Bezos Affair Saga Raises Issue of Confidentiality in Journalism



By Thom Weidlich and Eric Rose

The recent revelation of billionaire Jeff Bezos’s extramarital affair provides us, believe it or not, with an opportunity to talk about a different sort of rules of engagement — namely, dealing with reporters. More namely, what the rules are for requesting confidentiality when providing information to journalists. The rules apply just as much during a crisis as during more relaxed times.

The question at the heart of the gossipy Bezos story is who turned over to the National Enquirer the “raunchy messages and erotic selfies” (the tabloid’s words) that it said it had and that the Amazon founder and his mistress, Lauren Sanchez, sent to each other.

The Enquirer broke the story of the affair the same day (Jan. 9) Bezos tweeted a joint statement from his wife, MacKenzie, and himself announcing they are divorcing. (That tweet may have been a bit of crisis communications — getting ahead of the Enquirer story.)

For obvious reasons, I can’t go into detail on email and all of my communications must be completely Confidential.

— Michael Sanchez

Bezos (pictured) launched an investigation into the who-leaked-it question (he accuses the tabloid of extorting him by threatening to reveal more). A leading suspect is Sanchez’s brother, Michael Sanchez. On Feb. 26, the Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison published a long story on the matter, focusing on Michael Sanchez, a Hollywood talent manager.

For our purposes, the important point is that the piece starts by mentioning that Sanchez first emailed the Washington Post a few days after the Enquirer’s Jan. 9 story.

Completely Confidential

The second paragraph of the Post’sarticle quotes from the beginning of Sanchez’s email. “For obvious reasons, I can’t go into detail on email and all of my communications must be completely Confidential,” he wrote. “I’m reaching out to you, off-the-record. I will be your single point-of-contact for anything Lauren-related.”

The Post noted that Sanchez wrote these words “with no advance agreement of confidentiality.” And therein lies the problem. The Post didn’t honor Sanchez’s request for confidentiality because that’s not how asking for secrecy from a journalist works. You can’t dictate confidentiality; it’s an agreement. You negotiate confidentiality.

Sanchez should have first talked to the Post reporter, mentioning he had information about Bezos’s love life and then getting the reporter to agree on the ground rules for using that information.

Related to this, you should also be aware that there’s little agreement, even among journalists, about the meaning of terms like “off the record” and “on deep background.” It’s best to spell out what you mean by the term, making sure you and the reporter agree.

We will explore that further in a future post.

Photo Credit: Amazon

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Related:The ABCs of Source Attribution — and Tips on Negotiating It