Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, received emails threatening blackmail from the parent company of the National Enquirer. Rather than knuckle under, he defiantly published the blackmail emails in his own post. If you want to write with conviction while under pressure, there’s a lot to learn here.
Bezos’s post on Medium is defiant, but personal and unemotional. Consider the situation here: Bezos is one of the richest people in the world and just announced he is getting divorced because he had an affair. This is not the kind of person you’d normally sympathize with. But by being direct and revealing the villainy of his enemies, he wins you over, because any of us would be similarly outraged if it happened to us.
Here’s his post with analysis from me.
No thank you, Mr. Pecker
Something unusual happened to me yesterday. Actually, for me it wasn’t just unusual — it was a first. I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. Or at least that’s what the top people at the National Enquirer thought. I’m glad they thought that, because it emboldened them to put it all in writing. Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten.
Analysis: Notice a few things here. First of all, this post is written in a personal tone from Bezos, not as a CEO, but as a fellow human. As a result, the whole post is free of corporate-speak. Most CEOs can’t even imagine writing this way. But this is a personal issue, not an Amazon issue, and we immediately comprehend that from the tone. It also lays out exactly what you will be reading by the end of the first paragraph. I can even forgive the passive voice sentence (“I was made an offer I could refuse”) because it’s deployed purposefully to make a point about the Enquirer’s mob tactics.
AMI, the owner of the National Enquirer, led by David Pecker, recently entered into an immunity deal with the Department of Justice related to their role in the so-called “Catch and Kill” process on behalf of President Trump and his election campaign. Mr. Pecker and his company have also been investigated for various actions they’ve taken on behalf of the Saudi Government.
And sometimes Mr. Pecker mixes it all together:
“After Mr. Trump became president, he rewarded Mr. Pecker’s loyalty with a White House dinner to which the media executive brought a guest with important ties to the royals in Saudi Arabia. At the time, Mr. Pecker was pursuing business there while also hunting for financing for acquisitions…”
Federal prosecutors reached an immunity deal with the tabloid executive David J. Pecker, a key witness in their…www.nytimes.com
Federal investigators and legitimate media have of course suspected and proved that Mr. Pecker has used the Enquirer and AMI for political reasons. And yet AMI keeps claiming otherwise:
“American Media emphatically rejects any assertion that its reporting was instigated, dictated or influenced in any manner by external forces, political or otherwise.”
Of course, legitimate media have been challenging that assertion for a long time:
Mystery Grows Over Pro-Saudi Tabloid: Embassy Got Sneak Peek
WASHINGTON (AP) – It landed with a thud on newsstands at Walmart and rural supermarkets last month: Ninety-seven…www.apnews.com
Analysis: This is complicated background, and it’s not as clear as the rest of the post. But it makes the necessary point that the Enquirer is not just a sleazy supermarket tabloid but a political organization. It acquired and then smothered the story of Trump’s affairs and promoted the interests of Saudi Arabia. I like how Bezos cites The New York Times and AP, rather than his own paper, to boost credibility.
I didn’t know much about most of that a few weeks ago when intimate texts messages from me were published in the National Enquirer. I engaged investigators to learn how those texts were obtained, and to determine the motives for the many unusual actions taken by the Enquirer. As it turns out, there are now several independent investigations looking into this matter.
To lead my investigation, I retained Gavin de Becker. I’ve known Mr. de Becker for twenty years, his expertise in this arena is excellent, and he’s one of the smartest and most capable leaders I know. I asked him to prioritize protecting my time since I have other things I prefer to work on and to proceed with whatever budget he needed to pursue the facts in this matter.
Analysis: To understand what follows we need facts. Here they are. The Enquirer obtained and published Bezos’s texts with his lover. Gavin de Becker is his investigator. Again, the passive “how those texts were obtained, and . . . unusual actions taken by the Enquirer” are passive since the point is that he’s not yet certain who did what.
Here’s a piece of context: My ownership of the Washington Post is a complexifier for me. It’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy.
President Trump is one of those people, obvious by his many tweets. Also, The Post’s essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi is undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles.
(Even though The Post is a complexifier for me, I do not at all regret my investment. The Post is a critical institution with a critical mission. My stewardship of The Post and my support of its mission, which will remain unswerving, is something I will be most proud of when I’m 90 and reviewing my life, if I’m lucky enough to live that long, regardless of any complexities it creates for me.)
Analysis: Context and motive. Now we know why Bezos is in the crosshairs — because his ownership of the Post threatens Trump and the Saudis.
