News organizations kill stories all the time. The Post itself, we learned early this week, declined to publish the story of a sexual assault allegation against Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) dating to 2004 on the grounds that reporters couldn’t get corroboration of the accuser’s account. The New York Times killed a story in the mid-2000s by James Risen on a top-secret effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear program because government officials insisted that the story posed a serious risk to a U.S. citizen. “60 Minutes” famously killed a 1990s-era investigation on the tobacco industry over legal concerns. And sometimes stories get killed for less-than-wholesome reasons, like the time that the Huffington Post (before it became HuffPost) killed a story pitch critical of Uber while the site was working on a partnership with the company over drowsy driving.
But even when traditional media companies kill stories on dicey grounds, there are a few things they tend not to do: They do not seek special favors or access from subjects in exchange for suppressing the story. They do not try to prevent the subjects from saying certain things in exchange for suppressing the story. Nor do they pay their source for a story then file it away in a safe to protect someone very powerful. They drop such stories and move on to other projects.
That’s how stories die at real media outlets. For an example of how stories die at outlets that masquerade as journalistic institutions but operate as running scams, we turn to the recent battle between the National Enquirer, its parent company, American Media Inc., and Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos.
On Thursday night, Bezos published a Medium post outlining the latest contortions in what will surely finish first among 2019′s most bizarre media stories: The National Enquirer’s publication of text messages between Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, a former TV anchor with whom he was reportedly having an extramarital affair. The National Enquirer’s scoop on this juicy development touched off an investigation by Bezos’s security consultant, Gavin de Becker, who concluded that the exclusive “began with a ‘politically motivated’ leak meant to embarrass the owner of The Post — an effort potentially involving several important figures in Trump’s 2016 campaign,” according to an article in The Post. As the story unfolded, Bezos says, in allegations supported by email evidence allegedly received from the National Enquirer and its lawyers, the publication approached him to demand that he call off de Becker’s investigation. If he refused to comply, they said they would publish further messages between Bezos and Sanchez, including intimate photos the pair had allegedly exchanged.
The Medium post carried this headline: “No thank you, Mr. Pecker," in reference to David Pecker, the chief executive of AMI.
The backstory here isn’t hard to tease out. The National Enquirer punched above its weight when it came to plowing scandal from Trump’s electoral path. As we’ve come to learn through federal court filings, the National Enquirer and AMI paid out forthe rights to the story of an alleged Trump paramour — Playboy model Karen McDougal — and then refused to publish the account. “Catch and kill,” it’s called in industry parlance.
So what was it that Bezos and de Becker were saying that AMI hoped to snag and suppress in exchange for sending this material down the electronic memory hole? A couple of paragraphs from a separate letter from AMI Deputy General Counsel for Media Jon P. Fine outlining AMI’s demands provide some insight:
1. A full and complete mutual release of all claims that American Media, on the one hand, and Jeff Bezos and Gavin de Becker (the “Bezos Parties”), on the other, may have against each other.
2. A public, mutually-agreed upon acknowledgment from the Bezos Parties, released through a mutually-agreeable news outlet, affirming that they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility.
There was no way that the National Enquirer was going to tell the world’s richest individual what he could or could not suggest. “Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” asks Bezos in his Medium post.
He also takes a swipe at the rationale behind the National Enquirer’s quest: “AMI’s claim of newsworthiness is that the photos are necessary to show Amazon shareholders that my business judgment is terrible,” notes Bezos. “I founded Amazon in my garage 24 years ago, and drove all the packages to the post office myself. Today, Amazon employs more than 600,000 people, just finished its most profitable year ever, even while investing heavily in new initiatives, and it’s usually somewhere between the #1 and #5 most valuable company in the world. I will let those results speak for themselves.”
So how about this, AMI: Publish! Give your lawyers the day off from drafting more threat letters, more baroque correspondence leveraging information for craven ends. If you believe you have newsworthy stuff, make news. Think about the considerations here: You spent four months investigating Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez. Per your own report, the investigation spanned "five states and 40,000 miles . . . in private jets, swanky limos, helicopter rides, romantic hikes, [and] five-star hotel hideaways.” The reporting was epic.
National Enquirer, this is your enterprise! This is your accountability moment, a reprise of the glorious John Edwards scoops. So why in the world would you assign lawyers to propose throwing away all that legwork, all those digital goods, for some signed agreement that a couple of guys won’t go around suggesting that the National Enquirer does biased reporting? Can’t you handle that?
Think about the damage to Amazon. Should your findings disappear into the crevices of some lawyered document, imagine the information deficit of the company’s directors, who will have to evaluate Bezos without the aid of photographs illustrating his most intimate moments. Shareholders — litigious shareholders — would be furious at having to continue evaluating their assets without the precious scoops of the National Enquirer. Expect more work for your lawyers.
Meantime, the AMI board released a statement noting that it is taking seriously the extortion claims advanced by Bezos. "The Board has convened and determined that it should promptly and thoroughly investigate the claims. Upon completion of that investigation, the Board will take whatever appropriate action is necessary.” Now Pecker & Co. are the stewards of “appropriate action.”
At a moment when the president of the United States routinely attacks legitimate news organizations for doing their jobs, it’s important to state the obvious: that there is a difference between real and fake journalism. It’s just that the president’s favorite tabloid publisher is on the wrong side of that very deep divide.