A Boston mayor who trampled on a religious group’s right to freedom of expression. A Worcester city manager who trampled on the public’s right to know about police misconduct. A New Hampshire state legislator who trampled on teachers’ rights by demanding that they take a “loyalty oath” promising not to teach their students about racism.
These are just a few of the winners of the 2022 New England Muzzle Awards.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Muzzles, a Fourth of July roundup of outrages against freedom of speech and of the press in the six New England states.
I was surprised — but not shocked — to discover recently that The Washington Post is phasing out its blue app, which at one time it called the “National Digital Edition.”
The app, which debuted in 2015, was an important part of the Post’s strategy during the early years of Jeff Bezos’ ownership. I wrote about it in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” Available on phones and tablets, it provided readers with a colorful, magazine-like experience. The National Digital Edition was also cheaper than the Post’s other digital products; it was marketed to a national audience and omitted all news from the Washington area. That way, Washingtonians couldn’t save money by choosing the blue app unless they were willing to do without any local news.
The blue app had a lot to do with the Post’s meteoric growth in digital subscriptions, especially after the paper offered it to Amazon Prime members for free for six months, earning hosannas from a wide cross-section of media observers. Media analyst Ken Doctor, a recent guest on our “What Works” podcast, called it “potentially game-changing.”
Even as the Post was marketing the National Digital Edition, though, it continued to evolve its black app and, of course, its website. Those provided readers with a more traditional experience, including a home page, which the blue app lacked, as well as local and regional news. At some point, too, the Post abandoned its different pricing schemes. The blue app, despite its attractiveness, always seemed a bit lite, and eventually most people just moved away from it.
I hadn’t checked the blue app in ages until the past week. When I did, I got a message that said “this app soon will no longer be available” and pushing me toward the black app instead.
The National Digital Edition served its purpose, boosting paid circulation at a time when Bezos was trying to catch up quickly with The New York Times. As of last October, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Post’s circulation was around 2.7 million. That’s well behind the Times’ 10 million (which, to be fair, includes subscriptions to non-news products such as its cooking app and crossword puzzle), but it’s impressive nevertheless.
The New York Times has yet another story on the pressures being placed on publishers to cancel controversial books. The example in question is by Jonathan Mattingly, one of the Louisville police officers who took part in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.
Probably the best known of such incidents was Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel a contract with Sen. Josh Hawley earlier this year after he essentially endorsed the Jan. 6. insurrection. Hawley’s book was instantly picked up by the right-wing publisher Regnery, and Hawley has been talking ever since to whine about how he’s been silenced.
The Hawley situation shows that the marketplace can resolve disputes over speech. But I want to push it one step further by pointing out that publishing and distributing a book has become absolutely frictionless. Self-publishing a book, either in print or online, is cheap and easy — I’ve done it myself.
And though it is true that Amazon will occasionally decline to carry a book, as was the case recently with a work that had come under attack by the transgender community, DIY methods are always available, starting with the web, email lists and the like. (I’m leaving out Facebook because the service has been making efforts to take down disinformation and hate speech.)
What this comes down to is that fringe right-wing books will continue to be published and will continue to be promoted by fringe right-wing media, with the most prominent authors finding a voice on Fox News.
And even lesser authors can find creative ways to make money from their books. Just ask Sen. Ted Cruz, now facing allegations that he used campaign funds to promote his tome.
The tech giant … won’t sell downloadable versions of its more than 10,000 e-books or tens of thousands of audiobooks to libraries. That’s right, for a decade, the company that killed bookstores has been starving the reading institution that cares for kids, the needy and the curious. And that’s turned into a mission-critical problem during a pandemic that cut off physical access to libraries and left a lot of people unable to afford books on their own.
And good for the Post, which, as we all know, is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
We buy a fair amount of stuff from Amazon. I try to patronize local, independent businesses whenever possible, but I didn’t think there was a huge difference between buying from Amazon and buying from a big-box store. In fact, I’ve refused to set foot in a Walmart for many years.
On January 25, hundreds of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Chicago were presented with a baffling choice: sign up for a ten-and-a-half-hour graveyard shift, or lose your job.
And apparently that’s the way it’s going to be across the company. People can’t live that way. Yes, I’m very familiar with stories about the difficult working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, but the new policy goes well beyond that. This is unimaginably cruel, and it conjures up the sweatshops of the pre-Progressive era. It ought to be outlawed. Can’t we wait another day or two for our stuff?
It’s one thing for Apple and Google to throw the right-wing Twitter competitor Parler out if its app stores. It’s another thing altogether for Amazon Web Services to deplatform Parler. Yet that’s what will happen by midnight today, according to BuzzFeed.
