Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Future Of Journalism

As most readers of this blog will know by now, one of America’s and the world’s most famous daily newspapers The Washington Post has been bought by Jeff Bezos, the founder and billionaire CEO of Amazon, the world’s foremost online retailer.

Internet billionaire, Jeff Bezos - new owner of The Washington Post

Internet billionaire, Jeff Bezos – new owner of The Washington Post

While the price Bezos paid, a paltry $250 million, is being seen by industry watchers as an indication of the decline of print journalism the sale of the Post to one of America’s richest businessmen is just the latest sign of a more important trend in American media – the growing plutocrat takeover of the business by individuals with controversial political and economic agendas and close ties to the political and bureaucratic power structure.

Rupert Murdoch already controls The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post and the Fox Network; last week The Boston Globe was sold by the ailing New York Times to John Henry, the billionaire owner of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC; outgoing New York mayor and Wall Street billionaire Michael Bloomberg is rumoured to be preparing a bid for the Times while the ultra-right wing Koch brothers are said to be getting ready to buy The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.

The irony of an internet mogul coming to the rescue of a newspaper whose ills, like the rest of the industry, were largely caused by the internet has not been lost on anyone with concerns for the future of journalism. But predictably voices have been raised expressing the view that entrepreneurs with the skills of Bezos are just what print journalism needs. If a man who revolutionised the selling of books and made a fortune in the process can do the same for newspapers then who could complain?

In which case it is well worth having a close look at just exactly how Bezos made Amazon the behemoth it now is and wonder what print journalism will look like in ten or twenty years in the hands of such men.

In April last year The Columbia Journalism Review published this riveting account of a series of articles The Seattle Times had published examining Amazon behind the scenes. Seattle, of course, is home base for Bezos’ retailing giant. Here is the piece below and it is well worth reading. And scary. Is this what journalism will soon look like?

(The CJR and Seattle Times’ articles fail to mention Bezos and Amazon’s’ intriguing links to the US surveillance state. Amazon took Wikileaks down from the internet when the first Bradley Manning leaks appeared, has just signed a $600 million contract with the CIA and is an integral and apparently uncomplaining partner with the NSA in its efforts to surveil the world’s communications networks. What price the Bezos’ Washington Post would ever repeat its Watergate coverage or publish the Pentagon Papers?)

The Seattle Times Takes On Hometown Amazon

A tough series on the dark side of the booming local company

By Ryan Chittum

Here in Seattle, Amazon is growing like crazy, adding thousands of jobs and building several skyscrapers just off downtown, something that will add hundreds of construction jobs. But at what cost?

That’s what The Seattle Times asks in a tough, excellent four-part series that riffs off the company’s logo to go “Behind the smile in Seattle.”

I’m particularly interested in this series because I live here and because I’ve been critical of Amazon, a company I’ve given lots of business since 1999, when, like a true Gen X college kid, I bought a copy of The Baffler, a Nirvana book, and some Pavement Maxi singles, according to my order history on the site.

But the company’s anti-sales tax policies, which have included threatening to move if a state requires them to collect them like their competitors do, and the reporting we’ve seen in the last year on working conditions in its warehouses raise serious questions about how Amazon does business (and have caused me, for one, to buy elsewhere when possible).

With this series the Times has given us the most complete portrait yet of a corporate culture that leads to exploitative warehouse working conditions, monopolistic behavior, and an anti-tax battle to deprive states of revenue and maintain an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

Some of these behaviors are in the DNA of the company, embedded from the start by founder Jeff Bezos and his libertarian bent. Taxes particularly are a critical part of the Amazon origin story.

Bezos started Amazon in the Seattle area, the Times reminds us in its piece on the company’s anti-tax campaign, for tax purposes. The Supreme Court had just issued its ill-timed (right as the Web era was beginning) nexus ruling that said states couldn’t force companies to collect sales taxes if they didn’t have a physical presence there, and Bezos saw that this gave online retailers an unfair price advantage of up to 10 percent. He thought about locating on an Indian reservation, but that was “impractical,” in the Times words, so he went to Washington state, which had relatively few people, especially back then, which meant that fewer of his potential customers would have to be charged sales tax.

