Federal prosecutors are reviewing claims made by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos in a post published on Medium last week that accused the National Enquirer and its publisher, American Media Inc., (AMI) of “extortion and blackmail,” sources told The New York Times.
The ordeal between AMI and Bezos has dominated headlines, as Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man, locked horns with the supermarket tabloid. Bezos has hinted that there may be political reasons behind the publication of his romantic text messages. AMI’s chairman and CEO, David Pecker, is a longtime acquaintance of President Donald Trump. Trump views Bezos, who owns The Washington Post — a newspaper Trump dislikes — as an enemy. He has also previously come down on Amazon for its shipping practices.
Prosecutors are trying to determine if AMI, in the course of its handling of the Bezos situation, violated a non-prosecution agreement reached in an unrelated matter. That agreement concerns hush money that AMI paid to the former Playboy model Karen McDougal ahead of the 2016 election, who said she had an extramarital affair with Trump in 2006.
The National Enquirer paid $150,000 for the rights to McDougal’s story in August 2016 and never published it, a move largely seen as an offensive measure to protect Trump’s candidacy.
The non-prosecution agreement stipulates that AMI would “not be prosecuted for its Trump-related efforts as long as it stayed out of legal trouble for the next three years,” The Times reported.
So the question is, are AMI’s actions concerning the Bezos ordeal illegal?
The claims being made
On Thursday February 7, Bezos published several emails sent by the National Enquirer’s chief content officer Dylan Howard and from Jon Fine, an attorney representing AMI, to his team. One of the emails described several compromising photographs of Bezos that the tabloid says it has. Another message listed the terms the company was demanding in order to keep the material out of the public sphere.
The photos are related to Lauren Sanchez, a woman with whom Bezos was allegedly having an extramarital affair, according to the National Enquirer. At the beginning of January, Bezos announced he and his wife, MacKenzie, were separating after 25 years of marriage. The following day, the National Enquirer published an exposé, outing the alleged affair. Later, it published what it said were private text messages exchanged between Bezos to Sanchez.
Bezos asked his longtime security associate Gavin de Becker to investigate AMI’s actions and how it uncovered his private messages. De Becker told The Daily Beast that “strong leads point to political motives.”
AMI disputed that claim and said it”emphatically rejects any assertion that its reporting was instigated, dictated or influenced in any manner by external forces, political or otherwise.” Fine also called the notion that the National Enquirer’s reporting was politically motivated “defamatory,” and demanded that Bezos, de Becker, and The Washington Post say that it’s not politically motivated — or else the tabloid would publish the allegedly compromising photos of Bezos.
In his Medium post, Bezos called the claim that the National Enquirer’s reporting is not politically motivated “false” and a “lie.”
What legal experts are saying
Jeffrey Toobin, a former federal prosecutor, current CNN chief legal analyst, and New Yorker staff writer, called AMI and the National Enquirer’s actions “disgraceful,” but he wouldn’t go as far to say that it was a crime.
“Your question is ‘Is it blackmail? Is it a crime? Is it extortion?'” Toobin told CNN’s Anderson Cooper last week. “My answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ I think it is worthy of investigation.”
“It’s an unusual situation, because even though it has a threat involved, it is part of the news-gathering process — broadly defined, even though it is deeply sleazy — and I could see prosecutors hesitating to get in the middle of this,” Toobin said.
“It’s disgraceful journalism. It’s disgraceful behavior. Whether or not it’s an actual crime? I am frankly not prepared to say at this point.”
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti seems to agree: “Moves like this are fairly common when there are legal disputes between people or companies as a way for one side to gain leverage over the other,” he wrote in the final tweet of a lengthy thread on Twitter. “It is despicable but I have had no success convincing federal prosecutors to bring charges.”
David Heller, deputy director of the Media Law Resource Center, explained to INSIDER over email that “demanding money or something else of value in exchange for not revealing truthful embarrassing info can be extortion/blackmail.”
However, there is more “leeway” in a litigation context, Heller explained. “Pre-litigation settlement demands happen all the time but are usually considered legal, as legitimate efforts to resolve a legal claim.”
The other legal issues at stake
Bezos argues that the publishing of the photos would violate copyright law, but Fine argues that the photos are newsworthy, and therefore the National Enquirer could publish them.
Jonathan Kotler, former legal counsel to the California First Amendment Coalition, believes that a jury would find them newsworthy.
“One of the defenses for the publishing of embarrassing private facts, which is what these photos are, depending on where they got them, assuming they are private, one of the principal defenses is newsworthiness,” Kotler, who is also an associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told INSIDER. “The people involved are general-purpose public figures; I think a court or jury would find them newsworthy, however distasteful they may be.”
Kotler also says there is another consideration wrapped up in this scenario: US defamation law.
As mentioned before, Fine argues that Bezos, et al. are defaming the National Enquirer with their assertion that the tabloid’s moves concerning him are politically motivated.
“In the United States, truth is a complete defense to defamation,” Kotler told INSIDER. So if the National Enquirer filed a defamation case, it would have to prove that “Bezos knew that what he was publishing was false or was published with reckless disregard for the truth.”
But if everything Bezos said concerning the matter with AMI and the National Enquirer is true, then AMI is “out to sea,” Kotler said.
On Friday, February 8, the AMI board responded to Bezos’ post and said it would investigate his “extortion” claim.
“American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos,” AMI said in a statement.
“Nonetheless, in light of the nature of the allegations published by Mr. 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.”