Parler deserves no sympathy, obviously. The service proudly takes even less responsibility for the garbage its members post than Twitter and Facebook do, and it was one of the places where planning for the insurrectionist riots took place. But Amazon’s actions raise some important free-speech concerns.
Think of the internet as a pyramid. Twitter and Facebook, as well as Google and Apple’s app stores, are at the top of that pyramid — they are commercial enterprises that may govern themselves as they choose. Donald Trump is far from the first person to be thrown off social networks, and Parler isn’t even remotely the first app to be punished.
But Amazon Web Services, or AWS, exists somewhere below the top of the pyramid. It is foundational; its servers are the floor upon which other things are built. AWS isn’t the bottom layer of the pyramid — it is, in its own way, a commercial enterprise. But it has a responsibility to respecting the free-speech rights of its clients that Twitter and Facebook do not.
You may not use, or encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to use, the Services or AWS Site for any illegal, harmful, fraudulent, infringing or offensive use, or to transmit, store, display, distribute or otherwise make available content that is illegal, harmful, fraudulent, infringing or offensive.
For AWS to cut off Parler would be like the phone company blocking all calls from a person or organization it deems dangerous. Yet there’s little doubt that Parler violated AWS’s acceptable-use policy. Look for Parler to re-establish itself on an overseas server. Is that what we want?
Meanwhile, Paul Moriarty, a member of the New Jersey State Assembly, wants Comcast to stop carrying Fox News and Newsmax, according to CNN’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter. And CNN’s Oliver Darcy is cheering him on, writing:
Moriarty has a point. We regularly discuss what the Big Tech companies have done to poison the public conversation by providing large platforms to bad-faith actors who lie, mislead, and promote conspiracy theories. But what about TV companies that provide platforms to networks such as Newsmax, One America News — and, yes, Fox News? [Darcy’s boldface]
Again, Comcast and other cable providers are not obligated to carry any particular service. Just recently we received emails from Verizon warning that it might drop WCVB-TV (Channel 5) over a fee dispute. Several years ago, Al Jazeera America was forced to throw in the towel following its unsuccessful efforts to get widespread distribution on cable.
But the power of giant telecom companies to decide what channels will be carried and what will not is immense, and something we ought to be concerned about.
I have no solutions. But I think it’s worth pointing out that AWS’s action against Parler is considerably more ominous than Google’s and Apple’s, and that for elected officials to call on Comcast to drop certain channels is more ominous still.
I don’t listen to a huge number of audiobooks. But when I do, I buy them through Libro.fm, which lets you designate an independent bookstore to receive some of the proceeds. The bookstore I’ve chosen is An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville, founded by children’s book author Jeff Kinney and his wife, Julie Kinney. If you’ve never been, you’re in for a treat.
A few months ago, though, the audiobook I wanted to buy was an “Audible Exclusive,” meaning I couldn’t buy it through Libro. Audible, as you may know, is part of Amazon. So instead of helping to support a great independent bookstore, I put a few more dollars in Jeff Bezos’ bulging pockets.
Today An Unlikely Story sent me an email from Libro that goes into a bit more detail on the harm being caused by “Audible Exclusives.” Here’s an excerpt:
Libraries, bookstores, schools, and anyone who isn’t affiliated with Amazon cannot distribute audiobooks that are Audible Exclusives. This means Libro.fm can’t sell Audible Exclusive audiobooks, which means our 1,200 bookstore partners can’t sell them, either.
Audible Exclusives also work in direct opposition to the basic principles of libraries — free access to books, both digital and print. By limiting distribution, Amazon aids in making books, perspectives, and information inaccessible to certain communities and users.
This is predatory capitalism, which is, as we know, Amazon’s specialty. I will continue to buy audiobooks through Libro whenever possible. Meanwhile, think of this as yet another reason to keep pushing for antitrust action against Amazon and its fellow tech giants.
Jeff Bezos is our most elusive famous billionaire. With his shaved head and gnomish smile, it sometimes seems like he’s perpetually in our midst. Yet unlike Mark Zuckerberg, who’s forever explaining himself and his intentions, or the late Steve Jobs, always ready with a boast or a putdown, Bezos only rarely puts his thoughts into words.
When he does, he is intentionally obscure. “Bezos made a statement saying all the correct and anodyne things, but he was not terribly revealing,” David Remnick wrote shortly after Bezos announced he would buy The Washington Post. You could say that’s the way Bezos has operated at Amazon, the company that made him the world’s richest person. Or how he has lived his life.
