I could never have anticipated this post. In fact, I can see myself sitting in my journalism class alongside my friends, Marc, Mark and David, Alanna and Lori, and my professors, Isaacs, Patterson, Wood and Friendly. What I wonder, would have happened if I had predicted that 45 years later I would write, and publish where anyone in the world could see it, a commentary containing a reference to a “dick pic” Never have received my degree, probably.
For those of you who have been on the far side of the moon, shielded from any electromagnetic radiation emanating from earth, a quick recap. Jeff Bezos, who the style books demand must be referred to as “Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world,” on first reference, woke up one morning to find himself on the front page of the National Enquirer.
One generally finds the Enquirer at the supermarket checkout, where it might come in handy if the store is out of toilet paper. This issue featured the details of Bezos’ impending divorce, along with pictures of Bezos and a woman, not his wife, who he was reportedly seeing.
In spite of the headline, I am not going to argue that this report is not journalism. The press has a special place in the history of the United States. It is the only occupation specifically protected by the Constitution. The framers who wrote that document knew exactly what they were doing. They had employed the press to spread the word, sometimes false, about British abuse of colonialists. That helped fan the flames of insurrection. In fact, I’ve often thought the British might have won the Revolutionary War if they had just confiscated every printing press in America.
The framers were well aware that in guaranteeing freedom to the press they opened the door to political attacks of the most scurrilous kind. They made the guarantee anyway, concluding that the press was such a crucial check on government excess that it must be given the greatest freedom.
In the case law which has developed around the First Amendment, it is almost impossible for a “public figure” to win a defamation lawsuit. And Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, head of the gigantic publicly held company Amazon.com, Inc., owner of the aerospace company Blue Origin and owner of the Washington Post, one of the nation’s most important newspapers, certainly qualifies as a public figure.
So Bezos cannot win a defamation suit against the Enquirer. But he found other ways to fight back. Bezos discovered the story was about to be published before the fact. When you consider how much Amazon knows about us, that is not a surprise. But what Bezos did next was. He announced the news himself on social media before the Enquirer made it to the newsstand.
A news rag that thrives on gossip and scandal doesn’t sell many copies featuring news which everybody already knows. Next, the richest man in the world hired one of best security investigators in the world to figure out where the Enquirer got its information. And he suggested that there may be a political connection.
The plot thickens!
The Enquirer is owned by American Media Inc., (AM). David Pecker, known to be a friend and fan of Donald Trump, is Chairman, CEO and publisher of the Enquirer. And AM told prosecutors it worked “in concert” with Trump’s campaign when it paid $150,000 to Playboy model Karen McDougal for her story of a sexual affair with Trump, which it didn’t print “to prevent it from influencing the election.” That would have been an unreported contribution to the Trump campaign and it would have violated campaign finance laws. Pecker described the details of this “catch and kill” arrangement in an agreement with federal prosecutors to keep him, and his company, from facing charges.
Why does all this matter? Because as part of the agreement with the Feds Pecker promised not to commit any other crimes . And according to Bezos, who disclosed the entire sordid story in great detail with all the evidence in a remarkable personal blog post titled, “No Thank You, Mr. Pecker”, the Chief Content Officer for AM emailed a lawyer for Bezos’ security investigator. In that email AM proposed that Bezos publicly announce that he has “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces”. In return, “AM agrees not to publish, distribute, share, or describe unpublished texts and photos.” The photos, dick pic and all, are described in the email in the most excruciatingly intimate detail.
Still with me?
Here’s why I felt compelled to write about this tale. A lawyer for the National Enquirer made an appearance on ABC’s This Week program, proclaiming that this exchange was typical of the negotiating process between journalists and sources. I say BS.
In a journalism career which goes back to my grade school student newspaper, I’ve never observed a publication tell a public figure, “Give me something of value and I’ll suppress pictures and text messages you might find embarrassing.”
That’s not journalism. That’s extortion.
The AM proposal fits the textbook definition of extortion perfectly. Campaign finance law violations are usually punished with a fine and admonition to “go forth and sin no more.” Violation of a plea agreement is usually treated much more harshly. Extortion takes the crime to another level entirely.
I think Mr. Pecker has a lot more to worry about than a salacious headline in the New York Post.