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- I significantly underestimated the power of Jeff Bezos
- Published on September 16, 2017Featured in: Company Culture, Editor's Picks, Media, Technology, The Weekend Essay
- LikeI significantly underestimated the power of Jeff Bezos
- Franklin Foer
- Editor At Large at The New Republic
- In one hundred years, the New Republic had never had a chief executive officer. We had owners who ran the institution with a sense of public mission and personal vanity. (The one year we turned a profit, we celebrated with a pizza party that pushed us back into the red.) But Chris Hughes, the owner of the magazine and my boss, wanted to turn a profit. He freely admitted that it required greater business acumen than he possessed, or than he could hire without offering a big, enticing title.
- The thing about CEOs is that they have “chief” in their title, and with that the implied power to fire the editor (me). I found that an unsettling shift in the chain of command. (Before the arrival of the CEO, I had reported directly to Chris.) It seemed somewhat unpromising that the new CEO waited nearly two weeks to meet with me after starting. There were, however, mitigating circumstances. I worked in Washington, the magazine’s main editorial office, and he worked in New York, where we housed our business side. I clung to that fact and held out hope that I might persist into the new regime.
- After my first meeting with the CEO, I wasn’t so sure. His name was Guy Vidra, an alumnus of various tech start-ups, with the requisite Fitbit around his wrist, rectangular spectacles, and trimmed facial hair. He came to us, most recently, by way of Yahoo! As I entered his office, this suddenly seemed like an entirely different planet.
- I was hoping for a bit of get-to-know-you chat as I sank down into a low-slung leather chair in his office and then leaned forward into a posture of hyper-agreeability. My mission was to charm him and persuade him of my commercial spirit. But before I could begin to court him, he rose from behind his walnut-and steel desk, grabbed a marker, and headed to the whiteboard on his wall. “Here’s what I’m thinking,” he said as he began to sketch a plan for remaking the editorial structure of the magazine. I saw an incomprehensible tangle of arrows and circles quickly materialize. But as he spoke, I caught the drift. What attracted Vidra was the transformation of the New Republic into a technology company with the ethos of a start-up. This required an overhaul of our mission and core character.
- My reputation in the office was as a nostalgist and traditionalist. I liked to tell the story of how my father had turned me into a reader of the New Republic by slipping his finished issues under my bedroom door. And I had just edited a centennial anthology of writings from the magazine’s back catalog. This reputation reinforced an impression that I resented: Vidra considered me insensitive to the imperative to make money. I certainly didn’t mean to confirm this impression. But the magazine had a void in its cover lineup, and I quickly pulled together an essay on Amazon.
- This was the fall of 2014—and contract negotiations between Amazon and the publishing giant Hachette had grown protracted and foul. I hadn’t much cared about the early months of the contretemps, which pitted a monopoly against an oligopoly. Neither side struck me as worthy of huge sympathy. But then the battlefront encroached uncomfortably close to home. I watched as Amazon punished Hachette’s writers in its effort to make the publisher feel pain. Books, the products of years of passionate labor, were prevented from reaching the market. Amazon used its bully’s arm to delay their shipments or direct readers to older books on similar subjects, as well as a raft of other vengeful tactics. It’s a failure of moral imagination that writers respond only to injustices that they can envision suffering themselves. But I had published with Hachette and it wasn’t hard to make the empathetic leap that landed me in solidarity with the writers whose sales Amazon crashed.
- My essay appeared under a headline that had fists. The cover blared, “Amazon Must Be Stopped.” The piece described why the government should get tough with Amazon for transgressing antitrust laws. It found an audience, but fairly quickly receded from the forefront of my mind. Attention was pretty clearly needed elsewhere. My intraoffice campaign for survival seemed to be floundering. One afternoon, I sat at my computer as I received email from six different media reporters seeking to confirm rumors that I was about to be fired. “This isn’t the most comfortable question, but here goes . . .”