Yes, he was forced to reveal some of his most intimate secrets when The National Enquirer reported that he was having an affair and threatened to publish embarrassing photos. But even then, he acted so that he could disclose his secrets on his own terms, thus denying his enemies the satisfaction of humiliating him. It worked. If there really were any photos, they have not surfaced.
Now both The New Yorker and The Atlantic have weighed in with lengthy pieces aimed at answering the question of what drives Amazon — and Bezos. The two articles, which run more than 13,000 and 11,000 words respectively, take very different approaches.
In The New Yorker, Charles Duhigg presents us with a classic business story, deep on details, both the good and the bad — some of which is very bad indeed, such as the company’s brutal work environment and its carnivorous relationship with companies that sell products on its site. Much of the ground Duhigg covers is familiar to those of us who’ve obsessed over Amazon. The most novel insight Duhigg offers is that Amazon, based as it is on a set of ideas (Bezos’ famous 14 Leadership Principles), can be likened to General Motors in its early decades — nimble and adaptable enough to enter and dominate industries entirely unrelated to its original mission of selling books.
Amazon Web Services, the server farm that powers organizations from Apple to the CIA, would be a paradigmatic example of that, but so would the rise of Amazon Prime as a media service that offers television, movies, music and, yes, one of the world’s great newspapers. By contrast, companies like Google and Facebook are similar to Ford in those early years, tied to search and social networking for the bulk of their revenues as firmly today as they were when they were founded. Amazon, like General Motors before it, is a “process company.” Google, Facebook and Ford are “product companies.”
All this is too mundane for Franklin Foer, who, writing in The Atlantic, offers a fanciful theory of Bezos. What really motivates Bezos — what pushes him to keep earning more and more money, far more than any person, or any 10,000 people, would ever need — is that he wants to go to outer space. Or, to put it more realistically (OK, not that much more realistically), he wants humanity to colonize space before we have made the earth entirely uninhabitable. Thus the founding of his rocket company, Blue Origin, which, Foer notes, Bezos has called his “most important work.” Foer adds, “With his wealth, and the megaphone that it permits him, Bezos is attempting to set the terms for the future of the species, so that his utopia can take root.”
Bezos does not like to talk to journalists. He rarely gives interviews — not to Brad Stone, the author of a 2013 book about Amazon called “The Everything Store.” Not to Duhigg. Not to Foer. Not even to The Washington Post, although he’s been quoted when he’s addressed the staff or participated in events such as a public conversation with the Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron.
And not to me. When I was researching my 2018 book on a new breed of wealthy newspaper owners, “The Return of the Moguls,” I spent months sending emails and snail-mails to Bezos and to various other people at the Post and at Amazon. The closest I got was a brief phone conversation with a top Amazon official who said he’d talk with Bezos about my request. No dice. A colleague even suggested that I fly to a place where Bezos was giving a speech and try to ambush him afterwards for a few quotes.
I decided not to. First, I had no confidence in my ability to stake out the right spot so that I could accost him as he was passing by. Second, I had even less confidence that he would stop and say anything — at least anything that wasn’t “correct and anodyne.” Other wealthy newspaper owners, including John Henry of The Boston Globe and Aaron Kushner, formerly of the Orange County Register, spoke with me at length. But Bezos proved as elusive with me as he does with everyone else.
So what’s next for Bezos and Amazon? At cultural moment when our love affair with all things tech is turning sour, the next few years could be unpleasant. Duhigg traces the history of antitrust law, explaining that, in recent decades, the government lost interest in breaking up monopolies unless they engaged in behavior that resulted in higher prices for consumers. Since Amazon’s stranglehold on the digital marketplace has resulted in lower prices, there was no reason to think there was a problem. Same with Google and Facebook, which, after all, are free.
Now, though, the antitrust worm is turning. Older ideas that monopolies are harmful to the economy regardless of their effect on prices are being embraced by everyone from antitrust regulators in President Trump’s Justice Department to Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has vowed to break up the tech monopolies. And, as we know, Trump has attacked Amazon repeatedly because of his fury over how the Post has covered him.
“We may be at a breaking point now,” writes Duhigg, who quotes the historian David Farber as telling him: “It’s like the 1880s or the 1930s all over again. The pressure is going to continue building, the powerful are going to continue being watched and criticized and gawked at, until something pops.”
What Bezos has always had going for him was his embrace of the long view, even unto the stars and beyond. “If you look at why Amazon is so different than almost any other company that started early on the internet, it’s because Jeff approached it from the very beginning with that long-term vision,” Brad Stone quotes Bezos’ friend Danny Hillis as saying in “The Everything Store.” “It was a multi-decade project. The notion that he can accomplish a huge amount with a larger time frame, if he is steady about it, is fundamentally his philosophy.”
