Bombshell accusations laced with salacious details are instantly gratifying for media outlets in the digital age, where clicks are measured in real time. Two very different stories broke this week that require further analysis as to how and why information flows, whether there’s a way to determine if it was right or wrong, and if it even matters. In the Northern Hemisphere, Amazon CEO and world’s richest man Jeff Bezos published a very personal blog post denouncing tabloid paper National Enquirer for attempting to blackmail him by publishing embarrassing pictures if he and The Washington Post — which Bezos owns — didn’t silence accusations against the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media (AMI). Meanwhile, back in Argentina, federal prosecutor Carlos Stornelli is being investigated for allegedly receiving bribes through an intermediary in the context of the so-called ‘corruption notebooks’ scandal, as revealed by journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who is nothing if not divisive.
If professional journalism is a necessary counterbalance in a democratic society, then an educated audience with the capacity to both scrutinise the underlying message behind a specific story, and the output publishing it, is a prerequisite for a free society. At the root of it, this requires the capacity to acknowledge that most social phenomena are by definition multi-causal.
Starting out with Bezos and his private pictures, the owner of Amazon and The Post responded to what he felt was outright extortion with a public letter to the National Enquirer’s owner David Pecker. Nearly a month ago, Bezos and his now ex-wife Mackenzie announced their divorce hours before the Enquirer published a piece indicating the world’s richest man was having an affair with Lauren Sánchez, who is now his girlfriend. In his public blog post, Bezos transcribes a s e r i e s o f emails from AMI’s Chief Content Offic e r D y l a n Howard and Deputy General Counsel Jon Fine in which they describe explicit pictures of Bezos and Sánchez, while asking the Amazon billionaire to publicly deny the investigations against him are politically motivated.
As the owner of The Post, which is very critical of US President Donald Trump, Bezos is a common target of POTUS’s Twitter rants. At the same time, AMI owner Pecker has been roped in to the investigation into Russian influence during the 2016 US presidential elections after having paid hush money to a Playboy bunny claiming she had had an affair with Trump. The last piece of the puzzle here is Jamal Khashoggi, The Post columnist murdered by Saudi Arabian thugs at the behest of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
While Bezos is looking to take charge of the situation by acknowledging the existence of his raunchy picture exchanges with Sánchez, while turning the tables on the Enquirer, it’s important to note that these are the rules of the game. Whether ethical or not, being a relevant political player in a contended situation means smear campaigns are coming, particularly as the 2020 electoral campaign gets underway. Yet, even accepting the Enquirer’s clear ties with President Trump and their intentions, readers must still defend journalistic freedoms.
It may sound counterintuitive, but the same type of methods probably used by the Enquirer to get the scoop on Bezos’ divorces and his dirty pictures would probably help uncover truly important stories, from Watergate to the cuadernos. Leaks, unnamed sources, stake-outs – all of these are controversial yet necessary tools for journalists, the problem is when they are taken to far, which in turn begs the question, where is the ethical limit?
Unless the Enquirer broke any laws to get the information on Bezos, then we can feel disgusted at their attitudes, but their reporting would be safeguarded by the US Constitution. Unless, of course, they did break the law. In the same way that a serious news outlet should be protected legally from the endless financial resources of an oligarch unhappy with their reporting, tabloids deserve the same rights. Even if sometimes we must pinch our nose.
Which takes us to Stornelli and Verbitsky. In typical Verbitsky fashion, a long and twisted tale of alleged corruption targeting the federal prosecutor behind the most important corruption case in Argentina is unveiled in detail, including pictures, videos and audio recordings. The case focuses on a lawyer named Marcelo D’Alessio who is extorting agribusinessman Pedro Etchbest, who agreed to pay him US$300,000 after his name surfaced in the cuadernos corruption scandal being investigated by Stornelli and judge Claudio Bonadio. The case is currently being investigated by federal judge Alejo Ramos Padilla. Etchebest appears to have been pointed out by Juan Manuel Campillo, Kirchner’s former Finance Minister in Santa Cruz, as a bagman in the context of the ONCCA agribusiness regulator, which Campillo later headed.
D’Alessio claims to have worked for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) before entering the Argentine Security Ministry. He tells Etchebest stories of how he helped set up former AFIP boss Ricardo Etchegaray and Lázaro Báez for Security Ministry Patricia Bullrich, how Clarín journalist Daniel Santoro was part of their operations, and finally how Stornelli and Bonadio have made some “US$10m to US$12m in [the notebooks] case.” That’s where Verbitsky tells the story of how Etchebest set D’Alessio up as he recorded him along with his sons and then let the judiciary take over.
Whether Verbitsky’s story is true or not, the accusations against Stornelli have sown doubts over the impartiality of the man who is arguably the country’s most important prosecutor. Verbitsky is an important journalist with a long and successful trajectory, but he’s also a firebrand with a publicly stated ideology. And he clearly believes the notebooks case is rigged. The story he tells, which a judge is currently investigating, most definitely chips away at the public’s trust in the team investigating Kirchnerite corruption, which, it must be said, is anything if not controversial, particularly judge Bonadio.
While Stornelli has dismissed the accusation as “a cheap operation” against him, the case is absolutely relevant. Not only are there suspicions of the political use of the cuadernos case against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the main opposition candidate to President Mauricio Macri, but the whole judiciary is being questioned for their political timing. The same judges who once ruled in favour of Cristina in express time are now fervently trying to lock her up. Whether she deserves it is another issue. What’s important, though, is that we notice.