- It was at that awkward moment that Amazon decided that it would punish the New Republic. Our ad sales department received a note, informing us that Amazon would be yanking its advertising for its new political comedy, Alpha House. The missive left nothing to the imagination. “In light of the cover article about Amazon, Amazon has decided to terminate the Alpha House campaign currently running on the New Republic. Please confirm receipt of this email and that the campaign has been terminated.” It was signed, “Team Amazon.”
- When I asked Chris Hughes if I could pick a fight over Amazon’s cancellation, he sent me a curt note instructing me to remain quiet. Unfortunately, I had already forwarded Amazon’s note to a friend—who, in turn, excitedly and unadvisedly forwarded it to the New York Times. Before I could stuff the controversy back into a quiet corner, a reporter had written Chris asking him to comment. While my boss was fuming at my disobedience, I was sitting on a cross-country flight from San Francisco with painfully slow WiFi. I sent an email furiously pleading with my friend to help make the story go away. I could hear the backswing of the executioner.
- We shouldn’t be hyperbolic about the knowledge monopolies. The Associated Press’s schemes from the nineteenth century are an extreme case. Most media barons don’t aspire to rig presidential elections. Their interests are far more parochial. In this way, they are no different from any other big business. They want to stave off the regulators and the tax man; they want to protect their business from the incursions of government, and to inhale government largesse, when profit can be made.
- But, then again, knowledge monopolists are not like every other business. Every writer, every media outlet, every book publisher depends on these companies for their financial survival. These companies, therefore, have a unique ability to inhibit criticism of themselves. They don’t need to lift a finger to ward off naysayers. By virtue of their size, the fact that they dominate much of the market for disseminating ideas, criticizing them often seems like a suicidal gesture.
- After writing my essay on Amazon, I crossed from critic to activist. I accompanied the Authors Guild on trips to the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to discuss the perils of Amazon’s size. These meetings were private. That condition provided the safety that permitted writers to make the trip to Washington to press their case against Amazon. I assumed that any writer willing to blare complaints at the U.S. government would be willing to blare those complaints in public.
- This was the one way in which I had significantly underestimated the power of Jeff Bezos. When I worked with colleagues to put together a conference on Amazon at a center-left think tank, some of our comrades suddenly lost their nerve. They had books on the way. There was no way that they would risk their hard work by attaching their name to the cause. Loss of nerve was hardly an isolated incident. When we asked a Washington lawyer to speak at the event, it didn’t matter that he had a long record of crossing swords with big companies. “I think I’m going to pass for personal reasons,” he wrote. “My daughter has been working on a book that her agent will send out to publishers shortly. So, the manuscript will be under consideration at about the same time as your program. The publishers are so paranoid about what Amazon could do that I think it might affect their behavior. So, I think that I need to keep a lower profile on this one at this stage.” This logic flabbergasted me. I called a literary agent to relay the incident. The agent had delivered anti-Amazon zingers to reporters over the years, but he surprised me with his fatalism. “You’ve done your bit,” he told me, just before hanging up. “It’s important to consider your own interests now.”
- Amazon is hardly immune from public outcry. The New York Times has rigorously reported on the company. And there’s safety in numbers. When activist groups circulate letters criticizing Amazon, plenty of writers sign them. Still, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of a more frigid future that follows the current arc toward monopoly. Even if Amazon behaves in saintly fashion, its size will intimidate. Courage doesn’t grow if one glances over at the Washington Post. Since Bezos bought it, the paper has hardly replicated the Times’ tough coverage. Bezos could have declared that he deserves the same treatment that the paper dishes out to the rest of the world. Instead, the paper tiptoes around him, which seems to be the way he likes it.
- This might seem like a minor point. But as Amazon continues its march, its ambition keeps expanding. It wants to populate the skies with drones. It will provide the essential technological infrastructure for governments. It will set the tone for the future of the workplace and the future of the economy, as well as the future of the culture. Amazon’s power isn’t an incidental subject for public debate; it is an essential one.
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