Will Amazon keep getting bigger and bigger? Or are we at peak Amazon (and Google and Facebook), poised on the brink of a future that may look very different from what has come before? Bezos may still embrace the long view, but he’s 55 now, an age when most people in his position begin thinking about their legacy.
No doubt Bezos will continue to say correct and anodyne things. But as Duhigg and Foer make clear, he now faces a challenge unlike anything he’s had to deal with — the challenge of surviving the political and culture wars that have sprung up around him and, ultimately, becoming a good corporate citizen.
Bernie Sanders is an unlikely savior of journalism.
The iconoclastic senator has long had a prickly relationship with the press in his home state. According to Paul Heintz, a staff writer with the alt-weekly Seven Days, Sanders hasn’t granted a full-fledged interview in more than four years to the paper, which touts itself as the state’s largest. And Seven Days is not alone. “I would say that it’s highly unusual for an elected official in Vermont to not regularly speak to Vermont reporters,” Heintz said. “I think it’s problematic.”
Then, last month, Sanders claimed without evidence that The Washington Post covered him critically because of his attacks on Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Post. “The remark sounded an awful lot like the kind of criticism leveled by someone else,” said NPR’s Domenico Montanaro. That someone else: President Trump.
But apparently you don’t have to love the media to appreciate its vital role in a democracy. Because last week Sanders, an independent socialist who is once again seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, outlined a solid media-reform proposal in an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review.
“Real journalism requires significant resources,” he wrote. “One reason we do not have enough real journalism in America right now is because many outlets are being gutted by the same forces of greed that are pillaging our economy.”
Sanders devoted much of his piece to rehashing the financial crisis that has brought news organizations to their knees, especially at the local level. But he also offered some specific ideas that fall into three categories:
• Opposing media mergers such as the proposed combination of the GateHouse Media and Gannett newspaper chains as well as the CBS-Viacom deal. Media companies would be required to detail how many journalism jobs would be lost in such mergers. Employees would have an opportunity to buy their media companies. Unions would be strengthened. And ownership caps would be re-imposed on broadcast outlets for the first time since 1996 in the hopes of restoring localism and diversity.
• Swinging the antitrust club at Google and Facebook, which, as Sanders observed, now vacuum up some 60 percent of all digital advertising revenues. It’s not clear how any actions Sanders might take against the two internet giants would benefit journalism. He doesn’t help his cause by citing a flawed study claiming that, in 2018, “Google made $4.7 billion off reporting that Google did not pay for.” (Well, no, not really.) But there’s little question that both companies have benefited from free content provided by newspapers and other media outlets. At the very least, Sanders seems likely to support a temporary antitrust exemption that would allow the news business to negotiate some sort of revenue-sharing deal.
• Taxing targeted advertising — that is, ads served up based on the data that has been collected about you — and using it to fund “nonprofit civic-minded media.” This is an idea that has been promoted by the media-reform organization Free Press “to support local-news startups, sustain investigative projects, seed civic-engagement initiatives, and lift up diverse voices that have long been excluded from traditional media coverage.” Government funding of journalism is bound to be controversial, even though it already takes place to a limited degree with public radio and television. But there are ways to insulate such funding from political interference — though skepticism is certainly warranted.
But parts of Sanders’ plan are likely to resonate with the public — especially his targeting of Google and Facebook, which are increasingly unpopular for violating our privacy and harming democracy. Indeed, Sanders’ rival Elizabeth Warren beat Sanders to the punch by many months in proposing to break up Google, Facebook and Amazon.
One way that corporate media owners succeed in defending their turf is by controlling the terms of the debate. Thus you will hear that Sanders proposes to impose new regulations on an industry that, for the sake of the First Amendment, ought to be as unregulated as possible. But as the media scholar Robert McChesney has observed, the alternatives are not regulation or deregulation; rather, they come down to what kind of regulation we want — in the public interest, or in the corporate interest?
This is especially true in the case of broadcast media, which must be regulated because there are only a limited number of frequencies available. Sanders, to his credit, is not proposing the return of anti-free-speech policies such as the Fairness Doctrine and equal-time provisions. Rather, he seeks to ensure diversity of ownership while letting the content take care of itself.
Sanders may not like journalists very much, but he understands the importance of journalism. Far from being radical, his plan pulls together some strands that have been around for quite a while. Teddy Roosevelt would praise his stance against mergers and in favor of taking some sort of action against the monopolistic practices of Facebook and Google.
Whether Sanders becomes our next president or not, his proposals amount to a serious attempt to wrestle with the forces that have harmed journalism and have concentrated media power in the hands of a few. Voters and his fellow candidates should take notice.
