There’s no way around it: Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon and purportedly the richest man in the world, performed an enormous civic service this past week by turning the tables on the odious David Pecker and his poisonous, Trumpified supermarket tabloid, the National Enquirer. But even the fact that Bezos is presented as a hero, however provisionally and temporarily, in this all-universe battle of the celebrity titans that devoured the week’s news cycle signifies the sad and bewildered state of American public discourse.
Maybe it’s a cliché to say that the United States resembles an empire in decline, where formerly marginal cultural theories about the “society of the spectacle” and the rise of the “pseudo-event” are enacted in reality on a grand scale. But clichés are repeated for a reason. We cannot possibly perceive the greater lessons or long-term impact of the impossibly overstuffed Bezos-Pecker imbroglio at this moment. (One of the best lines comes from Robinson Meyer of the Atlantic: “Bezos once founded the Everything Store; now he has given us the Everything Story.”) It’s entirely possible, as many commentators have suggested, that Bezos’ counterattack against Pecker’s media empire will have beneficial effects.
But in symbolic terms this whole affair seems to represent almost everything that’s wrong with our society and culture in one irresistible but toxic candy-coated crap confection: An unhealthy fascination with the lives of the super-rich, including their deeply uninteresting private affairs; the reduction of complicated news stories, not to mention political or cultural issues, to contests between powerful individuals; the replacement of “news” (admittedly always an ambiguous category) with gossip, innuendo, character assassination and conspiracy theory; a simplistic and destructive yearning for heroes and saviors that has turned all of American politics — and arguably all of American life — into an endless, pointless and unresolvable struggle over who is Good and who is Evil.
Donald Trump, to cite the obvious reference point, did not cause any of this to happen. Whether Trump’s presidency is the accidental by-product of all this cultural, moral and intellectual decay or a masterful gambit built on top of it is not a question with a clear yes-or-no answer. But Trump clearly represents the idiotic fulfillment of all these idiotic trends, and it’s no accident that he hovers like a low-rent Dickens specter behind every sentence of every commentary or news report on the Bezos-Pecker affair.
Was the National Enquirer’s stupid and reckless attempt to blackmail the richest person in the world conducted at Trump’s behest? Of course I have no idea, but the relationship between Pecker and the president is well known (if shrouded in mystery of late) and this whole grotesque affair reflects the same kind of hubris and narcissism that has led to Trump’s greatest successes and most spectacular failures. Was the Enquirer somehow also doing the bidding of the Saudi royal family, directly or otherwise, in seeking to destroy the man who owns the newspaper that employed Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was apparently killed by Crown Prince Mohammed’s private thug squad? Great Christ, I don’t know. In normal times and normal circumstances that would sound like upper-level paranoid conspiracy theory — but you know what I’m going to say next about that.
It seems impossible that any media consumer at any level of consciousness hasn’t heard about this mess, so I’m not going to repeat the details in any depth. You can find any number of articles summarizing the state of play so far: In addition to Meyer’s Atlantic story, cited above, I’d recommend David Smith’s weekend essay for the Guardian.
In brief, Pecker’s publication expended immense resources on covering Bezos’ extramarital affair with a TV celebrity named Lauren Sanchez and the resulting breakup of his marriage. By the Enquirer’s own account, its reporters followed Bezos and Sanchez for 40,000 miles across five states, a peregrination that featured “private jets, swanky limos, helicopter rides, romantic hikes, five-star hotel hideaways, intimate dinner dates and ‘quality time’ in hidden love nests.” (I find the scare quotes around “quality time” puzzling, frankly. And are there limos that do not qualify as “swanky”?)
This resulted in a prurient news moment that was obviously distasteful to Bezos (and even more so to his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, one would imagine). Anyway the Amazon godhead then deployed his own immense resources to discover why the Enquirer had such an exaggerated interest in his personal life. (Yes, he is rich and well-known, but in the ordinary course of tabloid journalism his affair and divorce would qualify as a B-plus one-and-done story.) So the Enquirer’s editor and attorneys tried to shut Bezos down, threatening to publish still more embarrassing material — including “dick picks” [sic] — unless he affirmed in public that the tabloid’s coverage of his amorous exploits was not “politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
Jesus Christ. Talk about a tell, am I right? One of the strongest indicators that Trump’s tentacles are trying to move the dial here is the amount of naked projection involved. Let’s remember that this is a guy whose psychological machinery is always operating out in the open: He tweets about “witch hunts” while trying to fire the entire Justice Department, and insists that departed officials or defeated opponents are a pack of criminals while under investigation for multiple grades of criminality. So: Please tell the world, Mr. Richest Man Ever, that we did not publish 11 pages of intensive coverage of your not-terribly-interesting private misdeeds because the president of the United States hates your guts and would like to bring you down. Because it couldn’t possibly be that!
That was what drove Bezos to write his now-legendary blog post at Medium, a fragmentary, stream-of-unconsciousness work that veers back and forth between explosive factual revelations, dark hints of shadowy forces at work behind the scenes and the kind of banal self-reflection characteristic of ghostwritten memoirs by CEOs and generals. (Or as Meyer of the Atlantic puts it, “the disorganized, business-school poignancy of George Saunders.”)
We should indeed be grateful that Bezos decided it was worth airing his dirty laundry a bit more in order to strike back at Pecker and Enquirer editor Dylan Howard and whoever or whatever may be operating their joystick. Without going too far down the black hole of debating the ethics of sleazy tabloid reporting about the sex lives of prominent citizens, I think it’s fair to say that Bezos is more sinned against than sinning in this instance. That doesn’t make him a hero. Indeed, it doesn’t mean this story has a hero, still less that every story needs one — or that our slavish addiction to hero narratives is healthy in any way.
Our ingrained tendency to default to zero-sum fables about good and evil is visible nearly everywhere. Of course there is the stupefied, Manichaean divide around the Trump presidency, which is either restoring America to lost greatness or pushing toward fascist dictatorship. (Or, indeed, both at once!) There is the disastrous cluster-bomb of Virginia politics, where long-ago misdeeds at various levels of despicableness — revealed by right-wing opponents whose motivations are obvious — threaten to bring down all three of the state’s top elected officials. There’s the incipient disaster of the 2020 Democratic presidential race, which is nearly certain to be conducted as a contest of semiotics, personality and perceived ideological purity — and nearly certain to end in bitterness and disappointment.
Is all this, as I suggested earlier, symptomatic of a declining empire where most people’s lives are stuck on an economic treadmill even as the rich keep getting vastly richer – and whose culture is epitomized in the consumer convenience, social isolation and endless streams of “content” delivered by Jeff Bezos and his drone army? Or does it indicate a 240-year-old baby-country, spoon-fed on comforting lies about the past and nostrums about the future, that has never grown up and no longer wants to? Well, I mean, yeah.