Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accused the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., of “extortion and blackmail” on Thursday for threatening to publish embarassing photos of him and his girlfriend if he didn’t drop an investigation into how the tabloid obtained text messages exposing his extra-marital affair.
According to the emails that Bezos published, which have not been independently reviewed by NBC News, AMI threatened to publish texts from Bezos and his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, that included photos of a sexual nature. In exchange for withholding the photos, AMI demanded that Bezos stop the Washington Post, which he owns, from reporting about political motivations behind the National Enquirer's initial reports about his relationship with the former TV anchor.
"If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?" Bezos wrote on the blogging website Medium of one letter in which an AMI representative detailed embarrassing photos and texts that the tabloid planned to publish revealing his relationship with Sanchez.
David Pecker, CEO of AMI, which owns National Enquirer, and President Donald Trump are known to be friends, and Pecker has been accused of buying controversial stories about Trump to keep them private.
Bezos' verified Twitter account sent out a link to the post. An Amazon spokesperson confirmed the authenticity of the blog post.
“These communications cement AMI’s long-earned reputation for weaponizing journalistic privileges, hiding behind important protections, and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism,” Bezos wrote.
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AMI said in a statement on Friday morning that the company's board will launch an investigation into Bezos' allegation, but that the company believed it had "acted lawfully."
Bezos' blog post, published late Thursday afternoon, contained emails that Bezos said were from Dylan Howard, AMI’s chief content officer, and Jon Fine, AMI’s deputy general counsel.
Howard’s email, dated Feb. 5 and sent to Martin Singer, a lawyer for an investigator hired by Bezos, laid out in detail the 10 photos that AMI claimed to have of Bezos and Sanchez, including what Howard called a “below the belt selfie.”
Fine’s email laid out “proposed terms” for a deal to keep the photos out of the press, which included Bezos and his investigator publicly stating that AMI’s coverage was not politically motivated.
Bezos claimed that these emails proved that AMI sought to extort him.
“Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption,” Bezos wrote. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.”
Bezos, the world’s richest man with a net worth of roughly $136 billion, has been at the center of a highly publicized divorce from his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, that he announced on Jan. 9. Later that day, the National Enquirer published an article alleging that Bezos had begun a relationship with Sanchez, the wife of a Hollywood talent agent.
In the next two weeks, the tabloid published a series of stories about Bezos that included his texts with Sanchez. Shortly thereafter, The Daily Beast reported that Bezos had launched an investigation into how the tabloid acquired those texts. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Bezos’ investigation had found reason to believe the leak to be politically motivated.
The Washington Post has reported critically about Trump and extensively covered the ongoing investigations into his presidential campaign and administration. In response, Trump has repeatedly lashed out at the Post and Bezos, alleging that the Amazon CEO was using the paper for political purposes.
Pecker’s political connections to Trump generated some suspicion that National Enquirer’s investigation of Bezos had political underpinnings. Pecker’s connection to Trump has been the subject of extensive reporting as well as an investigation from federal prosecutors, who granted Pecker immunity in their investigation into Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer.
Chip Stewart, professor of journalism at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, said that if the emails are authentic, Bezos’ case that AMI committed extortion would be strong — and strengthened further if AMI publishes the photos in response.
“I think it would make the case that they’re engaging in extortion even stronger,” Stewart said of the prospect of AMI publishing the photos. “If they want to wind up with an even longer jail sentence, they should go ahead and do that.”