What do Jeff Bezos and the Duke of Wellington have in common? The phrase “publish and be damned!” comes to mind.
Just today, Jeff Bezos posted to Medium an account of National Enquirer publisher David Pecker attempting to blackmail him. According to the emails Bezos reposted, Pecker threatened publication of embarrassing photos of himself and his girlfriend, TV anchor Lauren Sanchez, if Bezos didn’t back off on the Washington Post‘s investigation of external political influence on the Enquirer‘s actions. (During the Trump campaign, the Enquirer practiced a “catch-and-kill” process whereby it would buy and then kill news stories detrimental to Donald Trump.)
The National Enquirer, it should be noted, also published a trove of racy private texts between Bezos and Sanchez (link via archive.org to avoid giving the Enquirer additonal traffic) in January, and presumably those photos were obtained from the same source. (It’s unclear just how much involvement the Enquirer may have played in the estrangement of Bezos and his wife Mackenzie that led to the announcement of their divorce in January.)
Bezos wasn’t having any of it. He writes, “Any personal embarrassment [the Enquirer‘s publisher] 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?” So he published all the emails, laying out the sordid details of what they wanted in return for their agreement not to publish the embarrassing photos.
And that’s what brings to mind the Duke of Wellington, who was approached by a blackmailer threatening to publish a courtesan’s memoir containing racy details about his affairs with her if he didn’t pay to have himself removed from it. The Duke’s reaction was much the same as Bezos’s: the angry response “Publish and be damned.” The blackmailer did, but in the end it didn’t hurt Wellington’s reputation much—he didn’t lose his position, and eventually went on to become prime minister.
It looks like Bezos is taking a page from that same book—including outright pre-empting the Enquirer by revealing exactly what the pictures would include. Even if the Enquirer does publish them, Bezos sharing the details about them first robs them of at least some of their sting.
And I think it’s great that Bezos is willing to stand up for journalistic integrity, even at the potential cost of his own embarrassment. He emphasizes his strong belief in the Washington Post‘s mission, and his intention to stand behind it to the end:
Even though The Post is a complexifier for me, I do not at all regret my investment. The Post is a critical institution with a critical mission. My stewardship of The Post and my support of its mission, which will remain unswerving, is something I will be most proud of when I’m 90 and reviewing my life, if I’m lucky enough to live that long, regardless of any complexities it creates for me.
Jeff has certainly set the cat among the pigeons with this response, and it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens next.