Jeff Bezos Battle Begins to Rattle National Enquirer Insiders

Picking a fight with the Amazon CEO has staff at David Pecker's American Media on edge as the media company's dubious ethics get wide exposure: "In the past when things have gone wrong, someone's head has to roll."
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

There once was a time when comedian Tom Arnold couldn’t wait to see his name splashed across the National Enquirer cover or printed in bold ink on the inside. That was a couple decades back when he had a Midwest address and a wife named Roseanne Barr, but, “in all honesty, we couldn’t wait,” Arnold says with a laugh to The Hollywood Reporter.

That checkout counter-set love affair soured after a series of incendiary headlines, contentious lawsuits and, eventually, a settlement over stolen love letters. Arnold notes, “If you had told Roseanne and me, when we were suing back then, that one day the Enquirer would be caught up with Jeff Bezos over pictures of his penis and that the president of the United States would be defending the Enquirer versus the guy who owns The Washington Post — this is insane. We’ve come so far yet we’re still back here.”

By "here," Arnold means now, as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest man, with an estimated fortune of $165 billion — is waging an unexpected war with the Enquirer after the tabloid published a bombshell investigation in January revealing that Bezos, married to wife MacKenzie for 25 years, had been carrying on a months-long affair with Lauren Sanchez Whitesell, wife of Endeavor executive chairman Patrick Whitesell. Beyond dinner date details and long-lens paparazzi photographs, Enquirer editors teased that there was more where that came from in the “Biggest Investigation in National Enquirer History.” The more? A series of explicit selfies, including a “below the belt” image showing the father of four in “an unsparing close-up.”

The images have not yet been published, but Bezos beat the Enquirer to the punch (in a way), delivering a close-up of his own with a Feb. 7 essay on blog platform Medium in which he alleged that the National Enquirer and its owner, American Media Inc., were trying to blackmail him over the images. “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,” Bezos wrote in the revealing post, which included email exchanges between AMI chief content officer Dylan Howard and Bezos’ attorney Martin Singer.

Bezos also wrote that in exchange for not publishing the images, he and his security expert, Gavin de Becker, were to “make the specific false public statement to the press” that AMI’s coverage was not politically motivated. (AMI chairman and CEO David Pecker has been friends for decades with Trump, who has been hyper-critical of Bezos and his Washington Post.) “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.”

Hollywood insiders will also be watching, though many may be forced to feign shock as the systems that protect stars and high-profile talent — publicists, managers, lawyers and agents — have long been aware of tactics employed by National Enquirer and its tabloid brethren. Chasing Hollywood scandals, whether it be on-set affairs, rehab stints, secret illnesses or illegitimate offspring, etc. and etc., has remained a focal point of Enquirer stories and investigations for decades.

A public relations executive who represents high-profile people says there’s a science to these types of stories. “You get an email from whatever the publication is — for instance, someone from one of the AMI publications will send something over,” says the rep, referring to AMI’s dominance in the tabloid marketplace following the 2018 acquisition of Bauer Media. The company’s titles now include Us Weekly, Star, OK!, Men’s Journal, Muscle & Fitness, Muscle & Fitness Hers, Radar Online, Soap Opera Digest and Globe. “It will read, ‘We are going with the story saying x, y, z and if you care to comment the deadline is 3 p.m. tomorrow.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. We all read stories about our clients that are just not true.”

But sometimes, they are. In those cases, Enquirer editors will play hardball and try to force a confirmation or even acquiesce to softening the blow in exchange for another item or exclusive interview. Jerry George, an AMI veteran who spent 28 years with the company and departed in 2013 as the Enquirer’s Los Angeles bureau chief, says that he remembers one time during his tenure that his team was reporting on Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s split. “We were dealing with Marty Singer, who is representing Bezos now,” George recalls. “And he asked us to leave their kids out of the story. That was a kindness that we were happy to extend. We got our story and we conceded that they had a right to privacy as minors. We weren’t complete scumbags.”

The veteran publicist who spoke with THR also confirms the practice. “We’ve had situations in the past where we’ve made trades. If they wouldn’t run this story we would give access to another story that might be better in some form for both parties.”

But George, who now lives in the San Fernando Valley where he makes a living as a substitute teacher and a bartender, was quick to slam his former company in the wake of Bezos’ blog post. “The Enquirer has sunk to new depths — this is the lowest,” he says, confirming that during his run, he and his colleagues had the chance to run with explicit images “three to four times” but declined in order to not alienate readers, especially those in the middle parts of the country. “The idiotic thing is writing saying, ‘We have dick pics.’ That’s so appalling and inhumane.”

Others think the Enquirer picked a fight with the wrong billionaire. Charles Harder — who represented Hulk Hogan in a lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker Media after it published a sex tape of the wrestler — applauded Bezos' move to go public. “Jeff Bezos is being courageous in exposing the unseemly practices of American Media and its titles, including the National Enquirer. The company publishes dozens of supermarket magazines and online publications which millions of Americans read,” Harder says. “The world has every right to know what ugly practices are occurring behind the scenes there.”

Arnold adds, "I am surprised the Enquirer was that stupid. They made a mistake with Jeff Bezos."

Inside AMI’s office, one staffer, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells THR that there’s a cloud hanging overhead. “People are worried,” says the reporter. “It looks like blackmail and extortion to me — that’s my opinion. Already our access is limited in town so this may change things for the worse. But nobody is even standing around the water cooler talking about it because you can’t talk shit about the company. You don’t know who’s listening and you don’t know who is team Trump or team Pecker. You have to toe the line.”

That said, the staffer does suggest that someone will have to take the fall for this high-profile battle with Bezos. “In the past when things have gone wrong, someone’s head has to roll,” says the staffer, suggesting that this situation could lead to unemployment for top editors. "But this is the Enquirer — it’s a crazy place and not like a regular company where people get fired for inappropriate behavior.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.