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Washington Post Finds Itself in the Middle of the Jeff Bezos Story

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Jeff Bezos says owning The Washington Post is a “complexifier” for him. The newspaper could say the same about him.

The paper has flourished under Mr. Bezos’ ownership. Since he bought the newspaper in 2013 for $250 million, The Post has added over 200 people to its newsroom, which now numbers 900 journalists, and won plaudits and awards for its coverage of, among other subjects, the Trump administration. The paper has more than 1.5 million digital subscribers, and the business has been profitable for the past three years.

But the newsroom entered tricky editorial terrain last week when it became a factor in an apparent extortion attempt against Mr. Bezos, while also having to independently cover the events around its owner.

The drama featured a litany of classic tabloid elements that would challenge any newsroom — a marriage-busting affair documented by The National Enquirer, Hollywood agents with ties to political figures, secret rendezvous at high-end hotels and sexting — let alone one whose owner sits at the center of the controversy.

It was also a stark reminder that Mr. Bezos is a very public figure of great wealth and influence. He is the world’s richest person by dint of his command of Amazon, a company that is reaching further and further into the lives of everyday people, whether through its e-commerce business, its entertainment properties or its numerous warehouses around the country that employ hundreds of thousands.

His personal project, Blue Origin, describes its mission as “building a road to space so our children can build the future.”

With his blog post detailing his extortion allegations last week, Mr. Bezos has now also become a prominent commentator on the First Amendment. He said he was fighting back against alleged tactics that have no business in journalism, while The Enquirer claims he is merely trying to muzzle a publication because its coverage embarrassed him.

The editorial page of The Post clearly sides with its owner. On Friday, the day after Mr. Bezos published his blog post, the paper published an editorial praising him for exposing an “insidious model of intimidation and corruption masquerading as journalism.”

The overall situation will “test both Marty Baron and Jeff Bezos,” Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of The Columbia Journalism Review, said in an email, referring to The Post’s executive editor. Mr. Bezos gets “good marks so far,” Mr. Pope said, but “the truth is that the rules of journalism are not baked into his bones; it’s something he’s going to have to learn, at a very stressful and trying time.”

Mr. Bezos did not respond to a request for comment.

The Washington Post declined to make Mr. Baron available for an interview but the paper did provide a statement from him.

“Jeff has never gotten involved in our reporting or our final stories,” he said. “People surmise that it must be difficult to cover Jeff and Amazon. But we’ve gone five and a half years with his ownership, and he hasn’t once intervened in any way.”

The clash between Mr. Bezos and The Enquirer began last month when the tabloid published an exposé of his extramarital affair with the television personality Lauren Sanchez. Mr. Bezos fought back in his remarkably revealing blog post on Medium, the online open platform. He accused David J. Pecker, the chairman of The Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., of threatening through intermediaries to publish graphic photographs of Mr. Bezos if he did not publicly announce that The Enquirer’s reporting on his affair was not politically motivated.

The Post has traditionally focused on the nation’s capital, with not as many resources devoted to business coverage. That has started to change. The Post had previously said it would nearly double the number of journalists devoted to covering Silicon Valley to 25, including a reporter in Seattle who will focus on Amazon.

It also aggressively followed up on the revelation about Mr. Bezos’ private life.

The Post published a lengthy article on Feb. 5 about The Enquirer’s coverage of Mr. Bezos’ affair. It quoted Gavin de Becker, his longtime security chief, as saying the leak of evidence of Mr. Bezos’ infidelity to The Enquirer was “politically motivated,” designed to embarrass Mr. Bezos because he owns The Post. Mr. de Becker added that the effort could also involve figures from President Trump’s campaign.

Emails from American Media that Mr. Bezos included in his blog post referred to the Post article and demanded that he — and the newspaper — refrain from any statements or suggestions that politics played any part in its coverage of his affair with Ms. Sanchez.

Like other newspapers, including The New York Times, The Post ran front-page articles on Mr. Bezos and American Media on Friday and Saturday. Those were not the only articles about his interests. The paper also published a report about Amazon’s potentially pulling out of its agreement to build a headquarters in New York City, as well as one about a lawsuit filed against Amazon by the director Woody Allen, who said its streaming service had improperly backed out of a four-movie deal with him.

“I think they’ve finally woken up to the fact that their owner is a huge story,” said Mr. Pope, who has criticized the paper’s past coverage of Amazon as anemic. With the fight between Mr. Bezos and American Media, he said, “they’ve moved into an appropriately higher gear.”

Mr. Baron said the paper had not changed its approach to its coverage of Mr. Bezos or his business interests. Mr. Baron has said that he, along with other executives, talks with Mr. Bezos about “strategy” every two weeks or so, but that the discussions do not touch on the paper’s coverage. Mr. Bezos owns The Post separately from Amazon.

“Because I know full well that he won’t interfere, it’s not really difficult to cover him and Amazon at all,” Mr. Baron said in his statement. “In all the years of his ownership, there hasn’t been one report of his exerting influence, explicitly or implicitly, on our coverage.”

Frederick J. Ryan Jr., the publisher and chief executive of The Post, echoed those sentiments in a statement, and said Mr. Bezos had played no part in the editorial that praised his blog post.

“Jeff has always made it clear that he expects The Washington Post will act with complete independence, both in our news coverage and editorials, and treat him and his companies just as we would anyone else,” Mr. Ryan wrote. “We have never wavered from that position.”

Donald Graham, whose family had owned The Post for almost 80 years before he sold it to Mr. Bezos, said he was “delighted” by the editorial. “I agree with every word of it,” he said in an email.

He added, “Had they not editorialized, perhaps The Times would be doing a piece about the absence of such an editorial and what did that mean?”

Bill Grueskin, a Columbia University journalism professor and a former editor at The Wall Street Journal, said it should have been made clearer to readers that Mr. Bezos had nothing to do with the editorial.

“Readers deserve to know whether Bezos knew about the editorial in advance, or in any way contributed to discussions that led to it,” he said.

To show that the newspaper remains independent of its owner, The Post pointed to another editorial, from early last year. That editorial warned that cities should “proceed with caution, with their eyes at least as wide open as their wallets,” when bidding to be a location for Amazon’s second headquarters.

That has now become a major hometown story. Amazon recently announced that it would build a headquarters in nearby Arlington, Va., meaning it will be one of the largest employers in the region.

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