The Big Bezos Question: Will Investigators Take A New Look At American Media?

Feb 8, 2019
Originally published on February 8, 2019 4:53 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The world's richest man published an explosive blog post last night - a 9-minute read that could have huge repercussions. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and Washington Post owner, accused the publisher of the National Enquirer of trying to blackmail him with sexually explicit photos. The National Enquirer is also caught up in the federal investigations tied to the Trump campaign.

NPR's Alina Selyukh is here to help us untangle the many threads here. Alina, this is a crazy story.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: So many threads.

SHAPIRO: What are the latest developments today?

SELYUKH: The big question today is whether federal investigators will take a new look at the publisher of the National Enquirer, as you said. It's called American Media. It's run by David Pecker, and Pecker is or at least used to be a longtime friend of President Trump. And Jeff Bezos is accusing him and his company of extortion and blackmail. And that's big because - bear with me here - Pecker has an immunity deal with federal prosecutors. It's part of a case of a hush money payment to a woman who said she had an affair with Trump. But the deal hinges on Becker and his company staying out of trouble, and Bezos alleging blackmail puts a huge, bold question mark over the fate of this immunity deal.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So one question here is has he just nullified the immunity deal? How did Bezos get involved in this entire controversy that until now was about President Trump and hush money payments to women?

SELYUKH: Well, a few weeks ago, the National Enquirer published very private, awkward, embarrassing text messages that Bezos had sent to the woman with whom he was having an affair. And Bezos funded an investigation to find the leaker of these messages. Well, fast-forward to last night. He decided to publish emails that he says he's received from officials at American Media and the National Enquirer. And the emails say the tabloid has many more salacious texts and photos, which are described in painful detail. And the emails demand that Bezos stop investigating the leak and also publicly declare that the coverage of his affair was not politically motivated.

So today, American Media responded. They're basically saying they were reporting on Bezos, and they did it legally. Though notably, they did not comment on the content of the emails that were posted by Bezos. And I just want to say this is unusual for Bezos. He's very rich of course, but he is a tech nerd who founded Amazon. He's not your typical celebrity. This is not a man who's lived out his life in the public eye. And with this blog post, he's started a pretty public crusade against a media organization that time and again has gone to bat for President Trump. And now Bezos is accusing them of going after him for political reasons because he owns the Washington Post, which Trump has repeatedly criticized.

SHAPIRO: We should also say that while the National Enquirer says what it did was legal, it is not typical journalistic practice to say, we have embarrassing material, and if you don't back down, we will publish it.

SELYUKH: Right.

SHAPIRO: But how typical is it for the National Enquirer and its publishing - its owner company to do this sort of thing?

SELYUKH: It definitely has, as you're saying, a history of practices that are considered journalistically unethical - for example, paying sources for stories, buying embarrassing stories about celebrities in exchange for favors from them, the tactic known as catch-and-kill in which the tabloid buys rights to stories purely to suppress them.

SHAPIRO: That was what was alleged in the Trump incident.

SELYUKH: We'll get to that in just a minute.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK.

SELYUKH: That is actually what got the National Enquirer in the federal investigation - involved in the federal investigation with the Trump campaign, as you were saying. American Media and Becker admitted to paying former Playboy model Karen McDougal to buy the rights to her story. She says she had an affair with Trump, and the publisher's plan was to kill the story to protect the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. Then Becker cut an immunity deal, as I mentioned, with the prosecutors. And this is the deal that's now in question because of Bezos's accusations of essentially criminal wrongdoing.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Alina Selyukh, thank you very much.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.