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technology

Former Amazon Lawyer Now Opposite Bezos in Tabloid Fight

Former Amazon Lawyer Now Opposite Bezos in Tabloid Fight

  • Media lawyer Jon Fine represents National Enquirer’s parent
  • Amazon CEO Bezos accuses magazine parent of blackmail
Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Jeff Bezos
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

When Jeff Bezos’s camp received an email this week from the National Enquirer, the sender was familiar: lawyer Jon Fine.

Bezos had good reason to remember Fine because the lawyer worked at Amazon.com Inc.’s books unit beginning in the mid-2000s. Now Fine is a deputy general counsel at Enquirer parent American Media Inc., and he was writing to offer his former boss a deal: stop impugning the publication’s motives for its investigation into Bezos’s romantic life and the supermarket tabloid would refrain from publishing another series of embarrassing photos of the chief executive officer and his new girlfriend, former television anchor Lauren Sanchez.

Maybe Fine should have known his famously combative former boss wouldn’t take this lying down. On Thursday, Bezos accused AMI of blackmail for threatening to reveal the photos if he didn’t agree to the company’s terms. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out,” Bezos wrote.

That’s placed Fine, who spent nine years at Amazon, at odds with Bezos in a dispute that’s pitted the world’s richest man against an aggressive tabloid led by an ally of President Donald Trump. AMI said in a statement Friday that it believed it had reported the stories on Bezos lawfully, but would investigate the accusations made by the executive.

Fine, who hasn’t responded to requests for comment, was a high-profile manager in Amazon’s books unit at a pivotal time, overseeing elements of the company’s push to get publishers on board with its Kindle e-reader and helping to set up Amazon’s publishing unit.

Read more on the offshoots of the Bezos-National Enquirer fight

Amid mounting criticism of Amazon’s lack of corporate philanthropy, Fine proposed a grant program for authors and literary organizations, an effort that today is the company’s longest-running philanthropic program. “They let me run with it, essentially,” he told the Seattle Times last year.

“Look, we may be disruptive, and you may not agree with everything that we’re doing,” he told the newspaper, describing the pitch. “But certainly there’s common ground around the idea that creating new works, and the work of new authors, is essential to us continuing the literary tradition here.”

Recipients of those grants told the newspaper that Fine appeared genuinely committed to using his perch at Amazon to help authors, even as his company’s success upended the business models in the book industry that paid many of them. After he left Amazon, Fine joined the board of one of Amazon’s longtime grant recipients, an independent publishers’ group.

Fine, who describes himself as a First Amendment lawyer, built his career in New York advising news and entertainment television programs, including NBC News and “Saturday Night Live.” A self-described non-creative type in an industry full of them, he told acquaintances that he viewed his role as helping people who were more artistically inclined get their work out into the world.

He jumped from television to publishing in 2000, serving as counsel for the Alfred A. Knopf division of Random House.

It was there that Fine took an interest in Amazon, the online bookseller then making moves into electronic books and publishing that would rock New York’s publishing industry. Fine, according to a person with knowledge of his thinking, saw his role as a kind of interpreter between a data-driven, fast-moving technology company and a publishing industry built on personal relationships.

Fine was the rare executive at Amazon, a notoriously quiet company for most of its existence, who cut a public profile. He sports a beard and long curly sandy blond hair that sets him apart from suit-and-tie wearing attorneys. His appearance also makes him stand out in tweedier publishing circles. For years, Fine was Amazon’s de facto ambassador to his former colleagues in the publishing scene, showing up everywhere from book fairs in London to an event for creative types in digital media in Vancouver, British Columbia.

That travel took a toll, according to the person with knowledge of his thinking, and Fine left Amazon in 2015.

Two short stints at digital media companies followed. And in November, after AMI’s top lawyer left, reportedly in a clash with AMI Chief Executive Officer David Pecker, Fine joined the company as in-house deputy counsel. By then, according to the National Enquirer’s timeline, the publication had been investigating Bezos for months.