The “threat riddle” carries a curious risk of blowout. A whiff of scandal tails many celebrities. They thus face the threat of exposure. But a key lesson is the flaw in any threat. It carries weight only as long as it remains a threat. Once unleashed, its power instantly vanishes and can eat the threatener.
We could see it coming. The National Enquirer, the king of gossip, is about to face an inquiry that will make it squirm. Two, actually. One will come from the U.S., whose prosecutors smell extortion in the mag’s recent “exposé” of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ affair. The second will come from Bezos himself. He’s wanting to know if a source related to President Donald Trump fed the dirt to the Enquirer.
Extortion is a crime. Bezos alleges the magazine, and its Trump-loving owner David Pecker, threatened to publish more telling photos of Bezos if he didn’t call off his investigatory dogs.
There’s a second twist here. The Enquirer is already under federal watch due to its role in alleged Trump hush-money to finance its “catch and kill” strategy. The mag supposedly snared the stories of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who both claimed affairs with Trump. It paid the women for their silence with alleged Trump money, and then killed the stories. Trump and/or his campaign financed the payments.
Trump has long been cozy with Pecker and his American Media, owner of the Enquirer. Bezos also owns the Washington Post which, along with the New York Times, has seriously irritated Trump with its reporting about his presidency.
Sex scandals today loom more as sagas than scandals. Time passes swiftly. It was in 1976 — over 40 years ago — that Aspen hosted world media coverage of the Spider Sabich-Claudine Longet link with its celebrity overtones. In that case, Longet served 30 days for her fatal shooting of her ski-racing boyfriend.
After 1995, when the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair broke, Clinton’s approval ratings rose as House Republicans impeached him.
Alabama voters giggled when their governor, Robert Bentley, was caught on tape admiring his lover’s body parts in 2013. Such tales carry weight at the polls. But we wink at each other. Seen that, been there, done that.
The tale of Jeff Bezos’ divorce from wife MacKenzie interests us not for scandal value, but because of Bezos’ net worth with his 16 percent of Amazon. He’s thought to be the world’s richest man.
But Bezos has turned the tables suddenly and sharply on the weakened Pecker and his White House sympathizer. With his recent post challenging Pecker’s threats, he has disarmed them. He’s prepared to endure remaining photos in the Enquirer. That lays the Enquirer and Pecker open. The feds could revoke their deal to hold off in exchange for their cooperation in the Daniels and McDougal cases.
Threats can fail. A boat that loses its power loses all ability to maneuver. A punctured threat is reduced to a waddle. The party making the threat is counting on his prey reacting as he or she demands. If the victim has prepared or anticipated such “accidents,” the tables are turned.
Consider the 2016 case of Fox News’ Gretchen Carlson and Fox chairman Roger Ailes, who’d suggested sexual favors might elevate her position as TV commentator. The tacit balance between them was a deal, or “equilibrium” in game theory. He’d ignore her rebuffs and keep her on the air as a moderately successful TV host with a decent salary. His risk was a disastrous fall from grace if her complaint was exposed. They’d both keep their jobs and remain rich, though having to quiet their distaste for each other.
But Ailes apparently couldn’t help himself. He forced her out, claiming poor ratings and prompting a lawsuit. The Fox-Ailes sexual harassment scandal broke open the sordid Harvey Weinstein story and ushered in the #MeToo movement. Ailes was forgotten, and even died in disgrace.
Victims of such threats today can “threat-proof” themselves. They can anticipate embarrassing claims or breaches of private data. The ultimate immunity comes when the victim trains himself to think like his accuser. Then he has a hidden weapon, because he can accurately forecast his foe’s next move. The rule here is to imagine the scripts playing to conclusion.
The balance of power changes if the withheld secrets involve real crimes, real money, or real injury to people. Still, it holds in one respect. The threatener, even after the threat is exposed, often deflates. He loses status and power. And there is often a certain disgrace in disclosure if retaliation is suspected.
Pecker and his Enquirer have become accustomed to winning their games. The sagas they expose are often old hat. Their dated tactics recall 1960’s black-and-white tales of cops and robbers. They appear to have miscalculated that Jeff Bezos, in the year 2019, saw lots to lose. Instead he was genuinely provoked by the Enquirer’s old-world tactics and wasn’t swayed by its riches or power.
Tales of money, sex and politics — tawdry or not — will always find an audience. Inquiring minds will always want to know. Threats will always carry a certain weight. But today they also carry a serious risk of deflation, disgust and disgrace.