Back to the story: Several days ago, an AMI leader advised us that Mr. Pecker is “apoplectic” about our investigation. For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve.
A few days after hearing about Mr. Pecker’s apoplexy, we were approached, verbally at first, with an offer. They said they had more of my text messages and photos that they would publish if we didn’t stop our investigation.
My lawyers argued that AMI has no right to publish photos since any person holds the copyright to their own photos, and since the photos in themselves don’t add anything newsworthy.
AMI’s claim of newsworthiness is that the photos are necessary to show Amazon shareholders that my business judgment is terrible. 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.
OK, back to their threat to publish intimate photos of me. I guess we (me, my lawyers, and Gavin de Becker) didn’t react to the generalized threat with enough fear, so they sent this:
Analysis: First-person description of blackmail. Bezos can’t resist defending his leadership of Amazon, which isn’t the point here. But now we have context for the email, which he publishes in full.
From: Howard, Dylan [firstname.lastname@example.org] (Chief Content Officer, AMI)
Sent: Tuesday, February 5, 2019 3:33 PM
To: Martin Singer (litigation counsel for Mr. de Becker)
Subject:. Jeff Bezos & Ms. Lauren Sanchez Photos
CONFIDENTIAL & NOT FOR DISTRIBIUTION
I am leaving the office for the night. I will be available on my cell — 917 XXX-XXXX.
However, in the interests of expediating this situation, and with The Washington Post poised to publish unsubstantiated rumors of The National Enquirer’s initial report, I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our newsgathering.
In addition to the “below the belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick’” — The Enquirer obtained a further nine images. These include:
· Mr. Bezos face selfie at what appears to be a business meeting.
· Ms. Sanchez response — a photograph of her smoking a cigar in what appears to be a simulated oral sex scene.
· A shirtless Mr. Bezos holding his phone in his left hand — while wearing his wedding ring. He’s wearing either tight black cargo pants or shorts — and his semi-erect manhood is penetrating the zipper of said garment.
· A full-length body selfie of Mr. Bezos wearing just a pair of tight black boxer-briefs or trunks, with his phone in his left hand — while wearing his wedding ring.
· A selfie of Mr. Bezos fully clothed.
· A full-length scantily-clad body shot with short trunks.
· A naked selfie in a bathroom — while wearing his wedding ring. Mr. Bezos is wearing nothing but a white towel — and the top of his pubic region can be seen.
· Ms. Sanchez wearing a plunging red neckline dress revealing her cleavage and a glimpse of her nether region.
· Ms. Sanchez wearing a two-piece red bikini with gold detail dress revealing her cleavage.
It would give no editor pleasure to send this email. I hope common sense can prevail — and quickly.
Analysis: This pathetic email damns AMI unequivocally. We already knew that Jeff Bezos is having an affair, and no one will be surprised to learn that he has a penis. Bezos has made a calculation here — that pictures establishing these facts would do no more damage than has already been done. But publishing the email conclusively proves that AMI is guilty of blackmail. For a company currently under a plea agreement with the Department of Justice, this is outrageous. And it does what should be impossible: to make Bezos into a sympathetic figure in this sleazy saga.
Plus, “a glimpse of her nether region”? What are we, 12-year-olds?
Well, that got my attention. But not in the way they likely hoped. 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? (On that point, numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI, and how they needed to capitulate because, for example, their livelihoods were at stake.)
In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.
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.
Nothing I might write here could tell the National Enquirer story as eloquently as their own words below.
These communications cement AMI’s long-earned reputation for weaponizing journalistic privileges, hiding behind important protections, and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism. Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption. I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.
Analysis: Jeff Bezos lays out the blackmailers’ demands and positions himself as the hero in a battle of journalistic defiance, rather than a billionaire cheating husband. And it works, because his enemies are so much worse.
Here’s the final text: the full blackmail agreement from AMI’s lawyer documenting the blackmail.
From: Fine, Jon [email@example.com] (Deputy General Counsel, AMI)
Sent: Wednesday, February 6, 2019 5:57 PM
To: Martin Singer (Mr de Becker’s attorney)
Subject: Re: EXTERNAL* RE: Bezos et al / American Media et al
Here are our proposed terms:
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.
3. AM agrees not to publish, distribute, share, or describe unpublished texts and photos (the “Unpublished Materials”).
4. AM affirms that it undertook no electronic eavesdropping in connection with its reporting and has no knowledge of such conduct.
