Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and owner of The Washington Post, accused the National Enquirer's parent company of blackmailing him by threatening to publish intimate photographs unless Bezos publicly backed off criticisms of the media company.
Bezos, one of the wealthiest people on the planet, published what appeared to be emails from attorneys representing American Media, Inc. (AMI) on Thursday evening in an extraordinary Medium post under the title, "No thank you, Mr. Pecker," a reference to David Pecker, AMI's owner.
In January, Bezos announced his plans to divorce his longtime wife MacKenzie Bezos. Hours later, the National Enquirer published a story detailing an alleged affair between the billionaire and entertainment personality Lauren Sanchez, publishing pictures and text messages between the couple.
Soon after, Bezos initiated an investigation "to learn how those texts were obtained, and to determine the motives for the many unusual actions taken by the Enquirer," he wrote in the Medium post.
Pecker was "apoplectic" about the investigation, Bezos wrote, and a few days later his team was approached, both verbally then digitally, with an offer: Make a public statement claiming that AMI's coverage wasn't politically motivated, or the Enquirer would post another round personal photos, this time of an intimate nature, Bezos wrote.
In a statement released Friday morning, AMI denied any wrongdoing, saying it "believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos." Because of Bezos' allegations, AMI's board was convened and would be investigating the claims, the statement said, adding that "upon completion of that investigation, the Board will take whatever appropriate action is necessary."
In an email dated Feb. 5, 2019, Jon Fine, the deputy general counsel of AMI, defends the Enquirer's reporting on Bezos' impending divorce, including the publication of "private photographs," and criticizes "continuing defamatory activities" by Bezos. That same day, the Post published a story about the leaked texts under the headline, "Was tabloid exposé of Bezos affair just juicy gossip or a political hit job?"
"Absent the immediate cessation of the defamatory conduct, we will have no choice but to pursue all remedies available under applicable law," the Feb. 5 letter from Fine reads. "That said, if your client agrees to cease and desist such defamatory behavior, we are willing to engage in constructive conversations regarding the texts and photos which we have in our possession."
In another email dated Feb. 6, Fine asked Bezos and his attorney to publicly refute the Post's reporting and announce "that they have no knowledge of basis for suggesting that American Media Inc.'s coverage was politically motivated of influencer by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility." In exchange, "AM agrees not to publish, distribute, share or describe unpublished texts and photos."
Bezos brushed off the threat in his Medium post, writing, "Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there's a much more important matter involved here," Bezos wrote. "If in my position I can't stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?"
Neither Fine nor an AMI spokesman immediately returned messages seeking comment about Bezos' post.
AMI has admitted to playing a role in President Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, paying former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 to kill her story about an alleged affair with the then-candidate. In December 2018, the Department of Justice struck a deal with AMI in which the company was granted immunity in exchange for cooperating with the department's investigation.
Journalist Ronan Farrow, who reported on AMI's payout to McDougal, tweeted Thursday night that he and at least one other journalist reporting on AMI received "stop digging or we'll ruin you" from the company. "I did not engage as I don't cut deals with subjects of ongoing reporting," Farrow wrote.
The media group has also been accused of sharing an advance copy of "The New Kingdom," a 97-page magazine lauding Saudi Arabia's crown prince published ahead of a planned media blitz, with the Saudi Embassy in Washington, a move that some say — including Bezos in his Medium post — was to foster goodwill between Mr. Trump and the Saudi kingdom's leaders.