As It Happens

Jeff Bezos' extortion allegation could 'spell the end' of the National Enquirer, says former staffer

Threatening to publish sexually explicit photos of the world's richest man was "quite a blunder" on the part of the National Enquirer, says a former reporter for the tabloid newspaper.

Story could reopen the Enquirer to prosecution for paying hush money to women who had alleged Trump affairs

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, says the National Enquirer tried to blackmail him over sexually explicit photos of him and a woman he had an affair with. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
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Threatening to publish sexually explicit photos of the world's richest man was "quite a blunder" on the part of the National Enquirer, says a former reporter for the tabloid.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has accused David Pecker, CEO of the Enquirer's parent company AMI, of threatening to publish images of Bezos and the woman he was having an extramarital affair with — unless Bezos stopped investigating how the paper got the images and issued a statement saying the paper's coverage of his divorce is not politically motivated.

If the allegations are true, it could reopen the Enquirer to prosecution for paying hush money to women who claimed to have had affairs with U.S. President Donald Trump. 

Bezos owns the Washington Post, a newspaper that has been critical in its coverage of the president. 

Jerry George, former Los Angeles bureau chief of the National Enquirer, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the scandal. Here is part of that conversation.

Do you think the National Enquirer was expecting that Jeff Bezos would come out swinging against the company like this?

No, I think it was the furthest thing from their mind. I think they thought they had him over a barrel and that he would capitulate.

Is this what they do? Is this a kind of usual M.O. for the National Enquirer?

It wasn't when I worked there. I mean, as a journalist, you know, there are times when you have to twist arms a little bit to be persuasive. But this is nothing short of extortion.

If it's true, and it appears, through these emails, that the National Enquirer was ready to release these photos — unless Jeff Bezos agreed to say, publicly, that the tabloid's coverage around him was not politically motivated. So what do you make of that?

I think that, you know, from the genesis, it was politically motivated.

Bezos himself is certainly not a name for Enquirer readers.

I mean, we know he's the wealthiest man in the world and the history with Amazon and the Washington Post — but to the average Enquirer reader, it doesn't register.

It's not as if he's George Clooney.

This July 12, 2017, photo shows the cover of an issue of the National Enquirer featuring U.S. President Donald Trump at a store in New York. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

So what are the politics behind this?

President Trump has had a hard-on for this guy for a long time. And I think it was perhaps David Pecker's way of making up to him after the federal commission. 

Of course, this goes into what happened with the payout to the catch-and-kill stories that the National Enquirer had with former relationships of Donald Trump. Just remind Canadians what that's about.

The David Pecker/Donald Trump friendship goes back 25 years, and I think they consider themselves good friends.

And as Donald Trump emerged as presidential timber, I think David Pecker saw in him, you know, a ticket to greater fame and fortune.

This 25-year relationship between David Pecker and Donald Trump, that's been broken down, hasn't it?

Up until the news broke about the stories, the catch-and-kill stories, everything was smooth sailing. But once that became known publicly, you know, the president had to distance himself from David Pecker.

So what's happened since then? I mean, why would David Packer want to smear Jeff Bezos?

I think it was a way of making up. I think it was a way of ingratiating himself to his old friend — sort of kiss and make up gesture.

[AMI] made a deal with prosecutors that they would co-operate in exchange for not being prosecuted for having helped with that financing of the two women. So the possibility that the National Enquirer is ... extorting from Jeff Bezos — what does that do to that agreement with the prosecutors?

I think that the editors of the National Enquirer thought they were a lot smarter than they really were.

I think that they thought they could get away with this and it wouldn't come to anyone's attention. It would be just business as usual.

And it was quite a blunder.

Bezos has accused the Enquirer of pursuing politically motivated coverage of his divorce. Bezos owns the Washington Post, a newspaper that has been critical of Trump. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters and Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

But if American Media [is] found to have of actually attempted to extort from Jeff Bezos, then it's going to be charged possibly, and that's a violation. The agreement they made with prosecutors is that they'd keep their noses clean or else they'd not only be prosecuted for something else, but they'd be prosecuted for the thing that they got forgiven for. So you'd think they wouldn't have done this.

You would think so. But, you know, right now it appears that all bets are off. I mean, they are really in the thick of it.

And this may ultimately spell the end of the Enquirer.

How so?

Bezos has the means to, you know, just grind them into pulp financially.

I think David Pecker's job certainly isn't secure. I think there is a board of directors that are scratching their heads and panicking.

It doesn't look good.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.