Opinion

Jack Shafer

Jeff Bezos has two words for you: ‘No comment.’

Jack Shafer
Aug 19, 2013 22:12 UTC

When journalists pressed William Henry Vanderbilt in 1882 about his plan to discontinue his railroad’s popular but unprofitable mail run, the richest man in the world reportedly exclaimed, “The public be damned!” Whether Vanderbilt said “be damned” or not — he claimed to have been misquoted — business titans of the Gilded Age routinely assumed this default posture.

Extending the big buzz-off to the press and the public is a tradition that Jeff Bezos’s Amazon.com Inc. has restored to the commonweal, as the New York Times slyly noted yesterday in its business section feature about the $25 billion man. As many journalists noted, the piece quotes James Marcus, former Amazon employee and current executive editor of Harper’s magazine, talking about the company’s sense of reserve. “Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’” said Marcus. The next line of the Times story went completely meta, reading, “Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.”

It doesn’t matter whether the topic is Amazon operations, the number of Kindles it has sold, the company’s video plans, a new Kindle commercial that tweaks the iPad, Bezos’s plans for his Blue Origin rocket or Bezos’s recent salvage of the sunken Apollo 11 rocket engines: “no comment” is the default response by Bezos and the company. Today, when the entire Amazon site went down for about 45 minutes, some reporters couldn’t even reach a company spokesman to gather an explanation for the outage. 

The company’s disdain for the press seems to know no limits. In 2011, for example, when the Allentown Morning Call reported that Amazon workers in Pennsylvania warehouse were being baked alive, the company offered only a mechanical response to the paper’s questions. After consumers protested the working conditions but before next summer’s heat hit, Amazon spent $52 million on air conditioners. But even then, company avoided the Morning Call’s specific questions about the ameliorations.

Amazon and Bezos aren’t alone in avoiding the press corps’s questions. Unless the product cycle has produced a new gadget that needs selling, Apple habitually sneers at questions from non-captive reporters. Amazon probably keeps its lips tight because 1) it rarely has a new product to sell and 2) Bezos so dominates the company no rogue powers exist inside it to dare speak out of turn. Or perhaps Bezos and Amazon think they can remain mute and avoid criticism because the good-will bucket overflows with warm fuzzies of their happy customers.

News never made money, and is unlikely to

Jack Shafer
Aug 15, 2013 19:26 UTC

Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Web began to peel from the daily American newspaper bundle its most commercial elements, essentially the editorial sections against which advertisements could be reliably sold. Coverage of sports, business and market news, entertainment and culture, gossip, shopping, and travel still ran in daily newspapers, but the audience steadily shifted to Web sources for this sort of news. Broadcasters had dented newspaper hegemony decades ago, absconding with breaking news and weather coverage, and inventing new audience pleasers, such as traffic reports and talk. But it was the Web that completed the disintegration of the newspaper bundle that dominated the news media market for more than a century. In addition to pinching the most commercial coverage from newspapers, the Web has also made off with the institution’s lucrative classified ads market, simultaneously reducing its status as the premier venue for content and advertising.

This isn’t to say newspapers deserted the commercial news categories. Newspapers have maintained their presence in the sports-weather-business-entertainment-culture departments to attract readers who attract advertisers. Even so, circulation has eroded and ad revenues have fallen to below 1950 levels in real dollars. The units of the newspaper bundle not yet ransacked by the Web — international, national, state, local, and political coverage – have (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) little-to-no commercial potential. Traditionally, newspapers have struggled selling space to advertisers by invoking these news varieties unless the news is absolutely spectacular or sensationalized. As the bundle fragments, it becomes more difficult for publishers to support non-commercial news.

Outlets such as Politico (a child of the Web) and the Bureau of National Affairs (a pre-Web entity, now owned by Bloomberg), which were designed to commercialize news about politics, the federal government, regulatory affairs, political campaigns, law, and lobbying, have succeeded in targeting an elite Washington, D.C., audience with this kind of news. But those successes don’t subtract from the fact that Washington news is a loss leader for most mainstream newspapers. The same is largely true of international and national news. No mass audience is willing to directly pay for such news outside of the one already served by the New York Times (combined daily print and digital circulation, 1,865,318). Even At the Times, subscribers now contribute more revenues than advertisers, indicating that they value its mission more than Madison Avenue does.

The next publisher of the Washington Post is…

Jack Shafer
Aug 12, 2013 21:19 UTC

I resist making predictions if only to avoid the inevitable disappointment when they fail to peg future events. As best as I can tell, every forecast, every prophecy, every reading of entrails and chicken bones that I’ve committed to print (or its digital equivalent) has failed to come true. But this time I think I’ve read enough into my tea leaves to confidently assert my suspicion that in early October, after Jeff Bezos consummates the deal he made with Donald Graham to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million, one of his first acts of ownership will be to name Vijay Ravindran his publisher of the newspaper.

Ravindran, who holds the title of senior vice president and chief digital officer at the Washington Post Co., seems like such a logical fit for the job I feel guilty about killing that goat and boiling a chicken to confirm my hunch. Ravindran’s company biography makes him sound like a research product bred specifically to replace the Washington Post‘s current publisher and chief executive officer, Katharine Weymouth.

