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Former 'Enquirer' Spokesman On Bezos Allegations

Feb 9, 2019
Originally published on February 9, 2019 8:52 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who owns The Washington Post, is accusing the National Enquirer of blackmail and extortion. He says the Enquirer, which is already involved in legal matters entangling President Trump, claimed to have embarrassing photos of him, demanded that Mr. Bezos stop looking into how the Enquirer was getting information on him and that he should say the Enquirer's coverage of him was not politically motivated.

Stu Zakim was a senior vice president at Enquirer's parent, American Media, and its spokesperson. He now owns Bridge Strategic Communications. That's a PR firm. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Zakim.

STU ZAKIM: Thanks, Scott, for having me.

SIMON: From what you've learned, is this just another day at the office for a publication like the Enquirer? Is it extortion?

ZAKIM: Yes, it is. It's another day at the office. It's not extortion, per se. It's the threat of extortion that you need to look at because, really, most people fold when they get that letter from the lawyers. They don't question it.

SIMON: You mean fold in the sense Mr. Bezos would go, OK, I'll do any - or anyone other than Mr. Bezos would go - would say, well, OK, that's it. I'm not going to do this.

ZAKIM: Pretty much. And that's how they've gotten a lot of their stories in - the way they want them published.

SIMON: Now, you know, we should say, by the way, American Media says that it acted lawfully and was in good-faith negotiations to resolve all matters with Mr. Bezos. Do you know the Enquirer got hold of those personal text messages or photos? Did they - would they break the law to do that?

ZAKIM: I don't know. I haven't really worked at the company in 12 years, so I'm not familiar with all the things that have been happening recently. But what we do see is a pattern of behavior that existed when I was there as well.

To the other point, I don't think they - I have no idea how they got those photos or the texts. Certainly, it's a mystery that now the government is involved in trying to find out. One can only imagine that people like to leak stories. You know, the Enquirer...

SIMON: Yeah.

ZAKIM: ...Is based on the fact that they pay for tips. Not a lot of other media do that. So people come to them with salacious stories. Obviously, knowing who Bezos is, this - whoever was going to leak this to them felt that it was an amazing opportunity, and the Enquirer responded in kind.

SIMON: Based on your experience - now, people have remarked it seems ironic a man who made so much money harvesting the personal information of millions should be threatened with having his personal information revealed. But let me turn that question around. How smart is it for the National Enquirer to pick a quarrel with the richest man in the world, who can afford to fight them?

ZAKIM: I don't think they anticipated he would respond the way he did because, once again, throughout their history of - since Pecker has owned the Enquirer, no one has really caved. I mean, most people have caved, rather. Bezos is the first person to say, I'm not going to do it. Come on and get me, guys.

The embarrassment already happened. Had they approached him before publication of the story, maybe they would've had that leverage. But now the story's out. And how more harmful could it be than it was for their first issue? So if they have additional pictures, you know, for someone whose reputation is pretty good, his dent - the damage was done. So Bezos really had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to win by challenging the way he has.

SIMON: Mr. Zakim, I have to ask you - and I will note that the Enquirer has been absolutely right on a number of stories. I'm thinking, for example, of the reporting on John Edwards. Do they get good people working for them?

ZAKIM: I think there are good people working for that company, for sure. However, the nature of tabloid journalism is it bridges the gap between normal journalism. So you have to be more aggressive in your style. The readers are not expecting to see love - fluff stories. They want to see dirt. That's why they're paying for it. And you adapt to the place you're working at if you want to stay working there. And that - so they do get good journalists.

As you've indicated, they've broken certain - a lot of stories through the years that have set a trend for other media to follow. But the core of their existence is really about the kind of stories we're talking about today.

SIMON: Stu Zakim - he's former American Media vice president, now owns Bridge Strategic Communications. Thanks so much for being with us.

ZAKIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.