If you care to read one more example of President Trump’s fundamentally corrupt way of looking at the world, I recommend Jon Lee Anderson’s profile of the former ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, which appears in the current New Yorker. Anderson begins with a shocking anecdote — or, rather, an anecdote that would be shocking if we had not long since gone numb. Feeley was sitting outside the Oval Office in June 2017, waiting for a meeting with Trump. He heard the president drop an F-bomb in the midst of a tirade, then was led in. Vice President Mike Pence and future chief of staff John Kelly were with the president. Anderson continues:
As he took a seat, Trump asked, “So tell me — what do we get from Panama? What’s in it for us?” Feeley presented a litany of benefits: help with counter-narcotics work and migration control, commercial efforts linked to the Panama Canal, a close relationship with the current President, Juan Carlos Varela. When he finished, Trump chuckled and said, “Who knew?” He then turned the conversation to the Trump International Hotel and Tower, in Panama City. “How about the hotel?” he said. “We still have the tallest building on the skyline down there?”
I offer this to illuminate a different story — one that was nearly overlooked last weekend amid an unusually weird and disturbing outburst of Trumpian mishegas. Last Friday, The Washington Post reported that Trump had been pressuring Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the postal rates paid by the retail giant Amazon to deliver its packages. According to the Post’s Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey, Brennan has pushed back repeatedly, even showing the president slides to demonstrate that the Postal Service’s arrangement with Amazon and several other companies is a plus for the money-losing agency.
But Trump would not be appeased, and the reason seems obvious: The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. And Trump — motivated, as always, by his personal need to assert dominance over anyone he perceives as an enemy — wants to punish the Post for its tough coverage of his campaign and his presidency. As an unnamed “Republican close to the White House” recently told Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair: “Trump doesn’t like The New York Times, but he reveres it because it’s his hometown paper. The Washington Post, he has zero respect for.” Sherman reported that the people around Trump have been plotting other actions against Bezos as well — such as canceling a contract for Amazon to supply cloud computing services to the Pentagon and mobilizing Republican state attorneys general to investigate Amazon’s business practices.
All of this is, needless to say, deeply transgressive. If a Democratic president acted like this, the Republican majority in Congress would be calling for hearings, and whispers of impeachment would be in the air. And if this were an isolated instance, it would be a major news story for many days, if not weeks. But because Trump lurches from one outrage to another, often over the span of a few hours, the latest eruption in his ongoing war against the Post has been all but drowned out.
Take, for instance, Trump’s latest obsession: demanding information on the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia. His improper interference in an investigation of himself (you could call it obstruction of justice, in the lay sense if not necessarily the legal sense) has already resulted in the outing a confidential informant, possibly at some risk to his life, and to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s twisting himself into a pretzel to avoid resigning and thus to keep special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation on track. “It’s an incredible historical moment,” Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School, told Charlie Savage of The New York Times. She added that Trump’s latest action was “the culmination of a lot of moments in which he has chipped away at prosecutorial independence, but this is a direct assault.”
Or consider a Washington Post column by Max Boot, a leading anti-Trump conservative, who attempted on Monday to document the political norms Trump had violated in just the previous week. It’s a breathtaking list, ranging from Trump’s lifting of sanctions against the Chinese cellphone firm ZTE right after China provided a $500 million loan for a Trump business venture in Indonesia to a Times report that the Trump campaign was offered help by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“Trump’s assault on democratic norms is all the more dangerous because the response is so tepid,” Boot wrote. “Republicans approve of, or pretend not to notice, his flagrant misconduct, while Democrats are inured to it. The sheer number of outrages makes it hard to give each one the attention it deserves.”
Perhaps the best way of looking at all of these incidents was expressed by Adam Serwer in The Atlantic. Rather than multiple Trump scandals, Serwer wrote, there is really just one mega-scandal: “the corruption of the American government by the president and his associates, who are using their official power for personal and financial gain rather than for the welfare of the American people, and their attempts to shield that corruption from political consequences, public scrutiny, or legal accountability.”
That strikes me as a good way of thinking about Trump’s assault on the media in general and The Washington Post in particular. He has no respect for the First Amendment or for the role of a free press in a democratic society. It’s all about his needs and wants, and nothing else matters.
Sexual harassment and The Boston Globe
In case you missed it, Emily Rooney, Adam Reilly, and I discussed on “Greater Boston” Tuesday an accusation that Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory sexually harassed Hilary Sargent, a former top editor at the Globe’s free Boston.com website. On Monday, Sargent tweeted out a copy of an inappropriate text she said McGrory had sent her. You can watch our discussion and read Emily’s synopsis by clicking here.