Bad News

Amazon is a stand-in for a newspaper that annoys the president -- and other bad news.

April 11, 2018

It has been a while since the president declared the press “the enemy of the people,” but he hasn’t let up on hammering on journalism. (One exception: he appears to be an avid fan of Fox and Friends, transcribing bits of it onto Twitter. The show is more entertaining than the daily intelligence briefings White House officials try to provide -- orally, because the president prefers being told the gist to reading boring documents.) It seems likely that his real reason to attack Amazon and threaten antitrust action isn’t to break up a dangerously large vertically integrated corporation but because its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post. There are lots of tech giants that are near monopolies, but so far Trump hasn’t gone after Google, and his concern for competition against small businesses hasn’t led him to attack Walmart.

I’m not an Amazon fan. I don’t like the company’s vast ambition or the part it plays in surveillance capitalism. Like Google and Facebook, it has come to dominate global markets so thoroughly that direct competition is virtually impossible. Amazon has no compunction about demanding cities raid the public purse to compete for a new headquarters or punishing publishers that push back on contract terms by removing their "buy" buttons. Would you want to be one of their Mechanical Turks, earning pennies for piecework? Or work in one of their vast warehouses? I would love to have an antitrust investigation launched against it and other companies that use technology, venture capital, dizzying IPOs and bare-knuckled aggression to strip-mine entire industries.

But that would require a thoughtful approach by a Department of Justice that is operating on behalf of the public good, not acting on a presidential fit of pique. Trump’s continual attacks on the press are disturbing because they encourage authoritarian behavior abroad and diminish trust at home. Now the Department of Homeland Security has put out a bid to build a system to monitor news organizations, journalists and their social media profiles, tracking news-related “influencers,” treating journalists as a potential threat. What could go wrong?

It’s not as if we don’t have plenty of problems with our news environment without government interference. Too many news outlets are owned by strip-mining hedge-fund capitalists with zero interest in journalism. The Denver Post, still standing after the Rocky Mountain News folded, has staged a brave insurrection against its New York owners in the face of another newsroom bloodletting. The canned right-wing promos news staff were required to read at local news stations owned by Sinclair Media have brought attention to the fact that nearly 40 percent of Americans now get local news from stations owned by one company with an agenda. The conglomerate, which is trying to wriggle through FCC regulations to acquire Tribune Media stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, could soon reach over 70 percent of the country. Speaking to On the Media, Felix Gillette said Sinclair is more interested in squeezing every penny out of their stations than in politics, so it goes cheap on news gathering while blurring the line between news and infomercials.

Either way, it’s bad news.

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