One of America’s most influential tabloid publishers is bracing itself for a slew of potentially devastating accusations, after an attempt to silence the world’s richest man spectacularly backfired.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, shocked the United States on Thursday with his account of how American Media Inc (AMI), publishers of a series of magazines, attempted to win his cooperation through what he termed “extortion and blackmail”.
He told how the company threatened to publish explicit photographs unless he stopped probing how the magazine, and it's network of connections leading all the way to the White House, obtained text messages between him and his mistress.
AMI issued a statement denying doing anything illegal.
In the hours that have followed journalists and celebrities have come forward to accuse AMI of making similar propositions.
“I and at least one other prominent journalist involved in breaking stories about the National Enquirer’s arrangement with Trump fielded similar ‘stop digging or we’ll ruin you’ blackmail efforts from AMI,” tweeted Ronan Farrow, who is working on a book entitled “Catch and Kill”, detailing AMI’s attempts to silence people.
Ted Bridis, the former editor of Associated Press’s investigations team, replied: “We were warned explicitly by insiders that AMI had hired private investigators to dig into backgrounds of @AP journalists looking into the tabloid’s efforts on behalf of Trump. Never saw evidence of this either way, and it didn’t stop our reporting.”
Lachlan Cartwright, a reporter with The Daily Beast, said he was threatened with a $5 million lawsuit unless he stop reporting on Mr Bezos’s attempt to find the source of The National Enquirer’s scoop.
And Terry Crews, an actor in US sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, said that AMI had attempted to blackmail him, too.
“This same company, AMI, tried to silence me in my lawsuit … by fabricating stories of me with prostitutes— and even went so far as creating fake receipts,” he tweeted.
“I called their bluff by releasing their threats online. They blinked.”
The accusations have lifted the lid on AMI’s tactics, and are raising expectations that yet more revelations about the company could be forthcoming.
Whoopi Goldberg was among the actors named by The Daily Beast as being a target, with two AMI figures plotting to blackmail her in exchange for withdrawing a story about rumours that she had been diagnosed with cancer. It was unclear whether Goldberg was ever approached by the pair.
Paul Barresi, a private investigator who spent years working on jobs for AMI and other tabloids, told the website that AMI regularly used the tactic.
“The National Enquirer had some people who would go to a celebrity and say, ‘unless you give in to a one-on-one interview that would amount to a fluff piece with us, we’re going to report XYZ,” he said.
“The celebrity would then acquiesce to their demand. The nice way of calling it was quid pro quo, but really it was blackmail.”
In his extraordinary blog post on Thursday night, Mr Bezos argued that his ownership of The Washington Post made him a target for AMI’s chairman, David Pecker. Mr Pecker is a friend of President Donald Trump, and The Washington Post is relentless in its coverage of the presidency.
Furthermore, Mr Pecker has business interests in Saudi Arabia, and The Washington Post has been demanding answers over the country’s involvement in the murder of their columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.
Mr Bezos explained that he was fighting back, because he was one of the few people able to do so.
“Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here,” he wrote.
“If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
Prosecutors working inside a Manhattan court are also investigating whether the effort to blackmail Mr Bezos could result in legal action against AMI and Mr Pecker.
Mr Pecker was granted immunity in exchange for AMI’s cooperation in investigations into “hush money” paid to silence women alleging affairs with Mr Trump.
Some argue that AMI’s actions violate the agreement, which stated that AMI should not engage in illicit behaviour, in order to maintain their immunity.
AMI said that it had been "in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him" when the allegations were made, and that its board had "convened and determined that it should promptly and thoroughly investigate the claims".
“Who’s sleeping easier tonight?” asked Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent. “Jeff Bezos, or David Pecker?”