was doing the work of attacking Bezos for a very specific client—Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Both Pecker and AMI have had multiple connections to Saudi Arabia. A tabloid-style magazine on the wonders of Saudi Arabia, and particularly the “modernizations” and “reforms” introduced by Salman, that appeared in Walmarts and supermarkets across the country was paid for by the Saudis and published by AMI. Bezos states that “Mr. Pecker and his company have also been investigated for various actions they’ve taken on behalf of the Saudi Government.”
And Bezos has his own connection to Saudi Arabia. Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was working as a Washington Post columnist when he was ambushed in a diplomatic consulate, tortured, dismembered, and then killed on orders of that modern reformer, Mohammed bin Salman.
It’s certainly not clear that AMI undertook to attack Bezos in order to weaken the Washington Post’s reporting on the murder of Khashoggi. But Bezos seems to be holding out that possibility.
In December, U.S. attorneys in the Southern District of New York gave limited immunity to AMI in exchange for its cooperation in investigations into Trump’s campaign fund and the hush money paid through AMI. But that immunity is unlikely to help it in this case.