On Thursday, February 7th, in a post on Medium, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos published a series of emails from American Media Inc. (AMI), outlining what he called an “extortionate proposal.” Last month, The National Enquirer published intimate text messages exposing an affair between Bezos, who is married, and former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez. Shortly after, Bezos hired a private investigator to find out how the tabloid obtained the texts. Then, he claims, the company initiated contact and threatened to release even more texts and photos.
According to Bezos, AMI first made a verbal offer to withhold publication if the Bezos-owned Washington Post ceased its investigation into allegations that AMI’s reporting practices were “politically motivated” to benefit Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. AMI’s Chief Content Officer, Dylan Howard, then followed up with an email aimed at “expediting this situation,” going on to describe the 10 photos the National Enquirer had obtained, including, Howard wrote, a “below the belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick. [sic]’” Two additional emails from AMI’s Deputy General Counsel, Jon Fine, explicitly outline the terms, which would be cemented with a confidentiality agreement regarding “all claims” both parties “may have against each other” — but AMI would retain copies of the texts and photos and release them if Bezos were ever to breach the agreement.
“American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos,” AMI said in a statement earlier today. “Further, at the time of the recent allegations made by Mr. Bezos, it was in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him. 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.”
What Bezos calls extortion and blackmail is also known as “catch and kill,” a technique in which a media outlet, editor or journalist obtains the exclusive rights to a damaging story to protect their allies. For example, the story may be is used as leverage to prevent a third party, like Bezos, from pursuing and disclosing information that’s damaging to those allies. More simplistically, “catch and kill” often involves procuring the exclusive rights to damaging stories that would harm their allies’ interests, with the intention of never publishing them. As Rolling Stone noted in a story earlier today, that’s exactly the type of “politically motivated” reporting practice that AMI has admitted to as part of a non-prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice. In October 2016, one month before the election, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen arranged for AMI to pay Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal $150,000 for exclusive rights to her account of having an affair with Trump, which they never published. According to the Guardian, AMI told prosecutors that the company worked “in concert” with Trump’s campaign to purchase McDougal’s story, and then suppressed it “to prevent it from influencing the election.” AMI CEO David Pecker has been friends with Trump for more than a decade, during which the National Enquirer reportedly purchased the rights to numerous negative stories about the future president, even securing them in a vault.
“Catch and kill” deals have strict confidentiality agreements, so it’s rare for the public to hear about them, but the few that have made news involve AMI. For example, according to the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine, the Enquirer softened its coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger during his run for Governor of California in 2004, and paid $20,000 to “catch and kill” a story about an alleged affair. Schwarzenegger then acted as a consultant for AMI’s collection of fitness magazines, and was named executive editor of Muscle & Fitness and Flex. In 2005, the communications director for then-Governor Schwarzenegger told the L.A. Times that was no link between AMI’s deal with Schwarzenegger and the company’s alleged agreements with the two women. AMI also denied having an arrangement with Schwarzenegger, according to Los Angeles Magazine.
Similarly, the National Enquirer brokered a deal with Tiger Woods to appear on the cover of AMI’s Men’s Fitness magazine in 2007 after obtaining exclusive photos of the golf pro with a woman who wasn’t his wife. According to the Washington Post, “the two sides hammered out a contract detailing guidelines for the interview and the photo shoot, as well as the guarantee that the story of Mr. Woods’s rendezvous in the church parking lot wouldn’t be printed.” In a 2017 interview with the New Yorker, Pecker said that he didn’t see the agreement as blackmail and said he never intended on running the photos.
In 2005, according to the Daily Beast, a woman named Beth Ferrier approached the Enquirer with her claim of being drugged and sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby. The outlet offered Ferrier $7,500 for an interview and a lie detector test, but she was never paid, and instead of publishing her story, AMI turned over the materials to Cosby, in exchange for an exclusive interview, according to Cosby’s own sworn deposition in the Andrea Constand civil case, made public in 2015. AMI did not deny Ferrier’s allegation or Cosby’s sworn testimony about the deal, but made clear Ferrier was never paid for her story.
Lastly, one of the biggest bombshells to come out of Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace was Ronan Farrow’s scoop that the disgraced producer had the National Enquirer dig up damaging information he could use to discredit several women, including Rose McGowan, that he feared would publicly accuse him of sexual assault. Dylan Howard — the AMI executive who emailed Bezos — justified the arrangement, saying he “oversaw a television-production agreement with Weinstein,” and therefore, “had an obligation to protect AMI’s interests by seeking out — but not publishing — truthful information about people who Mr. Weinstein insisted were making false claims against him.” Weinstein has since been charged with several sex crimes and will stand trial in New York in May.