Those of us who are fascinated by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ war against The National Enquirer—and also against the government of Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration—now have more to be fascinated by, thanks to a scoop in Bezos’ newspaper, The Washington Post.
Here’s the headline: “The National Enquirer is being sold for $100 million to James Cohen, CEO of Hudson News.”
Yes, the Post had the scoop, as well as the details. American Media Inc. (AMI), corporate parent of the Enquirer, is spinning off the troubled tabloid. Although the Enquirer has been selling sensationalism since 1926, it’s best known these days because AMI chief David Pecker, a Manhattan chum of Donald Trump, has been regularly accused of using his publication to help the 45th president. In particular, Pecker is alleged to have used the so-called “catch and kill” maneuver—that is, buying a story that could embarrass Trump (or others), and then sitting on it.
So we can see: Catching and killing might not be good journalism, but it could be a good way to do favors and thereby exert influence.
Yet on January 10, the Enquirer crossed a line, at least as far as Bezos was concerned. That was when the Enquirer published its first story about racy text-messages between Bezos and Lauren Sanchez—at a time when they were both married to other people. In response, Bezos and the “Bezos Post” went after the Enquirer, as well as its alleged allies, including the Saudi government and the Trump administration. Virgil has written about the twists and turns of this revenge saga, here and here.
So it’s interesting that the Post has the scoop that Pecker and AMI are selling the Enquirer, along with two other tabloids, for a reported $100 million. And it’s also interesting to see the rationale for the sale laid out so explicitly:
The decision to sell came after Anthony Melchiorre, the hedge-fund manager whose firm controls AMI, became disillusioned with the reporting tactics of the Enquirer and the legal and political pressure that resulted from them, according to people familiar with the deliberations.
Okay, so one man’s revulsion at the Enquirer might make for a good reason for him to sell it. But such revulsion, nicely shared with the Post, surely puts more of a burden on another man’s reason to buy the Enquirer. That is, why would veteran businessman James Cohen pay such a high price;$100 million, is, after all, a lot of dough. And the Enquirer is a fading publication; these days, all titles that depend on hard-copy sales are having a hard time, and in fact, over the last five years, the Enquirer’s circulation is down nearly 60 percent.
Intriguingly, the Post reporter, Sarah Ellison, regarded the $100 million price tag as way high; as she wrote, it was a “stunning figure.”
Other media observers agree. One such is Forbes columnist Jonathan Berr, who put it bluntly: “Cohen’s purchase price doesn’t make sense to me.” Berr compared the Enquirer to other publications that have been sold recently, such as Time and Fortune, noting that while the prices are somewhat comparable, “they don’t have the baggage of the Enquirer.”
And by “baggage,” Berr is referring not only to the Enquirer’s naughty reputation, but also to its potential legal liability resulting from the Bezos stories. Bezos has made it clear that he’s still plenty mad at Pecker and the Enquirer, and that he regards the Enquirer as some sort of co-conspirator with the Saudis and with Trump.
And for the Enquirer, that could get expensive. After all, Bezos can afford to hire the investigative and legal capacity to press the case against the Enquirer forever; even after settling with his now ex-wife for $35 billion, he boasts a net worth of $150 billion.
Obviously, someone with pockets that deep can make life costly for any foe; that was the lesson of the Gawker case a few years back, when another deep-pocketed tech mogul, Peter Thiel, nursing a grudge, financed wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against that snarky publication. The resulting $140 million judgment against Gawker put it out of business.
So now we have to wonder: Why would someone—in this case, the aforementioned James S. Cohen—buy the Enquirer at any price, let alone such a high price? Who needs that sort of legal trouble, on top of the business-model trouble? To be sure, thanks to his family’s longtime association with Hudson News, Cohen certainly knows his way around the newsstand biz, and so maybe he has some hot plan for spiffing up the Enquirer’s sales.
Moreover, we must pause to note that in business, as with everything else, the reality is often different from the perception. That is, we’re having to take people’s word for the Enquirer’s valuation, knowing that businessmen have a way of inflating such valuations for ego reasons, and also not knowing what sort of side-deals, and side-understandings, might have been inked—or winked. So we don’t truly know how much skin Cohen has put into the game.
So now it’s worth asking the basic question: What will be the fate of the Enquirer? That is, does Cohen really plan to try to make a go of the publication, or might he really have something else in mind?
Unlike the old chief, Pecker, it certainly doesn’t appear, for example, that Cohen has any affection for Donald Trump or his party. A look at the campaign-finance website OpenSecrets.org tells us that a “James Cohen” of “Hudson Media” has given at least $31,000 to Democratic candidates since 2010—and nothing to Republicans. In other words, it’s hard to see a Cohen-owned Enquirer being much of a friend to this White House.
So could it be, perhaps, that Cohen envisions a different fate for the Enquirer? Something very different? Is it possible, even, that his purchase of the Enquirer is just another “catch and kill”? That is, he buys the whole publication—not just a single story— with the intention of killing it? If the Enquirer were to disappear, that might make Trump sad, but it would surely make Bezos happy.
Admittedly, there’s no indication that Cohen has any such kill-plan in mind, but for reasons we’ve seen, the Enquirer, as it is, doesn’t seem like a very good investment. So at minimum, Cohen sees some different angle than Pecker saw.
In the meantime, thanks to that scoopy article in the Post, we know that one of the old owners of the Enquirer, investor Anthony Melchiorre, wanted to be rid of the publication because he found it obnoxious. (If you were a fatcat, why wouldn’t you give the dish on how much you dislike the Enquirer to the Bezos Post, knowing that the owner will love it? And who knows what good could come out of such gratitude?)
So now, what to make of the fact that Cohen wants to take ownership of the Enquirer, along with its obnoxiousness? And its legal costs, and possible legal liability?
Or, maybe, Cohen is buying the Enquirer so as to snuff it out—to catch it and kill it. If so, not only would he be a hero to Trump-hating liberals, but he’d also be doing Bezos a heckuva favor. Or perhaps, for all we know, he’s already in some sort of league with Bezos; when you’re worth $150 billion, you’re playing in a lot of leagues.
Oh, and one other thing: If the Enquirer really has been practicing “catch and kill” for all these years, then one must wonder: What other stories might have been caught and killed—and yet are still sitting in a file somewhere?
If Cohen, in his capacity as new owner of the Enquirer, could get his hands on that information—if such exists—then he could have a lot of fun, even if he never publishes any of it.
That is, if the Enquirer really does have all of that dirt, on who knows whom, then a lot of people could be eager to do Cohen favors. Maybe even the owner of The Washington Post.