That was all well and good back then. But as the company has expanded and Internet retail has matured into a giant industry, it has continued to fight states that have tried to get it to collect taxes. And it plays hardball:

Code-naming their effort “Project ASAP,” South Carolina officials offered up more than $33 million in incentives, including free land, a property-tax cut and payroll-tax credits. They even agreed to loosen the area’s Bible Belt moral code, repealing a decades-old Lexington County “blue law” so Amazon’s warehouse could stay open Sunday mornings.

As they discovered, that wasn’t enough.

Amazon also insisted on an exemption from collecting the state’s 6 percent sales tax on purchases by South Carolinians. When the state Legislature balked, voting down the sales-tax break last spring, Amazon stopped construction on its million-square-foot warehouse and prepared to leave, throwing thousands of jobs into jeopardy

South Carolina caved, naturally.

Another of the four Times pieces looks at Amazon’s absence from the civic/philanthropic scene in Seattle. Unlike Boeing and Microsoft, the $85 billion giant doesn’t really give money to philanthropies, and it doesn’t encourage its workers to volunteer.

I have to admit, at first I thought this was a bit much. It’s not necessarily wrong for a company, particularly one with low margins, to not give money to charity. But after reading the entire series I changed my mind on the merits of the story: This is an essential piece of the puzzle The Seattle Times puts together.

Amazon isn’t an evil corporate citizen. It just doesn’t much believe in the concept of corporate citizenship. That’s its right, and it’s almost refreshing to see a sort of pure American capitalism devoid of gauzy marketing efforts to obscure that fact—however dependent it is on direct and indirect government subsidies.

Amazon’s gift to society, it says, is to run its business, which consists of “lowering prices, expanding selection, driving convenience, driving frustration-free packaging, creating Kindle, innovating in web services.” Some people would argue that that’s indeed the case, but you always have to question when someone claims their own self-interest is in the public interest.

And you can see how that ethos leads to the darker practices of the company. Dominant market positions are meant to be leveraged to get ever-more-dominant market positions, at the expense of suppliers and competitors. Governments are meant to be rolled on tax subsidies and tax avoidance. Workers are meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced with robots as soon as possible.

So as the Times asks what kind of $85 billion company doesn’t give money to parks and the United Way, the answer is: The kind of company that fights to avoid paying sales taxes for schools and firefighters. The kind of company that puts ambulances outside its warehouses to ferry the inevitable overworked heat victims to the hospital and then argues with the doctors about how they treat their patients so as to avoid triggering an OSHA report.

This anecdote is revealing about Amazon’s corporate culture, and it comes from an on-the-record executive:

Several current and former Amazon employees said they have wanted to change the company culture to encourage more giving. But colleagues told them not to bother — they’d be better off figuring out how to do good on their own.

“I kind of tested the waters by asking around and I got a sense it’s not worth pursuing,” Kintan Brahmbhatt, head of products for Amazon’s IMDb Everywhere initiative, recalled last year…

He asked about arranging to have charitable donations automatically deducted from his paychecks. But he learned that employees who do paycheck donations are charged a 6 percent fee from a company that processes them for Amazon.

While Amazon doesn’t donate much time or money to its community, it also isn’t involved much in the kind of local corporate pooh-bah stuff like the Chamber of Commerce or Washington Roundtable. Unsurprisingly, though, Bezos personally gave $100,000 to defeat a proposal to levy a state income tax on the rich. Washington state has by far the most regressive tax system in the country, taxing poor people seven times as much as we tax the rich, as a proportion of income.

If you’re in the poorest 20 percent of Washingtonians, you pay an average 17.3 percent of your income in state and local taxes. If you’re in the top 1 percent, like Bezos or Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer or Howard Schultz and on and on, you pay 2.6 percent (and that surely overstates how much those super-rich folks actually pay). Lucky duckies, indeed. The state income tax Bezos helped defeat would have meant the richest 1 percent would have paid a little less than half the tax rate of the poorest 20 percent, up from one-seventh.

TaxAmazon

There is one big local donation the Times reports: The company pledged a couple million dollars to the University of Washington for endowed professorships in “machine learning.” That ought to help get its robots going, at least. Bezos is also dropping $42 million on a clock in a mountain in West Texas that will supposedly work for 10,000 years. I’m not kidding.

The Morning Call’s excellent expose on working conditions in an Amazon warehouse near Allentown, Pennsylvania, showed how the company’s low-paid workers face bodily injury and the constant threat of termination. The Times follows up with a terrific report from Campbellsville, Kentucky that shows the Pennsylvania warehouse was no rogue unit:

A former warehouse safety official said in-house medical staff were asked to treat wounds, when possible, with bandages rather than refer workers to a doctor for stitches that could trigger federal reports. And warehouse officials tried to advise doctors on how to treat injured workers.

