A national scandal has erupted over the National Enquirer's attempt to blackmail Miami native, Amazon CEO, and world's richest man, Jeff Bezos, over intimate photos with his lover. How scandalous is it? Even Paul David Pope, the son of Enquirer founder Generoso "Gene" Pope Jr., claims the paper went too far.
Gene Pope, you might remember, ran a ruthless publication, based for quite a while in Palm Beach County, that had Mafia and CIA ties and occasionally "caught-and-killed" stories about famous people.
"My father would have never done things like this," Paul Pope tells New Times. "It's just so low. We did some crazy, wacky things, but there were lines we didn’t cross. We never blackmailed anybody. We never used extortion tactics."
Last year, the Enquirer's current owner, David Pecker, admitted to working "in concert" with the campaign of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump to pay $150,000 in hush money to Karen McDougal; the former Playboy playmate said she'd had an affair with Trump. The Enquirer later admitted it was trying to prevent the news "from influencing the election," which is a transparent campaign-finance violation.
Federal prosecutors in New York City cut the newspaper a deal. In essence, prosecutors agreed not to go after the Enquirer if it agreed, in writing, not to blackmail anyone or coordinate any more hush-money payments.
But right after signing the deal, Pecker and his staff apparently decided it was smart to threaten to smear Bezos by releasing photos of his manliness. Pecker and company didn't do this because they were concerned about the horrid conditions of workers in Amazon warehouses. The Enquirer owner likely did it because he's buddies with Trump, and Bezos' Washington Post has scrutinized the large, soft president.
Bezos is going through a divorce. The Enquirer somehow obtained (some extremely weird) text messages Bezos sent his mistress. Bezos then hired Gavin de Becker, one of the world's foremost experts on online threats, to get to the bottom of how the Enquirer obtained the messages. (A Washington Post reporter recently said on TV that Bezos' investigators are concerned a "government entity" intercepted the texts. Others have reported the brother of Bezos' mistress might have obtained or leaked the messages.)
But the Enquirer is, clearly, not happy that de Becker is looking into the paper's conduct. So it sent Bezos a new threat: Quit poking around or we'll publish photos of your penis.
But Bezos is the most powerful nonelected person on Planet Earth, so he didn't roll over. Instead, he posted an absolutely wild blog post yesterday (amazingly titled "No Thank You, Mr. Pecker"), in which he published the full texts of the newspaper's threats.
"Something unusual happened to me yesterday," Bezos' post began. "Actually, for
After the post went online, another public figure — New Yorker investigative reporter Ronan Farrow — said online that Pecker's newspaper attempted to blackmail him while he was investigating sexual-assault claims against multiple high-profile businessmen, including producer Harvey Weinstein and ex-CBS president Les Moonves.
This brings us to Paul Pope, who has written multiple books about his family's legacy (and is currently promoting another one). Paul's father, Gene, bought what was then called the New York Enquirer in 1952. (Gene Pope allegedly used Mafia money to do so.) The elder Pope changed the paper's name to the National Enquirer, shifted its focus to celebrity gossip, began selling the paper in pharmacies and convenience stores, and created the Enquirer as it exists today. It later moved to Lantana, Florida.
But Gene Pope died of a heart attack in 1988. Until then, Paul thought he was in line to take over the company, according to the Palm Beach Post. After his father's death, Paul and his mother, Palm Beach socialite Lois Pope, fought bitterly over family affairs in what Paul refers to as "The War of the Popes." Ultimately, the Pope family in 1999 sold the Enquirer to American Media Inc., Pecker's company.
Since then, Pope has been sharply critical of what Pecker has done to his dad's newspaper.
"My father was a good man," Pope tells New Times. "He had the background in journalism — my grandfather founded Il Progreso," an Italian-language newspaper for immigrants in New York City. "I was around him all the time," Pope adds. "There were lines we just didn’t cross. Sadly, unfortunately, this is the new norm."
Sure, Pope admits, the paper used to catch and kill stories. Sure, Gene Pope Jr. took money from Mafia kingpin Frank Costello and had links to the CIA. And, yes, the newspaper was routinely accused of fabricating material, libeling celebrities, rifling through people's garbage, and helping turn America into the celebrity-obsessed culture it is today. ("We only ever lost one legal case, to Carol Burnett," Pope says.) But Pope claims his father never would have crossed a line into outright blackmail for personal gain.
"Sure, he would produce a story, and he would leave no stone unturned," Pope says. "But if it wasn’t real, we didn’t embellish things or slander people to sell more copies." (There are more than a few celebrities who would probably quibble with that claim, but we digress.) "When we broke the Gary Hart stories [in the '80s], we started getting quoted in the mainstream press, and that gave my father some pride in getting recognition."
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But, he says, there was a clear line that Generoso Pope Jr. never crossed: outright blackmail. When Pecker bought the company in 1999, Paul Pope saw Pecker like any other corporate-media tycoon.
"When my father died, the corporate raiders came in," Pope says. "They were doing what any corporate raider would do. They cashed out, took the company public, and ruined a company that was a family business. But if it wasn’t Pecker, any corporate-raider guy would have done the same thing."
What he faults Pecker for is using the powerful platform the Pope family built to create what seems to be an outright blackmail machine.
"He took it to a level that was way, way too far," Pope says. "And he did it for his own gain."