Journalism on Trial
The National Enquirer and parent company AMI stand accused of the attempted blackmail and extortion of billionaire Jeff Bezos. Their verdict should be nothing less than the death sentence.
Journalism is currently trying to pull through some rocky, turbulent times. Attacks on free speech and freedom of the press have increased in recent years, especially from those at the top. President Trump has made headlines calling the press the “enemy of the people” while seeming to imply that press freedom should be completely abolished. European countries are experiencing a similar decline: new laws in the UK do not provide adequate protection for journalists or whistleblowers, and Turkey’s Erdoğan has overseen one of the biggest declines in press freedom seen in modern history.
At the centre of all of this lies a growing distrust in today’s news organisations, with the proponents of this growing doubt in modern journalism lying high — Trump himself, as the top man in the supposed ‘land of liberty’, has made no attempt to hide his disdain for the “mainstream media” and their “MSM narrative” (which, according to his supporters, is distinctly and unexplainably anti-Trump). It certainly isn’t helped, however, by organisations like the National Enquirer, an unashamedly sketchy tabloid newspaper that makes no secret of its willingness to use disapproved journalistic practices for cheap controversy and website clicks. Their disregarding for any morals that journalists (or human beings) should have has now very publicly reared its ugly head, with the organisation being quite rightly exposed in trying to blackmail Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon — and, coincidentally, owner of the Washington Post newspaper, a (reputable) news organisation that has adamantly gone after Trump’s misconducts. What a coincidence would it be, then, if the National Enquirer had any links to Trump?
For Whom The Knell Tolls
David Jay Pecker is a man who I cannot really say anything about, for fear that he will next steer the machinery of the National Enquirer to focus on trying to dig up my past before he orders a lawyer to email me with a vaguely worded threat that warns he will take down my entire life. As a result, I have to stick with just the facts. Born in September 1951, he currently sits as the publisher of the National Enquirer, Star, Sun, Weekly World News, Globe, Men’s Fitness, Muscle and Fitness, Flex, a magazine called “Fit Pregnancy” and Shape (a group of magazines that I do have to wonder if he is proud of?). He is paid an annual salary of more than $1m as a result, despite his company American Media, Inc. (or ‘AMI’) having filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010. He is also a longtime friend and close associate of President Donald J. Trump, who he has repeatedly been linked to: his company AMI handled the $150,000 hush payment that ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was jailed for — the very same man who was sent National Enquirer articles prior to publication to ensure they painted Trump in the correct positive light.
As for David J. Pecker himself? Well, [redacted]. Oh — [redacted] and [redacted]! And did I mention [redacted]? You can make your own judgement from those statements alone, but as a Trump ally you can be sure his newspaper is not willing to broadcast and show the world Trump’s various controversies while in office — which brings him into direct conflict with the Washington Post newspaper, which as aforementioned is owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos. How strange and peculiar, then, that Mr Pecker would go pecking around (sorry) for facts concerning the owner of a newspaper that Trump loves to hate? The AMI claim that they uphold only the highest standards of journalistic integrity, an interesting claim considering their articles concerning the President never seem to mention anything bad about him, despite his long and ever-increasing number of ethics problems and questionable or sexist statements.
The website Media Bias/Fact Check, which tracks political leanings of various news sources, is not kind on the National Enquirer, describing it as a right-wing “questionable source” as a result of its use of “conspiracy [and] pseudoscience” and the publication of misleading or falsified news. The website continues with its less-than-glowing report:
The Enquirer openly acknowledges that it will pay sources for tips, a practice generally disapproved of by credible press. […] The National Enquirer is well known for publishing outrageous and sometimes fake news stories. One could even say that they are the original fake news media outlet that profits by selling fake news.
Unfortunately for Mr Pecker, their willingness to use malpractice in searching for sensational headlines may have (hopefully) now caught up with his company. In September 2018, AMI agreed to a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors, which stipulated that AMI and the publications it owns “shall commit no crimes whatsoever” for three years. Failure to comply opens means AMI becomes “subject to prosecution for any federal criminal violation of which this office has knowledge” — including the $150,000 hush payment, which violated campaign finance laws. Unlucky for AMI, then, that blackmail and extortion is a felony in some states — however, AMI’s actions may not amount to a violation of the Hobbs Act (a federal law against extortion) as AMI did not make the threat for property or money.
However, former federal judge Paul Cassel told The Hill that he believes the emails sent by AMI do violate 18 U.S. Code § 875 overseeing interstate communications, which states that “whoever, with intent to extort from [any person/company a] thing of value” communicates a “threat to injure the property or reputation of the addressee” is committing an offence if the message “transmits in interstate or foreign commerce” — which makes it seem like the alleged threats against Bezos are certainly criminal as they plainly tried to extort favours from him with the threat of damaging his reputation. News later emerged that the federal prosecutors had started reviewing whether Bezos’ extortion claims amounted to a violation of their 2018 non-prosecution agreement.
Evidence For Trial
The allegations were listed in Jeff Bezos’ public post, entitled No thank you, Mr. Pecker, as he also laid out his quick and punishingly effective action against the supposed threats, deciding that he would not succumb to the demands of AMI and that he couldn’t be embarrassed by the National Enquirer if no one was surprised by what they published. His Medium post exposed threatening emails and attempts at blackmail from Dylan Howard, who currently holds the position of Chief Content Officer for AMI and who was a party to the 2018 non-prosecution agreement. Bezos also outlined his reasons for publishing details of the troublesome images himself instead of becoming attached to AMI, saying:
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?
If you haven’t yet read his stance, you should. It is an eloquently and firmly argued position against what Bezos sees as exploitation of journalistic privilege and malpractices in reporting. He continued, exposing the alleged AMI emails for blackmail:
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.
In doing so, Mr Bezos has cemented his reputation among fellow business leaders and stockholders. Any initial damage to reputation his self-admittance has done will be quickly covered up by confidence in his unwillingness to lose privacy or control over his business, which he has led from strength to strength. Amazon stocks fell slightly on his allegations of blackmail and description of the scandalous images — but as CNN pointed out, investors are not worried about the spat, saying “the entire market, including tech stocks, were lower.”
The damage to the National Enquirer and parent AMI should not be as trivial. Their history of using “catch-and-kill” methods and this most recent scandal of exploitation should be plenty to secure their funeral, just as the phone-hacking scandal killed off one of the National Enquirer’s UK equivalents — the News of the World. That same scandal also lead to prison sentences and a collapse in reputation for Mudorch family led News UK, who were only able to win it back after a good deal of soul-searching and the subsequent closure of the News of the World paper. Similarly, AMI should not be given a shred of credibility or reputation back until they close the National Enquirer and pledge to stop trying to blackmail people.
AMI denies wrongdoing, of course, saying it acted lawfully — but if Jeff Bezos is telling the truth, legality shouldn’t matter. The National Enquirer should be handed the death sentence either way.
Note: the heading “For Whom The Knell Tolls” towards the start of this piece does not and should not be taken as an implication that Mr. Pecker or any of his associates are within days of death. If it is taken as such, look for me on the front cover of the National Enquirer tomorrow as I too am “exposed” for making supposed death threats against AMI owners (which I am not doing, for clarification).