Last week, the world’s richest man became a Medium author. On Thursday, the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, penned an extraordinary essay on the site saying that the National Enquirer was trying to extort him
Last week, the world’s richest man became a Medium author. On Thursday, the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, penned an extraordinary essay on the site saying that the National Enquirer was trying to extort him.
The tabloid had previously published Bezos’s private text messages, revealing that he had been having an affair; after Bezos ordered an investigation of how the Enquirer had got his messages, its parent company, American Media, Inc., threatened to release private photos.
Bezos refused to back down, writing, “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.”
Last fall, A.M.I. signed a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, in which it admitted that it bought and suppressed the story of Karen McDougal, a model who said that she had an affair with Donald Trump, in support of Trump’s Presidential campaign.
Now federal prosecutors are reportedly reviewing Bezos’s claims; if Bezos is correct, then A.M.I. may have broken the law, violated its agreement, and once again acted to defend Trump, who is decidedly not an admirer of Bezos or his newspaper, the Washington Post.
(In a statement, A.M.I. said that it “believes fervently that it acted lawfully in reporting the story of Mr. Bezos.”) Bezos’s actions last week won plaudits online and in the press—a rare occurrence these days for the world’s wealthiest tech C.E.O.s. And his piece, with its personal tone, appeared to be a sincere and unexpected gesture from a man known for his extreme privacy.
It thus seemed like a good time to get a fuller sense of who Bezos really is, which is why I spoke by phone with Brad Stone, the author of “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” and the senior executive editor of global technology at Bloomberg News. (Bezos’s wife, MacKenzie, infamously gave the book a one-star review on Amazon.)
During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Bezos has dealt with the press, what he really thinks about President Trump, and why he doesn’t measure himself against other tech titans.
How surprised were you by Bezos’s piece, and did you view it as a continuation or a departure from how he has usually acted since becoming rich, famous, and extremely important?
I think everybody was surprised. It was a very unexpected and brave response to an unusual situation. We haven’t seen anything from anyone like it before. So, in that sense, it was surprising.
But, broadly, it wasn’t surprising, and, specifically, it was, and let me explain what I mean. I think that, in general, Jeff has always tended to do things differently when it comes to public relations. The great example is HQ2, that whole process of selecting another office for Amazon: he turned it into a yearlong bake-off between cities.
And, depending on your view, it was extremely successful in getting publicity for Amazon or kind of backfired because it made them a target. And then you go back and look at battles against Walmart and other perceived critics or enemies, and he always tends to do things a little differently.
Specifically, it was unusual because he is a fiercely private person, and this is, I would imagine, territory that would be private and intimate for most people, so for him to address it was very out of character—and probably would be for anyone.
What are some of the ways that he’s done press or public relations differently?
When he unveiled the Fire Phone, giving members of the press a children’s book. You would have to go back ten years to some of the price wars with Walmart and some of the ways they communicated then. He always tries to communicate a little differently and think freshly about public-relations challenges, and this is obviously no different.
You describe one of his principles as always thinking about the long term. How does this fit into that?
I think that, as the owner of the Washington Post, he has really become an advocate for the importance of good journalism, and that is what he has gone to bat for here, in recognizing that, allegedly, American Media, Inc., has a way of operating and threatening potential story subjects.
It’s in everybody’s individual and short-term interest to cave to it, but it is in the collective interest and the long-term interest to put a stop to it. I think he said in his letter that, if anyone can stand up to this, he can. And that’s why I found—and I think a lot of other people found—the stand to be so impressive.
Were you surprised that he bought the Washington Post when he did, and how do you think he sees its role in his portfolio?
I remember that afternoon. I was shocked. He had never done anything like that. He had always been pretty focussed in his interests. His primary extracurricular interest was [the space-flight company] Blue Origin.
Other than an investment in Business Insider—which had been primarily a financial investment, and an investment in Henry Blodget, whom he knew—he had never shown much interest in journalism, and had been someone who shied away from, or didn’t seem to care much about, coverage of Amazon or himself. And so it was shocking. We know now it transpired on the strength of his personal relationship with Don Graham.
