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Bezos rolls over a log - and the National Enquirer's sleaze crawls out

The tweet from Jeffrey P. Bezos, announcing his stunning blog post, came Thursday at 5:51 p.m. And for a few long minutes, the chattering classes shut up. And read. And tried to make sense of what they were reading.

At 6:04, journalist Yashar Ali was one of the first to synthesize it.

"HOLY COW," he tweeted. "In a medium post, @JeffBezos says that David Pecker and AMI threatened to release embarrassing photos unless Bezos agreed to stop investigating them and released a statement saying he didn't have anything on them! He included emails in the post."

Yes, it's official. We are living inside a Tom Wolfe novel − call it "Bonfire of the Insanities" − set in the furiously bubbling political and media cauldron of 2019. But if you tried to pitch this newest chapter as fiction, it would never fly. For one thing, the names of central characters are simply too "on the nose."

At the center of the unreality is the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer, which for many years walked the line between sleaze and a kind of tawdry-but-scrappy journalism − and which President Donald Trump repeatedly claimed, apparently in all seriousness, deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Until August, the Trump-Enquirer relationship had been tight-knit. The tabloid was one of the few newspapers in the nation to endorse him for president, and its screaming cover headlines helped his cause, like one from November,2016:"Hillary: Corrupt! Racist! Criminal!"

But in the past year or so, the depth of the Enquirer's unethical business practices has been revealed. The publication, through its parent company, American Media Inc. or AMI − would "catch and kill" stories: buying damaging information only to bury it, never to be published. It paid hush money to protect Trump from claims of extramarital affairs. It had a clear political agenda and, though chairman David Pecker, a direct tie to the developer-turned-president.

That all imploded last summer as federal prosecutors gave Pecker legal immunity in exchange for his cooperation in their investigation of Trump's former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen.

Now, Bezos' revelations made clear, the Enquirer's journalistic sleaze included attempted extortion. (Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, also owns The Washington Post.)

"Jeff Bezos just broke the National Enquirer's business model," tweeted Washington Post political columnist Karen Tumulty.

Quickly, other appalling revelations about how AMI conducts itself began to surface.

Ronan Farrow, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his reporting on Harvey Weinstein's sexual abuse, said that he, too, had been threatened by AMI during his reporting on the Enquirer's practices. Ted Bridis, the former head of the Associated Press's investigations team, said he'd heard threats that the Enquirer was looking into the background of AP staffers doing similar reporting.

All of which is disgusting. To their credit, none of them buckled.

And, as Trump biographer Tim O'Brien, head of Bloomberg Opinion, put it Friday, AMI has really picked the wrong person to try to bully: "Bezos is the world's richest man, he has ample resources and a spine, and he's willing to put his own reputation in play before the Enquirer does − in order to make a point and to discover how the publication got his texts and photos."

As Bezos put it in his blog post, he wouldn't be blackmailed over threats to publish a "below the belt selfie," or accede to AMI's demand that he explicitly state that the publisher had no political agenda in publishing its investigation of his extramarital affair last month.

"I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out," he wrote.

Whether the revelations about AMI's extortion efforts amount to criminality − the kind of criminality that could put Pecker's immunity agreement in jeopardy − isn't clear at the moment. AMI said Friday it "fervently" believes it was acting lawfully and in good faith with Bezos, but that its board will take another look. 

What is clear are the Enquirer's true colors. This isn't any kind of journalism, not even the diciest variety of supermarket tabloidism. Call it by its name: This is publication − or the threat of publication − as bludgeon.

Whatever disappearing claim the Enquirer and AMI had to something more lofty has been steadily leaving the building. Now it's official and irrevocable. By calling their bluff in a blog post, Jeff Bezos just kicked the door shut.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post's media columnist.






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