In some ways, it’s the most expected story in the world. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, and his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie, are getting a divorce, and a tabloid alleges that a Bezos affair was the reason. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
But because this is such a common archetype, the precise form it took reveals the turbulence and structure of our current media moment.
Yesterday morning, Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos made a treacly surprise announcement on Twitter. “We want to make people aware of a development in our lives,” it began, before going on to create a new genre of public testimonial: divorce vows. “If we had known we would separate after 25 years, we would do it all again. We’ve had such a great life together as a married couple, and we also see wonderful futures ahead, as parents, friends, partners in ventures and projects, and as individuals pursuing ventures and adventures,” they wrote. “Though the labels might be different, we remain a family, and we remain cherished friends.”
And though it had that boss’s-speech-before-the-layoffs tinge, it felt nice to see some high-profile couple trying to model a less acrimonious divorce. Good for them, said many people on Twitter.
Then, a few hours later, in barges the National Enquirer, asserting that Bezos had a long-running affair with Lauren Sanchez, which they knew because they tailed them in private jets, swanky limos, helicopter rides, romantic hikes, five-star-hotel hideaways, intimate dinner dates, and “quality time” in hidden love nests. Somehow, they claim to have come into the possession of messages that Bezos sent to Sanchez.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail claims that a source close to the Bezos family says that his relationship with Sanchez began after the couple’s separation. Entertainment Tonight claims two sources who say the same of Sanchez and her marriage to the Hollywood agent Patrick Whitesell.
The different versions are all grimly believable. It is a celebrity divorce, with the gleeful crowd and toxic cloud that entails.
But it is the 2010s, and the National Enquirer is not just any old news outlet. And Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post, which frequently draws ire from Donald Trump, who dislikes its coverage of his presidency. There’s more. American Media, the Enquirer’s parent company, under its CEO, David Pecker, admitted that it worked with the Trump campaign to pay Karen McDougal $150,000 for exclusive rights to her story about an affair with Donald Trump, which it then killed. “At times, it seemed like the Enquirer operated as a de facto arm of the campaign,” wrote Gabriel Sherman in Vanity Fair.
So, it’s not surprising that the MSNBC host Chris Hayes pointed out another angle on Twitter. “Given everything we know about how Pecker’s National Enquirer has functioned as essentially an arm of Trumpworld, [the story] prompts some questions,” Hayes tweeted.
The implication, it would seem, is that Trump or Trump’s team hit Bezos, a perceived rival, through his longtime friend’s paper, the National Enquirer. Which: Who knows, and I won’t speculate. But let’s just say that it is not outside the long-established character of the National Enquirer to attempt to out a possibly cheating celebrity.
In Leon Neyfakh’s Slow Burn podcast series on how Watergate happened, his sixth episode traces how conspiratorial thinking came to dominate the early 70s. If the very president of the United States could be involved in all kinds of petty duplicitousness requiring cover-ups and secret tapes and payoffs, how could anything be what it seemed on the surface, or just dumb luck? The details of Nixon’s downfall “made Americans more suspicious than they’ve ever been and more desperate to uncover the secrets their government was keeping from them,” Neyfakh says. “Basically, Watergate turned everyone into a conspiracy theorist.”
In our times, the same disease has taken hold, but through the million muted post horns of the internet. For every theory that’s spittle flecked with Alex Jones conspiracism, there’s another one that connects it to an extended diagram of the Mueller investigation. Not even a dirtbag celebrity tabloid can publish regular dirtbag celebrity things without somehow touching a federal investigation.
The distance between obvious and far-fetched has collapsed. Because here’s the episode recap: A presidential candidate rises on the back of a reality-TV program and his constant promotion of a conspiracy that the first black president wasn’t born in the United States. To protect himself, this candidate sets up a gentleman’s agreement with an old friend at the National Enquirer to buy up negative stories about him and kill them, which ends up forming part of the investigation into Russian interference in the election, all of which could somehow tie back into a tryst between the richest man on Earth (who also happens to own The Washington Post) and a helicopter pilot who was also once a local Fox News anchor.
You tell me which clause is the most implausible.