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.