“We had doctors who refused to work with us because they would have managers call and argue with them,” he said.

These things come from the top, often from disconnected corporate managers getting pressured by their bosses who don’t see or don’t care how their orders play out on the ground, where human workers ultimately have to try to carry them out. The Times gets at that too:

“There would be phone conferences [with Seattle], and all this screaming, about production numbers. That was always the problem; the production numbers weren’t high enough,” said a former safety manager with oversight of the warehouse who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This was just a brutal place to work.”

And it uncovers a whistleblower, who unfortunately wouldn’t let his or her name be used, who was fired a week after questioning brutal working conditions in the Kentucky warehouse.

To make matters worse, Amazon is one of these places where people who have no other options go to make twelve bucks an hour and have to endure morning “pep talks” and creepy giant corporate slogans on the walls that say “work hard. have fun. make history.” Thanks for the history, bub. But a bump up to 500 bucks a week would surely motivate employees better.

Rounding out the paper’s portrait of Amazon, it looks at how it flexes its muscle in the book publishing market, where it accounts for an estimated 75 percent of print book sales online and 60 percent of e-book sales.

After the series appeared, Seattle Times Editor David Boardman wrote that readers swamped the paper’s website with negative comments. In less anonymous communications, unsurprisingly, like emails and phone calls, he says comments were much more positive.

Well here’s another one. Far too often, newspapers are homers for their big local employers. While it certainly didn’t hurt that Amazon isn’t a major advertiser, it still takes nerve to put out a tough investigation like this on a fast-growing local giant in a dire economy, and to deploy significant resources on it when there aren’t any to spare.

It’s also something that could actually make a difference. It’s one thing to get dinged in The Wall Street Journal, say. That hurts you in the markets, which are awfully important, but fairly abstract.

It’s quite another when it’s the local paper your friends and neighbors read.

Boston College: The Truth Behind The Lost Contracts

Burns Library, Boston College - home of the Belfast Project archive

Burns Library, Boston College – home of the Belfast Project archive

Around the beginning of July this year, myself and Anthony McIntyre began getting increasingly edgy messages from Boston College (BC) alleging that a crisis in the over two-year long subpoena saga was developing which needed urgent and radical action. Only ourselves, we were told, could provide the way out.

What followed was another depressing chapter in the story of Boston College’s seemingly boundless yearning to give up its precious research participants to the US government, the IRA activists who agreed to give the college valuable interviews between 2001 and 2006 about their lives during the Troubles.

The message was clear that that unless we identified three interviewees whose contracts with BC had been lost by the college then the Department of Justice, on behalf of the PSNI, would get a bonanza. BC issued warnings that a court decision this May which severely restricted the number of interviews that were eligible for handover could be reversed by the US government. That outcome, the message suggested, could be a disaster for the Belfast Project. Unless we named the three anonymous interviewees.

What had happened was this. At the very start of the legal challenge to the PSNI/DoJ subpoenas in 2011, a lower court ruled that every single interview given by anyone who mentioned Jean McConville had to be given to the PSNI. Most of the interviewees had provided a number of interviews, such that there were several transcripts related to each interviewee.

The lower court’s ruling created the following ludicrous situation: let’s say interviewee A gave fifteen interviews and had talked about McConville in only one. Even if that mention was just for the equivalent of say a couple of paragraphs, all fifteen interviews would nonetheless end up with the PSNI. Although fourteen of A’s interviews had nothing to do with the disappearance of Jean McConville, they would all be handed over.

Without going into all the detail suffice it to say that in May a higher court known as the First Circuit reversed that decision and very sensibly said that only those interviews which actually mentioned Jean McConville were eligible for handover. So for that hypothetical interviewee A, only one of his or her fifteen interviews could be sent to Belfast.

This was an important change especially for the interviewees because otherwise they possibly could face charges for a multitude of offences that had nothing to do with the McConville case. Doubtless the most disappointed party after the decision was made public was the PSNI.

But this is when BC began to undermine its own project, in the course of which it exploited the potential vulnerability of the interviewees to criminal charges beyond the McConville case in efforts which would have discredited myself and Anthony McIntyre.

