After buying The Washington Post in 2013, Jeffrey P. Bezos visited the newsroom and answered questions from employees in a town-hall-style meeting.
“You have to figure out: How can we make the new thing?” he added.
Nearly six years later, in a plot twist no futurist could have predicted, Bezos has become strangely connected to an old thing in journalism — a really old thing.
Bezos’s recent allegation that the National Enquirer had blackmailed him by threatening to run tawdry photos — he even published emails from the publication’s lawyer describing the embarrassing images — has reminded some historians of an ugly chapter in the early days of newspapers, when blackmail by reporters and editors was so common that some publishers relied on it as a business model.
Bezos might not want to glorify the past, but he’s certainly living it.
“It really is a terrific irony,” said Leon Jackson, a historian of 19th-century America at the University of South Carolina. “Without a shadow of a doubt, we know that many journalists practiced systematic blackmail not only in order to supplement their incomes but in some cases even to fund their newspapers.”
Jackson has spent a not insignificant part of his academic career tracing blackmail in 19th-century newspapers, when publications both reputable and scandalous routinely employed blackmail on society figures caught in compromising circumstances, though typically not nude selfies.
While Bezos alleges the Enquirer blackmailed him through back-channel communications via lawyers, the older, original form of journalistic blackmail was far more brazen, according to Jackson. Newspapers did the blackmailing in the paper, sometimes on the front page.
Jackson discovered numerous examples of the practice, which he examined in a lengthy essay published in 2012. An episode from the Boston Herald in 1848 was emblematic of how sinister newspaper editors could be when embarrassing information came to them.
“A rich piece of scandal has reached our ears,” wrote Herald editor Joseph Snelling.
He was referring, Jackson wrote, to a scandal that “concerned a young woman from Summer Street and a merchant from Milk Street discovered in ‘rather an equivocal situation’ by the woman’s mother.”
The article continued:
We shall, probably, in a few days, give our readers an inkling of this passage in high life, unless the solicitations of the young lady’s friends not to make the affair public, persuade us to preserve a profound silence relative thereto. We shall, notwithstanding the tears of the lovely creature, and the earnest implorance of the gentleman, write the history of their amorous affection for each other, and expose their wicked acts to the gaze of a covetous world, if we think justice demands it at our hands.
A few days went by, but no gotcha story appeared. A warning, however, did.
“We shall make up our mind what to do to-day,” Snelling wrote.
The story never ran.
Editors and publishers used crafty methods to skirt trouble with the law, Jackson said. In some cases, they’d force people like the philandering merchant to take out ads or subscribe at extraordinarily high rates. Other times, they’d just straight up ask for cash, especially in the case of the New York Herald, edited by James Gordon Bennett.
Jackson wrote: “Captain Frederick Marryat, who visited America in 1837, recalled that after he was attacked repeatedly in the Herald’s pages, he received a copy of the paper ‘with this small note on the margin:—’Send twenty dollars, and it shall be stopped.'”
One of the most dastardly aspects of journalistic blackmail was the way editors and publishers sometimes pursued their prey a second time — the first being the original extortion attempt; the second being an offer to run, for the right price, a correction or retraction.
Jackson surfaced this second chance example from another Boston paper in 1841:
Hiram Marsh—We have been strongly assured by a gentleman of our acquaintance, for whose judgment we have considerable respect, that some of the charges against Mr. Marsh in our last number are unfounded. We have not been able, for peculiar reasons, to sift the matter thoroughly, but intend to do so at an early opportunity, and then, if we find injustice has been done, we will most cheerfully correct the errors, and not only contradict them, but strike an avenging blow upon the malicious instrument of their commission.
Back then, it wasn’t just the editors themselves doing the blackmailing. Some papers — especially the trashier ones known then as “flash” papers — allowed readers to essentially buy classified ads that threatened or blackmailed their neighbors, co-workers or family members. Here’s one from Jackson’s essay:
“The son of a certain Tavern Keeper is advised to terminate his nocturnal visits to Gouch-street, or the father of little George will repay him 75 for 50 cents before he passes the Sugar-house.”
In Jackson’s view, there was a confluence of circumstances that produced journalism-by-blackmail, starting with a Protestant reform movement that led to “evangelical do-gooders,” as he put it, trying to expose brothel owners and patrons by essentially spying on these establishments.
“The journalists very quickly caught on to this strategy and started to it employ themselves,” Jackson said.
But the most important factor was how newspapers transformed the flow of information. Gossip that didn’t used to make it past the town water well was now disseminated not just in local newspapers but in papers across the country that reprinted juicy news items.
“Newspapers,” Jackson said, “simply became vectors for blackmail.”
Like Bezos, eventually those with the means fought back — such as P.T. Barnum, the showman, hoaxer and circus founder who was, according to Jackson, “probably the most blackmailed man of the nineteenth century.”
In his letters, there is evidence Barnum paid to keep embarrassing stories about his businesses out of newspapers — shelling out, in his words, “a large quid pro quo” to a New York paper that later said “they are very sorry they assailed me” and that they “will not do it again.”
“Score one for the blackmailers,” Jackson wrote.
But eventually Barnum had enough. He told one paper that blackmailing him was “of no use” because “if they published a word disrespectfully of me, my museum, or anyone employed therein, I would sue the whole concern.”
“He started taking on all comers,” Jackson said. “He would publish rebuttals. He published the blackmail letters he received. He tried to neutralize his extorters by doubling down on the publicity and getting ahead of the narrative.”
That sounds vaguely familiar.