Jeff Bezos, currently the world’s richest person, accused the National Enquirer, and its parent company American Media Inc. (AMI), of attempted extortion.
Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and owner of the Washington Post, announced last month that he and his wife MacKenzie were separating after 25 years of marriage. What followed was an avalanche of tabloid stories, including leaked text messages, which purported to show an extramarital affair between Bezos and news anchor Lauren Sanchez.
“If you traffic in sleaze, sooner or later you’ll be brought to your knees.”
But a more nefarious controversy arose. In a blog post on Medium, Bezos unveiled correspondence from AMI, including threats to release intimate photographs of Bezos and Sanchez if Bezos did not release a false statement that would affirm the Washington Post had “no knowledge or basis suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
AMI could face a legal beat down. Extortion occurs when there is an attempt to obtain something of value by making a threat. In this case, the threat to publish, or even quash, a story in exchange for a false statement could constitute extortion. Meanwhile, AMI contends that it believes the National Enquirer “acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos.” While the lurid details of Bezos’ personal life may be “newsworthy”, the First Amendment does not protect against criminal behavior, such as blackmail.
“The bully picked the wrong victim.”
It’s no surprise that AMI is rejecting any and all claims of blackmail. AMI cooperated in a hush money agreement case that implicated the President’s “fixer” Michael Cohen. Part of that agreement contained language that AMI could be subject to prosecution should the company commit “any crimes” in the future. If AMI is found liable for the claimed blackmail and extortion, their previous agreement is invalid.
AMI has walked the tightrope between journalistic organization and political operator in the past. Last year, AMI entered a plea agreement. In the plea agreement, AMI admitted to buying and suppressing the story of ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal claiming to have had an affair with Donald Trump.
Perhaps moving forward, tabloids such as AMI will think twice before bullying and blackmailing any person, much less one of the world’s richest.