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Jeff Bezos, the National Enquirer and the politicization of personal intimacy

“As our family and close friends know, after a long period of loving exploration and trial separation, [MacKenzie and I] have decided to divorce and continue our shared lives as friends,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, in a tweet published on January 9, 2019. News media outlets rushed to report the news, many of them speculating what would happen if Bezos lost half of his $137 billion fortune during the divorce process. The news, however, seemed to have very little impact on Amazon’s share price and the company’s financial stability seemed unharmed.

On that same day, the National Enquirer —a tabloid owned by American Media Inc. (AMI), a company known for its links to President Trump— published an article stating that Bezos’ divorce was prompted by his extramarital affair with former news anchor Lauren Sánchez. The tabloid then published 16 more articles containing photos and private messages between Bezos and Sánchez. The articles condemned Bezos’ “lack of judgment” and warned that there were more pictures that could “devastate his standing in the upper ranks of the tech world.”

On February 7, Bezos published a blog post on Medium titled “No Thank You, Mr. Pecker.” Bezos not only admitted he had exchanged intimate photos and messages with Ms. Sánchez, but also said that he had hired a private investigator, Gavin de Becker, to find out “how those texts were obtained, and to determine the motives for the many unusual actions taken by the Enquirer.” The blog post suggested that the National Enquirer had political reasons to publicly attack and discredit Bezos, considering his ownership of The Washington Post: a newspaper that investigated the killing of its journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi government, and its links to President Trump. Finally, the post revealed a series of emails from AMI where they threatened to publish Bezos’ intimate photos if he did not issue a public statement specifying that both him and de Becker “had no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

The tension between Bezos and AMI shows how intimate practices (specifically, Bezos’ personal relationship with Sánchez) can be easily transferred to the public sphere by transforming them into a societal matter. It seems like Bezos and Sánchez’s intimacy was politicized (in the broad sense of the word), something that entails serious legal, social and ethical implications for all parties involved.

From a legal perspective, there are four main aspects to consider: the possible violation of the U.S. copyright law, invasion of privacy, defamation and, most importantly, blackmailing. In his post, Bezos explained how his lawyers argued that AMI had no right to publish his photos since the company did not own the copyright to the photos he took. AMI, however, claimed the tabloid “acted lawfully” since Bezos’ pictures are newsworthy given his status as CEO of a major company. This claim is debatable because these intimate photos have a clear expectation of privacy and AMI is not using them for educational or informational purposes. However, Bezos could sue the National Enquirer for invading his privacy without just cause.

Moreover, AMI’s deputy general counsel, Jon Fine, affirmed Bezos and The Washington Post harmed the National Enquirer’s reputation by spreading “unsubstantiated defamatory statements and scurrilous rumors” about AMI’s reporting. “We hereby demand that you cease and desist such defamatory conduct immediately (…). Absent the immediate cessation of the defamatory conduct, we will have no choice but to pursue all remedies available under applicable law,” warned Fine in one of the emails sent to Bezos’ representatives. If AMI decides to take legal action and sues Bezos for defamation, a thorough investigation would have to take place in order to determine the truthfulness or falsehood of Bezos’ statements.

Most importantly, if taken to court, the judge would have to determine if this was a case of extortion and wrongful coercion. Blackmail —a type of extortion—, is a state crime in states like New York and California. Even though the National Enquirer is protected by the First Amendment and publishing the photos might be legal, the emails published by Bezos suggest AMI was trying to obtain a thing of value (a service from The Washington Post) through threats.

This case is even more critical considering AMI’s past crimes. In 2016, the company paid $150,000 to silence the story of Karen McDougal, a woman who allegedly had an affair with President Trump. The company then agreed to sign an immunity deal with federal prosecutors in New York in exchange for cooperation and pledging not to break the law again. If found guilty of extortion in Bezos’ case, AMI will also be prosecuted for an unlawful campaign contribution.

From an ethical perspective, several news media outlets and commenters have criticized AMI’s “Catch & Kill” tactic where they buy the rights to a story and bury the news as a favor to someone. Experts also criticized AMI’s threats and defended Bezos’ right to have a private life. Honest and trustworthy journalism should inform the general public regardless of its political or social convictions. That being said, Jeff Bezos should also be more aware of the potential consequences of sending intimate photos considering his status as a high-profile businessman.

Finally, this case reflects the extreme polarization of American politics, something that is affecting the public opinion and the news framing. Media outlets are more prone to being criticized for their lack of objectivity amid a political landscape full of tensions and disputes. This polarization might have an immediate effect in the business world, as it did with Bezos. Fortunately, Amazon’s relationship with its stakeholders seems to be more stable than what AMI expected.

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