It’s a media pro move, and it’s one that you can only make once you decide you want to be a media figure to begin with.
Jeff Bezos, now the world’s wealthiest person, for a long time lived the life of a merely somewhat-wealthy person.
He gave very little money to charity, but no one noticed. He was not the toast of the Golden Globes or in the camera pan at the Super Bowl. The CEO of Amazon was not anonymous, but he could avoid the personal spotlight enough to fully focus on merciless business execution.
That’s all over. And Bezos knows it.
Bezos’s extraordinary move on Thursday to release the private emails from his attempted tormenters at the National Enquirer was the clearest indication yet that the once-reclusive leader in Seattle now acknowledges he is a bona fide public figure — and that means he has to fight like one. Rather than shyly playing defense and doing whatever he can to maximize his obscurity, the world’s richest man is, for the first time, trying offense.
With one Medium riposte, Bezos has turned a tawdry tabloid scandal into a gripping, time-stamped drama stretching from scenes in the White House to Saudi Arabia. He has poured gasoline on the fire, sending media, politics, and tech circles ablaze — raising the public profile of himself, his divorce, and his extramarital affair.
Who knows what the world reaction would’ve been to the alleged photographs from the Enquirer, especially given that the salacious texts had already leaked. But Bezos chose to amplify it. By a lot.
And that allowed him to frame it. Suddenly, this was no longer a story about below-the-waist photographs — it was about ham-handed extortion. It’s a media pro move, and it’s one that you can only make once you decide you want to be a media pro rather than a shrinking violet.
Bezos has never before turned the tables. At best, he has nodded to the scrutiny. The Amazon founder only decided to commit himself to philanthropy once the New York Times was preparing a story about his parsimonious giving, eventually issuing a statement on the eve of its publication. (Okay, he did at one point clap back at Donald Trump.)
But take how Bezos publicly handled the first set of stories from the Enquirer: With a pass-the-salt, almost-silly statement that merely said he respected reporting on his life. That’s the billionaire playbook of old: Downplay, downplay, downplay.
But downplaying just doesn’t work once you reach a certain level of wealth. Scrutiny has a way of finding you.
Charles and David Koch used to close the media out of their donor retreats in uber-wealthy conclaves, cementing the perception of them as secretive kingmakers. Things would still leak, and now reporters are routinely invited. They are no longer the bogeymen they once were.
Documents like the Panama Papers and the emails released by WikiLeaks have pulled back the curtain on how the wealthy live their lives and exert influence (while also exposing email addresses and cellphone numbers).
And if you run for president, people have a way of finding some of your tax returns, even if you don’t want them released.
This is a point that other billionaires have been slow to learn. Bezos just got it.
And not a moment too soon. At a time when critics are asking whether billionaires should be abolished as a species and others are specifically training their crosshairs on Amazon’s marketplace power, enter Jeff Bezos the hero. A slayer of blackmailers and — for the first time in a long time in Silicon Valley — an underdog people want to root for.
Bezos, of course, is not an underdog in nearly any other respect. You might forget that there are calls to break up Amazon and concerns about antitrust regulation. But the National Enquirer handed him a fleeting gift, and he should book the win while he can — before more scrupulous critics tear him back down.
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