The Media Today

Jeff Bezos’s bad week

February 15, 2019

Last week, Jeff Bezos stood up to a bully. It was Donald Trump’s tabloid protector: the National Enquirer, and its owner, American Media Inc. In a Medium post, Bezos made public a threat of extortion: the Enquirer had explicit photos of him, and demanded that he and a private investigator he hired tell the press that they “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Bezos replied “no, thank you.” Commentators lined up to laud his bravery.

Bezos’s reputational high hasn’t lasted. Questions linger over the Enquirer’s political motives in the matter, yet the Bezos story has started to look more like traditional tabloid shlock. The Daily Beast reported, and others have since confirmed, that it was Michael Sanchez, the brother of Bezos’s lover, who leaked word of Bezos’s affair to the Enquirer, and that Bezos’s investigators knew this. (Sanchez is a Trump supporter and associate of Roger Stone and Carter Page, who have both been Trump advisers, but this hardly proves a grand conspiracy.) The Wall Street Journal reported on AMI’s connection to Saudi Arabia—a point mentioned in Bezos’s post—but its relevance to this case has not been made clear. Bezos, who hasn’t provided evidence of anything deeper here than a family drama, lost control of the narrative, and others have reshaped it. In a series of interviews, Sanchez told Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman that Bezos considered buying AMI to find out who its source was.

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Yesterday, Bezos was hammered on a different front. Amazon, the company that made him a billionaire, announced that it was scrapping plans for new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. The retreat was framed in many quarters as a clear defeat for Amazon at the hands of local politicians and activists who set the media agenda around the project the moment it was announced—loudly rebuking its likely effect on local housing and transit, the lavish incentives offered by New York State, and Amazon’s anti-union practices. Until yesterday, “Amazon had only ever fallen on its face this way once before, when it launched the Fire Phone,” CNN’s David Goldman writes. The New York HQ became “a public relations nightmare.”

The Amazon embarrassment narrative has not gone uncontested: some commentators have blamed opponents of the deal for killing potential jobs; Andrew Ross Sorkin, a business columnist at The New York Times, tweeted that criticism of Amazon’s state incentive package was financially illiterate (New York isn’t getting cash back, he pointed out). Whatever your stance, however, it’s inarguable that Amazon’s hunt for a second HQ has become a slow-moving PR trainwreck.

Should Amazon care? In November, David Streitfeld suggested in the Times that the public search had been a coup: major cities, in their scramble to outbid each other, showed exactly how much they were prepared to offer Amazon, providing “valuable data that it will no doubt use to expand.” Amazon’s statement on New York stressed that it still plans to grow in the city. But Bezos is probably at least miffed—as Louise Matsakis writes for Wired, the search “shone a light on a historically secretive process: how corporations have benefited enormously from taxpayer funds.”

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The obsessive, aggressive interrogation of Bezos’s Enquirer claims over the past week has been welcome, and fun to watch. But it’s his business practices—and those of his peers—that deserve closer scrutiny. Let’s hope there’s enough local journalism left to cover the story.

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Below, more on Jeff Bezos:

  • Local views: Neither the New York Daily News nor the New York Post mention the incentives offered to Amazon on their front pages this morning: instead, both lay into the politicians that “killed” the deal.
  • No hero: Alex Shephard argues in The New Republic that Bezos is “no hero.” He writes, “His missive against the Enquirer may have been righteous, but someone with Bezos’s enormous economic and political power—especially given Amazon’s myriad controversies—deserves much more skepticism and much less hero worship.”
  • The Pecker Pamphlet: For The Washington Post, Michael S. Rosenwald recalls how early newspapers used extortion as a business model. In the 1800s, “publications both reputable and scandalous routinely employed blackmail on society figures caught in compromising circumstances, though typically not nude selfies.”
  • Eliminating waste: In November, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote that Amazon’s HQ2 spectacle was not merely shameful, but should be illegal. “Each year, local governments spend nearly $100 billion to move headquarters and factories between states. It’s a wasteful exercise that requires a national solution,” Thompson argued.
  • Hero to 0: On Wednesday, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy suggested, in a report, that Amazon will pay $0 in federal taxes this year, despite doubling its US profits to $11.2 billion in 2018.

Other notable stories:

  • Last night, Congress passed a spending bill to keep the federal government from shutting down again. The package does not include funding for a wall. Today, Trump will declare a national emergency to finance a wall—teeing up challenges from Congress and the courts. (Trump, for his part, will likely be teeing off; once the declaration is done, he’s off to Mar-a-Lago.) What powers might a state of emergency give the president? The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Goitein considers the possibilities.
  • In a 60 Minutes interview that will air on Sunday, Andrew McCabe, the former acting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will confirm reports that he opened obstruction of justice and counterintelligence investigations into Trump in 2017, after the president fired James Comey. The Justice Department discussed removing Trump under the 25th amendment, McCabe will say, and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy Attorney General, offered to wear a wire to record meetings with Trump, as the Times has reported.
  • For CJR, Lyz Lenz explores the “thankless, fruitless art” of interviewing Trump. “The successful interview shows the president for who and what he is,” she writes. “It doesn’t go easy on him and it asks him questions he’s never been asked before. It doesn’t seek to make sense of the nonsensical.” Lenz discussed her piece with Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, on our podcast, The Kicker.
  • Facebook is set to pay a multi-billion-dollar fine to end a Federal Trade Commission investigation into its privacy practices. Tony Romm reports in the Post that the parties are still haggling over a settlement, but it will still be the biggest the FTC has ever levied on a tech company.
  • A judge in Connecticut has ruled that Alex Jones, the InfoWars conspiracy theorist, can be deposed by parents who lost children in the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which Jones has called a hoax. The parents claim, in a lawsuit, that Jones knowingly lied for financial gain. Jones’s attorney says his client is protected by the First Amendment. The Hartford Courant has more.
  • Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the Parkland massacre. For CJR, Emily Richmond of the Education Writers Association argues that it’s time to rethink how we cover school shootings. Education reporters “are the newsroom’s equivalent of first responders,” she writes. “It’s time for those reporters to take the lead to ensure their newsrooms include standards and practices for covering school shootings responsibly, with an eye toward fully informing the public while minimizing the potential for harm.”
  • Univision has revealed a writedown of its Gizmodo Media Group assets, which lost $96 million in the third quarter of 2018, then $33 million in the fourth quarter, The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr reports. Univision is still seeking a buyer for the properties.
  • On Wednesday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the House introduced a bill that would scrap the fees users currently pay to access Pacer, an online storehouse of federal court records, Kayla Goggin reports for Courthouse News. Pacer is already facing a lawsuit over its fees, which nonprofits say are disproportionate and misspent.
  • Last weekend, Chuck Yarborough, a music critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, organized a sold-out Concert for Truth in the city, raising $5,000 for 24 colleagues whose jobs are being cut. FreshWater Cleveland’s Karin Connelly Rice reports that “More than 450 people gathered to show their support for local journalism.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.