By Lukas I. Alpert
Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos' claim that the National Enquirer tried to blackmail him after obtaining embarrassing photos of the tycoon shocked some observers, but it might ring familiar to other celebrities who have tangled with the supermarket tabloid, including fitness guru Richard Simmons and talk-show host Dr. Phil.
Mr. Bezos' lengthy online post on Feb. 7 included threatening emails he said were from the Enquirer that are in line with the paper's no-holds-barred approach: It sometimes gathers damaging material or claims about individuals and uses it as leverage to advance the publication's interests, instead of printing it.
In some cases, the Enquirer tries to curry favor with celebrities by acquiring the rights to a negative story about them and then burying it -- a practice known as "catch and kill" -- as it did in at least two instances for Donald Trump. In other cases, as with Mr. Bezos, the Enquirer is accused of using material it has obtained in hopes of gaining the upper hand in a feud with a famous person.
Mr. Simmons in 2017 filed a defamation suit against Enquirer's parent company, American Media LLC, alleging that the tabloid falsely reported he had undergone a sex-change operation. The Enquirer set out to gather damaging information about the 70-year-old, who is known for aerobic instruction and promoting weight-loss programs, people familiar with the matter said.
The Enquirer sent a reporter and videographer to Spain where they paid an individual $50,000 to say something on camera that would embarrass Mr. Simmons, the people said. The story was never published but was instead used to threaten Mr. Simmons in hopes he would drop his suit, two of the people said.
Photographers for the tabloid continued to follow Mr. Simmons, whose response was to travel around with a cardboard box on his head, those people said. The Enquirer ran the photos with the headline: "Richard Simmons: Reclusive Star's Head in a Box."
Last summer, a judge threw out Mr. Simmons's suit on First Amendment grounds and ordered him to pay American Media's legal fees. He appealed and the legal dispute continued until the two sides settled the matter in November, according to court records. Mr. Simmons's manager and agent didn't return calls seeking comment.
Dr. Phil McGraw, the daytime-television self-help counselor, encountered a similar pressure campaign after he filed a $250 million defamation suit in 2016 against the tabloid and other American Media titles. Mr. McGraw had been upset for years about the Enquirer's coverage of him, but the tipping point was an article accusing him of abusing his wife, a charge the couple denied, according to the suit.
With a legal fight looming, the Enquirer threatened to run additional articles that he would find damaging, people familiar with the matter said. No such articles ever ran. The two sides settled the lawsuit two months after it was filed.
Mr. McGraw's attorney, Lin Wood, said "the lawsuit was resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all of the parties."
In June 2017, MSNBC morning-show hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, who had publicly sparred with President Trump, claimed in a Washington Post column that White House aides warned them that the Enquirer would publish a negative story about their then-under-the-radar romance "unless we begged the president to have the story spiked." The couple said they didn't make any such plea to the president, and the Enquirer ran the article.
In a statement, American Media said the company "denies any allegations that it engaged in improper conduct in its news gathering." American Media declined to comment on any specific allegations for this story. A lawyer for the tabloid's publisher denied in a television interview that the company tried to blackmail Mr. Bezos.
The Enquirer over the years has acquired a number of damaging stories about famous people, some of which have never run, according to the people familiar with the matter. At one point, it maintained a safe in its lower Manhattan offices containing a stack of contracts from such dealings, the people said.
Daily journalism involves give-and-take between reporters and sources, but mainstream news organizations don't sanction the tactics the Enquirer uses, including paying sources and collecting information about a subject to gain leverage in a feud or to advance corporate interests.
The man who spearheads these tactics for the Enquirer is Dylan Howard, American Media's chief content officer, according to current and former employees. The native Australian joined the company in 2009 and stepped away in 2012 after the company investigated complaints that he had engaged in sexual harassment, former staffers have said.
American Media said it conducted a third-party review of the matter at the time and found no truth to the allegations. After a one-year hiatus, Mr. Howard returned as the Enquirer's editor in chief before taking on oversight of all the company's gossip titles in his current role.
Mr. Howard has developed a reputation as a relentless gossip monger, doling out cash for stories and pursuing celebrity scoops like revealing Charlie Sheen's HIV status and uncovering sealed court documents that detailed recorded racist rants by former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan.
Mr. Howard didn't respond to requests seeking comment.
Though critics question how it does business, the Enquirer has produced big scoops that mainstream news outlets have followed, including reporting about an extramarital affair involving former presidential candidate John Edwards that led him to be charged with campaign-finance violations in trying to cover up that he had fathered an out-of-wedlock child. A trial ended with a hung jury on most counts. Following the trial, Mr. Edwards said he had done an "awful, awful lot that was wrong" but denied that he had violated campaign finance laws.
In Mr. Bezos' online post, he alleged that the Enquirer was concerned about his investigation into the source of its story last month that revealed the Amazon CEO's extramarital affair, and the notion that its coverage was driven by political motives. American Media has denied having political motives.
Mr. Bezos owns the Washington Post, whose coverage of the Trump administration has been criticized by the White House. American Media's chief executive, David Pecker, is a longtime friend of Mr. Trump.
Days after the Enquirer published its Bezos exposé, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that he was "So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post." Mr. Trump earlier this week said he was unaware that the Enquirer had been reporting on Mr. Bezos.
Mr. Bezos' post included what he said were emails from Mr. Howard. The message he cited from Mr. Howard that was dated Feb. 5 listed lurid descriptions of nine photos the Enquirer claimed to have obtained, including a "below the belt selfie" of Mr. Bezos, and "a naked selfie in a bathroom."
"It would give no editor pleasure to send this email. I hope common sense can prevail -- and quickly," Mr. Howard's email concluded.
The following day, according to Mr. Bezos' post, American Media lawyer Jon Fine followed with a lengthy list of deal terms, which indicated the company wouldn't publish the photos if Mr. Bezos would publicly affirm that he had no knowledge that the Enquirer's coverage was politically motivated.
American Media has said its board is opening an investigation into the company's actions and would take appropriate steps.
Federal prosecutors are examining whether American Media engaged in any behavior that would violate a nonprosecution agreement the company reached with the government in the case against Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump's former personal attorney, The Wall Street Journal has reported. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty in August to criminal charges including campaign-finance violations that stemmed from "catch and kill" efforts involving American Media to buy damaging stories about affairs the president allegedly had.
--Michael Rothfeld contributed to this article.
Write to Lukas I. Alpert at email@example.com