Bezos’ silence, lobbyists and Egypt, and the inner workings of State-owned TV

By Steven Brill
August 27, 2013

1. Wash Post reporters: Get a Bezos comment

These sentences in last week’s Times profile of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos beg for a follow-up from the house the Grahams built:

 “Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’”  Mr. Marcus said. 

Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.

Over the years, in reading stories about Amazon I’ve noticed the same pattern of Amazon simply refusing to comment no matter what the story was about. And, although Amazon’s website lists a phone number for a public relations office, it lists no names of anyone specific to call, nor do its press releases list names for reporters to call for follow-up. Amazon’s resolute refusal to answer press questions and the paradox of Bezos now owning a business whose employees are paid to ask them is captured nicely in this column by Jack Shafer.

The first time Bezos shows up in the Washington Post building I hope a reporter will ask him about this and about how reporters at places like the Post are supposed to present complete, fair stories if a company as influential as Amazon is — in areas ranging from books, to employment conditions, to the retail economy, to sales taxes, to international trade, to antitrust law — won’t answer any questions. Let’s hope we get more than a “No comment.”

2. Unlikely lobbyists for Egyptian aid?

This smart New York Times report last week by Eric Schmitt points out that although the $1.3 billion in annual military aid the United States gives Egypt pales against the amounts offered to Egypt’s military rulers by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries, the U.S. maintains outsized leverage because its aid includes authorizing American arms makers to supply their hardware and software to Egypt. According to Schmitt, Egyptian military chieftains are “enamored of Apache attack helicopters, M1A1 battle tanks and F-16 fighter jets.”

If I had a Capitol Hill beat I’d be wondering what the American arms giants that make these products might be doing to help keep the supply line open to the Egyptian coup regime, despite their recent human rights abuses.

How are the ubiquitous lobbying squadrons representing the companies that make the Apache (Boeing, although GE makes the engines), the M1A1 tank (General Dynamics), and the F-16 bomber (Lockheed Martin) working the issue? And are they aligning with those who represent other interests — such as Israel, which seems to prefer the military regime to the democratically-elected Islamists they replaced?

3. Inside State-owned TV:

Lately, a cable news channel called RT has been increasingly appearing on various cable and satellite systems’ channel lineups. Its profile has also been raised by the hiring of CNN veteran Larry King to do an interview show.

Last weekend, RT was still more in the news when the New York Times reported that during a live guest appearance on RT, American journalist Jamie Kirchick had “surprised producers in Moscow on Wednesday by raising the subject of Russia’s anti-gay legislation and denouncing the network’s employees as propagandists for President Vladimir V. Putin.” That report then propelled Kirchick onto various American cable news shows.

The Times mostly wondered how the producers at RT — which is financed by the Kremlin and whose website describes it as providing “an alternative perspective on major global events” — could have been surprised by Kirchick’s outburst, because he is an outspoken conservative as well as an ardent gay rights proponent.

But beyond wondering in which gulag the producers who failed to research Kirchick now reside, for me the Kirchick-RT episode — as well as the launch last week of Qatari-owned Al Jazeera America — suggests a more intriguing story: How do these government-owned media outlets actually pull off controlling their message in an age in which so much of what they do is live and sent through channels ranging from multiple websites, to YouTube, to multiple cable and satellite broadcasts? Controlling the message, assuming they seek to do so, has to be a lot of work.

Al Jazeera America, of course, protests that its reporting will not be influenced by its Gulf State owners. A definitive story about the background and operating methods of its American chief executive officer Ehab Al Shihabi, which I have not seen anywhere, would shed light on that. Where has he worked in the past? What are his political affiliations? To whom does he report? What independent authority does he have? How is he compensated? What ties do he or his family have to the government? In what ways does he interact with his leading editors? How are they compensated? Do the owners have to approve any bonuses they get?

Equally important would be stories detailing the channel’s internal reporting guidelines and its internal editorial meetings. Better yet, I hope one or more of its new hires is keeping a journal of everything going on behind the scenes. For inspiration he or she should check out this article in the Atlantic Wire by a young reporter recounting his year of doing “journalism” at the state-owned China Daily.

Of course, if Al Jazeera really is playing it straight, that would be a better story, as would a diary in which, for example, a journalist is told to go hard after a story the Qataris will hate.

I’m assuming that RT’s thumb-on-the scale practices are less subtle than whatever we might find out about Al Jazeera America. But given its growing presence, I’d love to see an inside story about how RT operates. I assume Larry King and his harmless interviews are left alone. But what about making sure that the hard news is given “an alternative perspective?” For those of us who think straight news is as important as safe food, that kind of inside report might be like reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

(PHOTO: A man works at a desk in the Al Jazeera America broadcast center in New York, August 20, 2013. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

5 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I don’t watch TV at all. Waste of time.
However, I go to RT Web-site from time to time.
You feel confused because you imagined the RT production as something like “to be approved by Kremlin.”
It is incorrect.
If you look at it as “public” TV, you will see a high-quality alternative content. And nothing related to anti-Americanism or anti-Western propaganda.
Due to the nature of my work as an international forum’s administrator, I don’t see much difference between public-funded BBC and RT in terms of attitudes. Or factual side. Or logic.
Every educated person should get all MSM sources – and to make conclusions him/herself.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

I wonder how independent Reuters/CNN/MSNBC/Fox are from the US government. From my understanding, if they want access to information from the US Government, they have to toe the US official line on important foreign policy and National Security issues, or risk being frozen out!!!

So I can ask the same of you Mr. Brill, how independent are you of the US Government?????

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

In Orlando, Megahertz rebroadcasts lead me to occasionally watch RT. Perhaps because I also watch some Duetsche Welle, France 24, NHK, CCTV News, and BBC America, this leads me to juxtapose their various messages (along with the major USA broadcasters, of course) against that offered by RT. Consequently, I don’t find it difficult to discover the worm in the apple, occasionally. Moreover, I find all the news programs to have their own national bias based on source. So what? Or more pointedly, what else would you expect? Hence, I advise news junkies to watch and learn, run it through your internal filter and see what pops out at the end. Personally, I find these sources, in combination with others like Bloomberg, WSJ, NYT, WP, and Reuters plus topic specific sources like Stratfor combine to help me achieve a better balance. Thus, I believe myself to be reasonably informed while being reasonably adept at spotting the B.S., which to be fair can be subtle. Is there one best source? No, not really but Reuters, The Economist, Bloomberg, Stratfor, BBC America, CBS, and NHK News are especially fine sources . . . and remember to pay attention to your flimflam-filter.

Posted by jbeech | Report as abusive

not so bad…

Posted by Smartmil8 | Report as abusive

intersting apinion

Posted by Smartmil8 | Report as abusive