It is a story that has exploded in America, involving a billionaire business owner, President Donald Trump and one of the country’s most controversial publications, the National Inquirer.
All hell broke lose on Thursday when, in a bombshell article published on the website Medium, Jeff Bezos accused the US tabloid of “extortion and blackmail”.
Bezos – who is the world’s richest man, the founder of Amazon, and who owns the Washington Post – said the tabloid was threatening to publish revealing photographs of him unless his private investigators backed off the publication.
The executive has been subject to numerous stories in the tabloid since he and his wife, MacKenzie, announced they were divorcing.
After the tabloid published a story about his extramarital affair last month, Bezos ordered a team of private investigators to find out how the Enquirer obtained what it called “sleazy text messages and gushing love notes” to former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez.
Things have since escalated.
But what is the National Enquirer?
The National Enquirer is an American tabloid famous for its sensationalised gossip and sometimes fake news stories. It’s hugely popular and is sold at supermarket check-outs across the US.
If you thought the UK’s tabloid press was bad, here are some examples of the kinds of stories and headlines the Enquirer is known for. While the world mourned the loss of Diana in 1997, the National Enquirer carried the headline: “Di Goes Sex Mad” the week after she died.
In October 2015, an article with the headline “Hillary Clinton: White House Dream Is Over!” claimed Clinton had six months left to live, which obviously turned out not to be true.
The first issue of the publication, which openly acknowledges that it will pay sources for tips, came out in 1926.
Dylan Howard is the current editor and it is owned by American Media Inc (AMI) which is headed by David Pecker – whose name would turn out to be a gift to headline writers as the current scandal unfolded.
What has happened with Bezos?
Earlier this week, the tabloid’s editor, Dylan Howard, emailed a lawyer for Bezos’ longtime security consultant in order to describe photos the Enquirer “obtained during our newsgathering”.
The photos include a “below the belt selfie” of Bezos, photos of him in tight boxer-briefs and wearing only a towel, and several revealing photos of Sanchez, according to the email Bezos released in his blog post.
According to emails Bezos posted, a lawyer for American Media Inc (AMI), the Enquirer’s parent company, apparently offered a deal on Wednesday – the tabloid would not post the photos if Bezos and his investigators released a public statement “affirming that they have no knowledge or basis” to suggest that the Enquirer’s coverage was “politically motivated or influenced by political forces”.
Bezos’ investigators have suggested the Enquirer’s coverage of his affair was politically motivated as the executive has been the target of criticism from US president Donald Trump over the Post’s critical coverage of the White House.
What has this got to do with Donald Trump?
Pecker has long been a close personal friend of the US President and during the presidential campaign the Enquirer took to publishing negative stories about Trump’s rivals, but the connection went deeper than simply supporting a friend.
Federal prosecutors subpoenaed AMI as part of their investigations into Michael Cohen for possible violation of campaign finance laws.
Prosecutors say Pecker was instrumental in burying the stories of two women who say they had affairs with Trump before the 2016 election. This was done by AMI paying for negative stories about Trump in order not to run them, which is a policy known as “catch and kill”.
In a plea deal, the company and its executives, who admitted to criminal behaviour, received immunity in exchange for giving evidence against Cohen.
The deal could now be at risk as at the time AMI pledged not to “commit any crimes subsequent to the date of the signing of this agreement”. The penalty for violation would be to void the immunity agreement which could then open it up for prosecution.
The parent company of the National Enquirer has said in a statement it would thoroughly investigate the extortion claims by Bezos.
“American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos. Further, at the time of the recent allegations made by Mr. Bezos, it was in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him,” said the statement from the board, which is chaired by AMI’s chief executive, David Pecker.
“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.”
We’ll have to wait and see if the accusations result in any legal action, but so far it looks like the tabloid will live to gossip another day.