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.

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.

Mike Daisey’s brief guide to answering difficult questions

Jack Shafer
Mar 20, 2012 20:18 UTC

Thanks to the “Retraction” episode of This American Life and his appearance at Georgetown University last night, we now know more than we ever wanted to about Mike Daisey’s damage control theories.

On the radio, Daisey tendered the non-apology apology. Yes, for his retracted episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” Daisey confessed that he had lied in the original broadcast about what he saw in China, whom he talked to there, when he talked to them, how many factories he visited, and so on. He also admitted that he lied to This American Life‘s editors in the fact-checking process. For a complete run.

Daisey has now acknowledged his lies, but has also attempted several defenses and obfuscations of them. On his blog last Friday, the day the scandal was broken, he stated that: “I stand by my work,” and “What I do is not journalism.” I leave it to the reader to figure what “I stand by my work” means when the work under discussion has been discredited. But the “not journalism” comment is very peculiar to make at this late stage because, as Craig Silverman points out, This American Life producer Brian Reed put Daisey on notice before the episode ran that they wanted it to be “totally, utterly unassailable by anyone who might hear it.”

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