And how important is it to him?
One of the things he says in his Medium post is that it is one of the things he will be most proud of. And it is surprising. He talked publicly quite a bit over the years about Amazon, and lately Blue Origin, and he has never really said much about the Washington Post publicly. But, in his ownership of the Washington Post, he has been through a couple interesting and kind of momentous situations.
There was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And, I am forgetting his name, but the Washington Post reporter who was held hostage.
Yeah, whom he went to pick up personally in Germany. And then, of course, all the negative reaction from the Trump Administration. If we take him at his word, he sees the Post as playing a pretty important public role.
You just said, “He had never shown much interest in journalism, and had been someone who shied away from, or didn’t seem to care much about, coverage of Amazon or himself.” Did you mean that he didn’t like coverage of himself, or that he didn’t care either way?
I would say he was strategic about it. The press was a tool that Amazon could use to inform people of its brand. Amazon was solicitous of the media over the first five or six years. And then, probably from 2000 to 2007, when the first Kindle was introduced, they did very little, very little. Then, when they had devices to market—the Kindle and the tablet and then the phones, and then the Echo—they have done more.
But he is someone who has personally been very private and has been guarded with his time, in terms of talking to the press, and would always go into press interactions very strategically, with a message to convey, and was very disciplined about what he said. Until he bought the Post, you wouldn’t have thought of him as a great fan, even, of the press. But clearly, through his ownership of the Post, that has changed.
So you think he is pretty sincere in taking this seriously?
Yeah. We can judge him on his word, or we can judge him on his actions. His words are that it is important. And his actions are that the Post is a great product right now, and he has turned around an important institution and turned it on a profitable trajectory, and turned it into one of the most widely read national news franchises. And they all seem to love him there.
What do you think Bezos makes of the Trump Administration and the President?
The one thing we should say is that there is zero evidence to think that his personal feelings or personal agenda inform the editorial agenda of the Post. But, aside from that, what we have to go on were some early tweets during the campaign, where he suggested sending the future President into space.
I’d forgotten that.
He said he was saving a seat on one of the Blue Origin capsules for candidate Trump. But he has been very disciplined and has not said much about the President at all. Amazon has a pretty big agenda with the federal government, so it is not a surprise he doesn’t want to be out there taking a position.
In the Medium post, he seemed to suggest that maybe there was a political connection between the National Enquirer and the Trump Administration. But what we know is that he has contributed to progressive causes like same-sex-marriage initiatives in Seattle, and that he is a fierce capitalist and believes in a free-market economy. But I can’t say we really know what his personal feelings are about the President.
It’s not a secret that he didn’t like your book. How many times did you get to talk to him?
I started covering Amazon for Newsweek, in the late nineteen-nineties, and the New York Times for four years, from around 2006 to 2010, and then covered and wrote about it for Businessweek magazine, and talked to him about the book itself, and talked to him once after that, and ran into him subsequently—so maybe five to ten times over the years.
Why did he dislike the book?
In the book, there was a depiction of Amazon’s culture as being particularly difficult or challenging for employees, and particularly draining for employees who strive for a certain work-life harmony. And that turns off some people and not others, and I tried to provide a balanced portrait of the culture and his leadership style, which seems to be much friendlier than, say, Steve Jobs’s, but, nevertheless, he does drive people pretty hard. That was certainly one aspect to it.
Do you think he would have noticed how much bad press a lot of tech C.E.O.s have had lately, and how out of touch they seem, and that he would want to come across differently? Dorsey just gave an interview where he basically said Elon Musk had it all figured out. Is your sense Bezos is a little less clueless, and smarter?
I don’t think he measures himself at all against these other guys.
Yeah, I don’t think that is really on his radar. He certainly doesn’t ignore them, but I don’t think he crafts his public image in relation at all to anyone else. I think it’s a combination of what’s best for Amazon and what’s best for him, and, in some cases, what’s the right thing to do.
* a staff writer at The New Yorker