The sordid and complex story of Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos’s run-in with the National Enquirer is unusual in its details, but striking in one respect: It is yet another instance in which the Enquirer has been accused of unsavory tactics in pursuit of stories a number of times in recent years.
The Enquirer and other publications owned by its parent company, American Media LLC, have faced allegations of unethical and abusive behavior from actor Terry Crews, associates of former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) and for its involvement in a scheme to protect the film producer Harvey Weinstein from accusations of sexual assault.
Although the tabloid’s revelation of Edwards’s affair with a campaign staffer in 2007 is often lauded as its finest feat of reporting, American Media’s tactics allegedly had a darker underside.
Andrew Young — the Edwards campaign aide who falsely claimed he was the father of the child Edwards conceived with Rielle Hunter — said the Enquirer rented a home in the gated community where he lived to spy on him. “They lied about who they were and had two cameramen taking pictures of my children through the windows,” Young said in an interview Friday. “When I confronted them, they hid in the bushes. . . . They ruin people’s lives and have no compunction.”
The tabloid’s reporting has taken on political overtones in recent years as it became an enthusiastic booster of Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign.
American Media acknowledged to prosecutors last year that it engaged in a “catch-and-kill” agreement with President Trump, in which it bought the rights to negative stories about him to suppress them. Among those the company paid for her silence was former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who alleged that she had an affair with Trump. Federal prosecutors said last year that the agreement was designed to prevent McDougal from coming forward with her story during the 2016 campaign.
The shocking news of Thursday night — that Bezos accused American Media of “blackmail and extortion” in a blog post disclosing sordid details of his personal life — led to American Media’s statement Friday that it is investigating Bezos’s allegations but “believe fervently” that its conduct was lawful. The statement was an extraordinary move from a company that has historically been largely unapologetic about its coverage, even when such coverage has landed it and its top executives in the crosshairs of prosecutors.
Federal prosecutors on Friday began looking into the accusation to see if American Media’s alleged conduct might violate the company’s agreement to cooperate with a government investigation of Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. If so, it could expose American Media and Enquirer Publisher David J. Pecker to prosecution for campaign-finance violations related to the McDougal payoff.
But others who have tangled with the Enquirer and American Media said the kind of behavior Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, accused the tabloid of is part of a pattern.
Actor Terry Crews tweeted Friday that one of American Media’s publications, RadarOnline, “tried to silence me” by fabricating a story after he accused talent agent Adam Venit of groping him. Crews charged in 2017 that the gossip website made up the story and asked him for comment as a way to intimidate him from going forward with his claims against Venit. The story was never published.
Crews, one of the stars of the sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” wrote that he “called their bluff by releasing their threats online. They blinked.”
Journalist Ronan Farrow made a similar claim Thursday. He tweeted that he “and at least one other” journalist who investigated the Enquirer’s “catch-and-kill” agreement fielded similar threats from AMI in which they were told “stop digging or we’ll ruin you.” Farrow said he didn’t “engage” with the company, “as I don’t cut deals with subjects of ongoing reporting.” He didn’t identify the other reporter.
In articles in the New Yorker magazine, Farrow has reported that Dylan Howard was involved in a secret collaboration with film producer Harvey Weinstein to investigate women who accused him of sexual misconduct to discredit them.
He also reported on American Media’s efforts to catch and kill a claim made by a Trump Organization doorman who said he had information about another Trump affair that resulted in the birth of a child.
For several years in the 1990s — a period before Pecker took over management of American Media — the Enquirer and its supermarket sister publication, the Globe, maintained a “no-touch” list of famous names that reporters couldn’t write about, said Marlise Kast-Myers, a former Globe reporter. The reasons for the ban weren’t clear, she said. At one point, Kast-Myers landed “a pretty decent story” about Sylvester Stallone, but was told by her editors that Stallone was an untouchable. Her story was killed; she never learned why.
She also said several stories about President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky were inexplicably killed. “Some of those things I would find out, could be cover stories, but then would take it to an editor who would say, ‘Yeah, just rip that one up,’ ” said Kast-Myers, who recounted some of her experiences in her memoir, “Tabloid Prodigy.”
The trade-off for avoiding scandalous or embarrassing stories, however, is that celebrities would provide exclusive access for positive stories, such as a photo spread of their mansions, said Peter Fenton, a former Enquirer reporter. Other celebrities, he said, allowed a staff photographer to shoot pictures at their wedding or of their newborn baby in exchange for relenting on more salacious stories.
“It wasn’t always hostile toward celebrities,” Fenton said. “Sometimes they would work together on a cooperative basis. . . . The Enquirer would work hand in glove with celebrities, and then they would be able to deny” a negative story.
Back in the late 1980s, actor Michael J. Fox found himself in the National Enquirer’s crosshairs. In an article Fox penned for Esquire magazine in 1989, the actor described the Enquirer’s questionable dealings with him in the lead-up to his wedding.
The piece, “Michael J. Fox’s Nuptials in Hell!” described the Enquirer’s offer to Fox and his then-fiancee, Tracy Pollan: “If we would grant them exclusive rights to photograph the wedding, they would pay us $50,000 and provide security so that no competing reporters or photographers would disturb the event,” Fox wrote of the offer. “The aerial shot was, of course, meant as a veiled threat: either invite us to your party, or we’ll crash it.”
Fox, who’d hired Gavin de Becker — the security specialist also employed by Bezos — turned down the tabloid, and the Enquirer descended. It staked out the Vermont town where the wedding took place with undercover reporters. The tabloid offered $10,000 to one guest if she would report back on all the ceremony’s details. One undercover reporter from the Enquirer offered Pollan’s grandparents a tour of the area in an apparent ruse to get them to give up details of the wedding. And the tabloid allegedly sent a reporter to try to rent a llama costume to hide in the woods and photograph the wedding.
In other cases, the Enquirer has pulled its punches in the past when its targets pushed back.
In 2005, amid allegations that Bill Cosby had sexually assaulted Andrea Constand, a young woman he was mentoring, the publication found a second woman, Beth Ferrier, who made a similar allegation against the entertainer.
But the Enquirer killed an article about Ferrier’s allegations after Cosby’s lawyer, Martin Singer, threatened to sue. After negotiations with Cosby, the Enquirer instead agreed to publish an “exclusive” interview with him, in which he denied all of the allegations. “Sometimes you try to help people and it backfires on you, and then they try to take advantage of you,” he told the publication.
Cosby was convicted last year of three counts of sexual assault against Constand and is serving a prison sentence. More than five dozen women have accused him of sexual misconduct.
Singer is now representing de Becker, whom Bezos hired to investigate the leak of his texts and photos to Sanchez.
Bezos, in his post Thursday, wrote of his experience with the Enquirer: “Be assured, no real journalists ever propose anything like what is happening here: ‘I will not report embarrassing information about you if you do X for me. And if you don’t do X quickly, I will report the embarrassing information.’ ”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.