Ravindran previously worked as a software engineer and technical manager between 1998 and 2005 at Bezos’s Amazon, where he labored to help bring 1-Click ordering, Amazon Prime, and other advances to the online shopping. From 2005 through the 2008 election, he was chief technology officer at Catalist, a D.C.-based vendor of voting-list databases for progressive clients. Since joining the Post Co. in 2009, Ravindran has sought to transfer some of Amazon’s technological gravitas to its online operations. WaPo Labs, which Ravindran founded and leads, has developed several experimental services including Trove, a news personalization site that I use daily, and others that I’ve never touched, including the Post‘s Social Reader and its Poll Watch app. As part of his techno-push, the company has also recruited such talented folks as Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda of Slashdot fame. Last year, SocialCode, the Post Co. social advertising agency that Ravindran helps lead, made news when it “acquihired” 15 engineers from the previous incarnation of Digg.com.

Jeff Bezos is an owner who knows how to deliver

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2013 23:21 UTC

As the American newspaper business began its red-ink slide in the late 2000s, I fully expected a billionaire to rescue the financially struggling Washington Post. But I never thought its savior would be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper today for $250 million.

I put my money on Michael R. Bloomberg’s money, in a July 2012 column titled “How Bloomberg can still run Washington” because he seemed like such a logical buyer. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg already owned a media empire comprised of a news service, a cable channel, a weekly magazine, and more. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg had toyed in semi-public with the idea of buying either the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times. Unlike the 49-year-old Bezos, who has been building spaceships and an eternal clock with his mad money, the aging (71 years old) Bloomberg seemed to need one last great gesture in his career before called to paradise. He wasn’t ever going to be president, a campaign he had gamed out. As for running the World Bank, a job Bloomberg was reportedly shopped to fill, well, that would be a step down from Emperor of New York City.

My matchmaking ploy failed. Washington Post Co. CEO Donald E. Graham, whose family owns a controlling interest in the company that owns the paper, humorously rebuffed my proposal in a tart email. Bloomberg didn’t knock on my door offering to pay me a finder’s fee. My idea was completely forgotten — even by me! — until today.

Nate Silver and a general theory of media exodus

Jack Shafer
Jul 22, 2013 21:44 UTC

The defection of statistics-wrangler Nate Silver from the status peaks of the New York Times for the flatlands of ESPN and ABC News puts a dent in the newspaper’s self-esteem and the orthodox view that for journalists, a Times position equals career success.

Instead of second-guessing Silver’s decision to leave the Valhalla of journalism, media writers are playing his move as a blow to the paper. Like LeBron James bolting Cleveland for Miami, writes Marc Tracy of the New Republic. “It’s a huge loss for the New York Times,” assesses USA Today’s Rem Rieder. ESPN and ABC “stole” Silver, as Politico‘s Mike Allen puts it, and in his new perch he’ll be allowed to expand beyond his FiveThirtyEight political stats-and-predictions blog to explore whole new realms of data journalism, including sports, education, economics, weather and Oscars predictions. “No way to sugarcoat this one: It’s a huge blow for the Times,” offers Forbes‘s Jeff Bercovici. “He’s outgrown the New York Times,” states Business Insider’s Walter Hickey.

Adding blood and broken bones to the psychic wounding others inflicted upon the Times was Adweek‘s headline, “Nate Silver Dumps New York Times for ESPN.”

From Tom Paine to Glenn Greenwald, we need partisan journalism

Jack Shafer
Jul 16, 2013 22:33 UTC

I would sooner engage you in a week-long debate over which taxonomical subdivision the duck-billed platypus belongs to than spend a moment arguing whether Glenn Greenwald is a journalist or not, or whether an activist can be a journalist, or whether a journalist can be an activist, or how suspicious we should be of partisans in the newsroom.

It’s not that those arguments aren’t worthy of time — just not mine. I’d rather judge a work of journalism directly than run the author’s mental drippings through a gas chromatograph to detect whether his molecules hang left or right or cling to the center. In other words, I care less about where a journalist is coming from than to where his journalism takes me.

Greenwald’s collaborations with source Edward Snowden, which resulted in Page One scoops in the Guardian about the National Security Agency, caused such a rip in the time-space-journalism continuum that the question soon went from whether Greenwald’s lefty style of journalism could be trusted to whether he belonged in a jail cell. Last month, New York Times business journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin called for the arrest of Greenwald (he later apologized) and Meet the Press host David Gregory asked with a straight face if he shouldn’t “be charged with a crime.” NBC’s Chuck Todd and the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus and Paul Farhi also asked if Greenwald hadn’t shape-shifted himself to some non-journalistic precinct with his work.

When death comes in installments

Jack Shafer
Jul 12, 2013 21:42 UTC

“Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments,” wrote New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling in the magazine’s March 28, 1953 issue. His piece deserves rereading every time a Hugo Chávez, a Margaret Thatcher, or now, a Nelson Mandela, drag their feet in their last approaches to their final reward.

