Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 11 May 2021


Jeff Bezos Wags the Dog, Part II

The Washington Post’s owner spun a tall tale, and perhaps this should be ‘news.’

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A book excerpt published by Bloomberg News purports to tell “The Untold Story of How Jeff Bezos Beat the Tabloids,” but it’s hard to see the triumph it’s talking about.

The just-released “Amazon Unbound,” by reporter Brad Stone, makes evident all over again that the National Enquirer was factual, truthful and well-sourced in everything it reported two years ago about the married Mr. Bezos’ affair with a married helicopter pilot.

Mr. Bezos lied outright or was extraordinarily disingenuous in the counternarrative he promoted, suggesting that because of his ownership of the Washington Post he was the victim of a political hit hatched by the Trump administration and/or Saudi Arabia. What soon became obvious at the time is even more obvious now. Mr. Bezos and his advisers had early indications the real source of the leak wasn’t Saudi Arabia bugging his phone. As the Journal reported, it was his girlfriend’s brother, a Hollywood press agent. Unmentioned even now is the obvious corollary. If Mr. Bezos didn’t share the couple’s intimate texts with the brother, he knew his paramour likely did.

We’ve all been there—remember the scene in “Arthur” when the dog is punished whenever the elderly housekeeper breaks wind. But Mr. Bezos’ perhaps reluctance to confront his girlfriend only underlines his consciousness of deception as he set out to promote an alternative narrative about Saudi phone hackers.


It all comes a cropper in Mr. Stone’s book just as it did for some of us in real time. The disingenuous, circumstantial case mounted by a hired consulting firm. A U.S. attorney’s investigation quietly dropped. The brother’s lame attempt, after the Enquirer exposed him as its source, to worm his way into the billionaire’s good graces by supporting the Saudi narrative. When the full exchange between his representatives and the tabloid are considered, the Enquirer apparently never tried to blackmail Mr. Bezos, as he alleged.

The most humiliating revelation concerns his alleged sexting of his private parts to his girlfriend, which undoubtedly lent urgency to his effort to change the subject to his heroic support for the Post’s coverage of the Saudi murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. According to Mr. Stone’s book, the photo wasn’t even of Mr. Bezos’ private parts. The brother hadn’t been able to obtain such a photo, so he reportedly told the FBI he lifted a picture from a gay prostitution site to help peddle his story to the Enquirer for a reported $200,000.

Mr. Bezos’ most critical fib (in effect) was his statement that his Post ownership had become a “complexifier” for him, i.e., made him a political target.

The complexifier was for the Post. Faced with the biggest personal scandal of his career, Mr. Bezos’ first instinct apparently was to cite his Post ownership to propagate a phony version of events so he could pose as a martyr to a free press. Mr. Stone calls it a PR “masterstroke,” but it was a lie—an attempt to gaslight the world with fake news from a purely self-interested motive. If you wonder whether some media outlets promoted the false Steele dossier not caring whether it was true, this episode won’t make you wonder less.

In another country with a fine tradition of press freedom, politicians argued a decade ago that a publisher was “unfit” when his reporters were found to have engaged in illegal means to report true and newsworthy stories about the royal family.

Here Mr. Bezos is a newspaper owner who himself manufactured a false story in his own interest. Our great corrective is supposed to be daylight. Unfortunately, while our press mostly has stopped crediting Mr. Bezos’ unsupported claims about the Saudis, it never got around to investigating and reporting the Washington Post owner’s behavior as the story it should have been in its own right.

It will be interesting to see if we now get some letters—Mr. Bezos may wish to assign his security consultant Gavin de Becker to claim that Mr. Bezos believed and still believes his conspiracy theory despite overwhelming evidence that the National Enquirer was going about its tawdry business as usual with the brother’s help. Then again, it may not be a good look for a public-company CEO to be seen clinging to a threadbare fantasy of his own invention rather than forthrightly accepting the consequences of a highly unoriginal rich-person indiscretion of the sort tabloids exist to publicize.

I can’t leave this subject without referring to Bob Woodward’s gaudy, uncritical and infatuated embrace of Mr. Bezos’ tall tale. All of us in journalism make plenty of mistakes, but honest mistakes we recognize and gladly correct. Seldom will you find a newspaper admitting that it lied to you unless it can push the blame off on a plagiarizing or fabulizing reporter who will be said to have defrauded his or her own editors and institution. Now the Washington Post has an owner who fits this description.

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