The interviewees could only be identified by an alphanumerical code attached to all the transcripts and tapes sent to Boston by the two researchers, Anthony McIntyre and Wilson McArthur. But each interviewee also signed a contract which consigned their interviews to BC on condition that they would only be published after their death. The process included a guarantee of confidentiality and the contract was proof of BC’s ownership.

The agreement between myself and BC was to use a coding system to maintain the anonymity of the interviewees, and that only myself and the Burns Librarian would have access to this code. The only way by which this code could be created was by reference to the donation agreements, which the Burns Librarian – not Ed Moloney – was obliged to collect in Belfast and transport to Boston.

Needless to say, the donation contracts were the most sensitive documents handled by anyone involved in the project. Without them, the interviewees could be not identified, and so they were handled with great care. Written into the arrangements that governed the project was the instruction that these contracts could only be carried to Boston by hand. They could not be sent by mail or via the internet because the risk of interception was too great.

As it happened the man in charge of the project, BC librarian Bob O’Neill was a regular visitor to Ireland and he would arrange to meet the two researchers from time to time to pick up the contracts which he would then take to Boston.

Alas, it seems that O’Neill lost, mislaid or otherwise never collected a number of these contracts. Even though the project ended in 2006 BC claims to have failed to notice this crucial gap in his paperwork until two years or so ago. The extent of the problem was not admitted by BC until the recent court decision when the college had to come clean. That is when we started getting those anxious messages.

Seven interviewees aside from Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price had mentioned Jean McConville in their sessions but the contracts for three of them, identified only as “S”, “Y” and “Z”, had been lost, we believe by O’Neill since both McIntyre and McArthur had compelling reasons to ensure the contracts ended up in his hands.

The message to us from BC was that the the DoJ had made an official request for the names of the three interviewees, absent which it could not identify them. If we failed to cooperate, we were told, the DOJ would request that the First Circuit Court of Appeal in Boston reconsider its decision and issue the whole transcripts, if not the entire archive, so that the DOJ could identify those interviewees whom the First Circuit found had knowledge of the McConville case.

Bear in mind that the DOJ had never asked for the code in its subpoenas, but BC’s alarmism suggested the DOJ would be granted what they never subpoenaed. If the DOJ got their way, then all of the hypothetical participant A’s fifteen interviews would go to the PSNI and the US government would justify this on the grounds that full access was the only way to identify “S”, “Y” and “Z”.

The clear implication of the messages from Boston College was that we, and specifically myself, would be responsible for the collapse of the entire project if the May decision was reversed. As one message from BC put it, referring to myself: “Does your client want this [opening up of entire interviews] to be his legacy?” (What? As opposed to giving up names to the PSNI?)

And so we waited with baited breath for the DoJ’s submission to the First Circuit in expectation that the government, in a fit of pique, would ask the First Circuit court to reverse its decision in the case of “S”, “Y” and “Z”. But we waited in vain.

Last Friday the government’s filing was made public and there was not a mention of this threat at all. Not one. Not even a hint of a threat. Instead the DoJ simply asked the court to not to change the result regarding the release of transcripts, but rather to reaffirm in principle the executive branch’s supremacy in relation to the exercise of treaties governing subpoenas delivered on behalf of foreign governments. However, the DOJ wholly declined to challenge the First Circuit’s earlier decision which still stands.

So, what is the explanation for Boston College’s groundless threats against myself and by implication Anthony McIntyre? The most charitable is that the college and its attorney completely misread the US government’s intentions. They cocked it up, in other words.

The least charitable is that the college knew full well that the DoJ had no intention to challenge the First Circuit’s restriction on the interviews but that, with some well-directed bullying and strong-arming, the result might be that we could be maneuvered into betraying our sources to the PSNI, an act that would completely discredit us in Ireland and end our campaign. If this was the case it is testament to how underhand BC’s tactics had become, and how little understood our motives in waging this battle.

I know which of these theories I believe and I believe it because there is another motive at work here, one that has been apparent almost from the outset of this legal case. That has been BC’s eagerness to put the US government’s law enforcement interests ahead of those of its research subjects; ensuring that it was seen to provide aid to law enforcement in its (bogus) murder investigation always seemed more important to BC than protecting the people who agreed to share important and sensitive historical information with the institution.

And herein lies a very important message. Boston College should be shunned as an institution for academic research until it proves that it will fight with integrity and determination to protect the confidentiality and interests of its research subjects. Until then BC simply cannot be trusted. It is not a safe place to conduct research.