The lengthy illness of a former or current world leader tends to agitate the hard-core news hounds. Their attitude: if you’re going, please go. As Liebling observed, only 10 percent of the obituary will contain any real news, anyway, the remainder is just a history lesson or clip job. The unexpected and sudden death of a world leader — preferably one in power — has greater appeal to the newshound, if only because there’s news in the surprise. Fifty years on, we still hunger for details about John Kennedy’s life and death, and Abraham Lincoln’s obituaries will never stop entertaining us.

World leaders do readers a disservice when they die on installment. Their obituaries, which newspapers pre-write and store in their pantries for that special day, can be refreshed a limited  number of times before they start to read like Wikipedia entries. When dying or aged leaders cheat death or push their way back into the news, they dilute their prepared obituaries. Liebling succinctly expressed this press corps’s lament in his Stalin complaint. Should they publish the meat of the full obit when the leader is close to death or should they hold back, publishing mini-obits in the form of news stories, columns and recollections? The leader who won’t die on a schedule forces journalism interruptus upon both the press and news consumers.

How to leak and not get caught

Jack Shafer
Jul 9, 2013 23:11 UTC

If U.S. prosecutors ever get their hands on Edward Snowden, they’ll play such a tympanic symphony on his skull he’ll wish his hands never touched a computer keyboard. Should U.S. prosecutors fail, U.S. diplomats will squeeze — as they did in Hong Kong — until he squirts from his hiding place and scurries away in search of a new sanctuary. But even if he finds asylum in a friendly nation, his reservation will last only as long as a sympathetic regime is calling the shots. Whether he ends up in Venezuela or some other country that enjoys needling the United States, he’ll forever be one election or one coup away from extradition.

Even then, he won’t be completely safe.

“Always check six, as we said when I used to be a flyer in the Air Force,” said NSA whistle-blower Thomas Drake recently. “Always make sure you know what’s behind you.”

Solitary whistle-blowers like Snowden, Drake and Daniel Ellsberg draw targets on their backs with their disclosures of official secrets, either by leaving a trail from the heist scene, being the most logical suspect, or because they admit their deed. Escaping prison time, such whistle-blowers have learned, depends on the luck of prosecutorial overreach (Drake) or self-destruction by the state, which derailed the prosecution of Pentagon Papers liberator Ellsberg.

In praise of tabloid TV

Jack Shafer
Jul 5, 2013 22:16 UTC

Allow me to defend cable TV’s extended live coverage of the George Zimmerman murder trial, even though I’ve not watched a second of it, nor have I tuned in to any of the nightly rehashes aired on CNN, HLN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Championing the Zimmerman telemania puts me at variance with the critics of tabloid TV, who want the cable news networks to focus their cameras instead on the Cairo uprising, President Barack Obama’s climate speech, the slaughter in Syria, voters’ rights, the NSA outrages, Wall Street, congressional hearings, and other examples of “meaningful” and “important” news. Directly disparaging CNN’s Zimmerman surplus at the expense of the Egyptian uprising is New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who asserts that the network’s new president, Jeff Zucker, “wants everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side.”

Rosen is right about what Zucker wants. But the call for more broadcast hours devoted to news “that matters” and fewer hours of TV trials — that, as many have accurately put it, are barely distinguishable from CSI episodes — might have been more persuasive in the days when the television audience had only the three broadcast network newscasts to choose from, when the only national newspaper was the business-oriented Wall Street Journal, when there was no real-time access to foreign newspapers and broadcasts, and when researchers were only fantasizing about something as ubiquitous as the Web. But today’s media menu gives the news audience more opportunities than ever before to find the news that others might describe as meaningful and important. It might have made sense three decades ago, when CNN was getting started, that its over-coverage of one story was blotting out other, more worthy stories. But that critique doesn’t apply to 2013. CNN, which used to be the only TV news meal at times of breaking international news like this, is only one of the entrees. Any number of sites have live-streamed the Egyptian protests on to the Web and sharply reported, photographed, and filmed accounts from Cairo are only a hashtag search away the reader’s eye. Go ahead and complain about CNN if you want to, but footnote your critique with easily accessible alternative sources.

In today’s media environment, the media critic who insists that the cable networks follow Egypt and drop Zimmerman is like the nudging dining companion who wants to order both his meal and yours, lest you embarrass him by mistakenly ordering the burger and fries. He finds the burger and fries déclassé and bad for you and would rather you add something more tofu-and-wheatgrassy to your media diet.

What an NSA charm offensive looks like

Jack Shafer
Jun 27, 2013 22:04 UTC

Banged and bruised in the press over the NSA secrets liberated by Edward Snowden and serialized in the Guardian and the Washington Post, the national security establishment resorted to a little media offense earlier this week with a series of conversations with major news outlets.

As media blitzes go, it was sedate and vague. The natsec establishment made its first landing in the Washington Posts June 25 print edition, where two unnamed senior intelligence officials speculated about the damage done to U.S. national security by the leaks (“U.S. is worried about security of documents Snowden has”). The Post reported:

“Already, several terrorist groups in various regions of the world have begun to change their method of communication based on disclosures of surveillance programs in the media, the official said. He would not elaborate on the communication modes.”

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