5. The agreement is completely confidential.
6. In the case of a breach of the agreement by one or more of the Bezos Parties, AM is released from its obligations under the agreement, and may publish the Unpublished Materials.
7. Any other disputes arising out of this agreement shall first be submitted to JAMS mediation in California
Deputy General Counsel, Media
American Media, LLC
Jon P. Fine
Deputy General Counsel, Media
O: (212) 743–6513 C: (347) 920–6541
February 5, 2019
I’ve omitted the additional email from AMI’s lawyers where they defend themselves — you can read it in his original post.
How to win a PR war
This communication from Jeff Bezos rambles a bit, but in the end it’s highly effective. Here’s why:
- It’s written in a natural, first-person way.
- It includes full documentation of the claims, including the actual AMI emails.
- It provides context that established AMI’s tactics and position as questionable.
- It does not delve into emotional outbursts, which decrease both credibility and sympathy. The only emotion is Bezos’s sentiment about his ownership of the Washington Post and its activities.
- It avoids excessive adjectives characterizing the opponent — it lets the opponent’s own words damn them.
When your opponent is a sleazy tabloid whose business is to intimidate and embarrass public figures, all you have to do is expose their activities and let the reader draw the conclusion. More light and less heat wins the PR war.
6 responses to “How to write like a badass: Jeff Bezos defies Pecker blackmail”
I was hoping that you would write about this bombshell today, Josh. Thank you for confirming what believed. Bezos wins this battle hands down.
I am completely with you: The ordeal turns “Bezos into a sympathetic figure in this sleazy saga.”
No, I don’t condone adultery, but politically motivated extortion seems like a greater crime here. Tellingly, if The Enquirer was so concerned about cheating billionaires, then it wouldn’t have actively suppressed stories about Individual #1.
I’m reminded of a scene in Atlas Shrugged. The government is literally holding a handgun to the back of John Galt to make him say what they want to hear as he stands before a large, televised audience. He deftly sidesteps, revealing the gun.
In high school, I and other smallish students would sometimes get shaken down for cash as we’d walk to class. A bully would mutter into our ear, “Hey, man, gimme a quarter.” My friend Ben would turn to the extortionist and shout, “No, you may not kiss me!” Invariably, Ben’s words sent the extortionist fleeing.
I’ve often told myself that if someone at a large function would quietly threaten my me or my family, I’d grab the mike and say, “Attention, everyone. [Name] has just threatened to kill me or my family if I don’t give in to his demand. So if anything happens, you’ll know who did it.” There is no way in hell the extortionist would harm me after that.
Fighting bullshit in all its forms is a high calling. Bezos played this right.
I’m a little disappointed you didn’t call out the fact that he didn’t actually get to the point of his blog post (he is being blackmailed) for something like twelve paragraphs. As I read, I couldn’t figure out why I should care about the AMI articles or about his investigator, but I kept reading. His tone struck me as more rambling with hints of desperation and a bit of aggrieved emotion, and I felt it was overall a terribly structured essay.
Of course, I am also a little biased (as are most people when they consume Bezos’ blog post.) I’ve been boycotting Bezos and Amazon, and I’ve tweeted him directly on many occasions asking why he continues to permit Infowars to fund their operations with a store on Amazon. (He has not, of course, ever responded.) So, while most will approach his blog post thinking of Bezos as some sort of hero, I came to this thinking he’s the guy who had no issue enabling Infowars conspiracy-theory attacks on gun violence victims in Newtown and Parkland. I’m pleased to see him take a stand for ethical journalism (and I hope he brings down AMI), but I was less sympathetic than most. Bezos seems outraged when he’s in the crosshairs of unscrupulous journalism but failed to use his power to help others in a similar situation.
There are things worth admiring in his writing sample, along with some room for improvement, both in terms of the blog post itself and the larger issue of ethics in journalism.
I did not get it.
I read the NYT article and Jeff’s rambling post and have no idea what the story is or why I ought to care.
It appears there are two stories, but it is unclear what they are and how they are connected. The timeline is confused too.
I did find it interesting that they used two words I had never heard of. One is a made-up word and one is an informal word that is out of style. (If you are keeping score, one was used by each side.)
I don’t know if the National Enquirer’s actions are illegal, but they are shady in both parts. I suspect similar deals are proposed and happen too often.
Jeff’s actions are not illegal and have nothing to do with us. I did not know he had a penis or liked women, so I learned he likes has one and likely does. I did not need to know either of those.
Appreciate the analysis.
Bezos’ move was stunning and salutary.
Quote of the year: “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.”