The billionaire, the girlfriend, the publisher, the hint of some political connection and the pictures — of course, there are pictures.
Jeff Bezos has become something like a work program for gossip reporters (and apparently fashion business reporters, too).
But buried in the subtext of the Amazon founder, chief executive officer and chairman’s suddenly expanding scandal are very real questions about Bezos’ reputation and what, if anything, it all means for the e-commerce giant, its more than 600,000 employees, its investors and more.
Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, revealed last month that, after 25 years of marriage and “a long period of loving exploration and trial separation,” they were getting divorced — a split set to break up the Bezos’ $131 billion fortune as well as their collectively held 16.1 percent stake in Amazon. Then came stories about Bezos’ girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, as well as leaked, lovey-dovey text messages and, on Thursday, the big reveal (almost).
The tech billionaire went on the warpath and revealed threatening messages from The National Enquirer, which said it would publish a “below-the-belt selfie” and other embarrassing photos of Bezos if he didn’t pull back on the notion that the tabloid’s reporting was politically motivated. (David Pecker, owner of the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., is a close ally of President Trump, who has a longstanding beef with Bezos — giving the whole affair the air of a sorted bit eighth-grade note-passing).
“Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here,” Bezos wrote in a blog post on the site Medium. “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
Bezos has long enjoyed a reputation as a forward-leaning, hard-charging tech and business wunderkind and something of an idealist who is owner of The Washington Post and quite literally shooting for the moon with his other side gig, Blue Origin. Now he’s also the highest-profile guy trading salacious photos with his girlfriend and getting caught.
Once upon a time — say, 30 or even 20 years ago — this all would have been too much for corporate America and Bezos would have retreated quietly into the Washington woods. The picture is muddier now.
“Donald Trump, despite whatever else he may have done, has provided cover to every other executive and ceo who has ever committed a faux pas, no matter how grand or minor. The standards have totally changed,” said consultant Jonathan Low, partner at Predictiv. “Compared with all the stuff that’s come out about the most powerful man in the Western World, supposedly, this doesn’t look particularly out of the ordinary.
“He is still considered a formidable businessman, Amazon appears unassailable,” Low said. “Given what they’ve already done to retail, to jobs, to iconic American brands with headquarters and employees all over the country and nobody’s laid a glove on him. So the fact that he had an affair, who cares? He has showed himself to be a prescient and hard-nosed businessman. He is both financially and psychologically well-equipped to launch this crusade.”
Shareholders, he said, wouldn’t start caring until key business partners start backing away from Amazon. And that doesn’t seem likely as of yet.
But shareholders are easy to manage. Bezos hardly every speaks to them, at least publicly anyway, and they mostly care about growth, which Amazon has oodles of.
Employees could be a little trickier.
“How does the head [of the company] who is behaving in this manner, then ask people below them to act in a different manner?” said Kelly Charles-Collins, an employment trial attorney and ceo of the HR Legally Speaking consultancy.
“Those pictures were related to a personal relationship…and because we’re dealing with a lot of Millennials in our workforce, now you have within that group of your employees, people who believe, ‘Listen, that wasn’t right, they shouldn’t have gotten into his [messages].’ So they will be on his bandwagon,” Charles-Collins said.
“It was smart to do what he did in the sense of, ‘I’m not going to be held hostage.’ Some people will be happy about that,” she said. “He’s kind of a folk hero now.”
On the other hand, some people will be turned off by the whole thing on moral or other grounds.
“What box he gets put into will really be based on what lens you’re looking through on this,” Charles-Collins said. “That’s the way people will determine whether he has hero status or zero status.”
Regardless, the perception of Bezos has definitely changed.
Oddly enough, the man who just recently was seen by many as the embodiment of big business’ tendency to crush the little guy — from mom-and-pop corner stores to distribution workers needing a break — is now a bit of a culture warrior, fighting back against tabloid excess and dirty tricks.
He also looks a little silly.
“We attach some kind of significance, intelligence, superiority of mind to people who are wealthy,” Charles-Collins said, adding that, “Common sense is not always so common.”
Everyone is now seeing another side of Bezos.
“He’s sending these pictures, not as a multibillionaire owner of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post,” she said. “He’s sending this as Jeff Bezos, in love with Lauren Sanchez. Totally different people.”
Bezos is now just a little more human to a world that knows him only as a caricature — and everybody’s going to have to get used to that.