By Jack Shafer
When journalists pressed William Henry Vanderbilt in 1882 about his plan to discontinue his railroad's popular but unprofitable mail run, the richest man in the world reportedly exclaimed, "The public be damned!" Whether Vanderbilt said "be damned" or not — he claimed to have been misquoted — business titans of the Gilded Age routinely assumed this default posture.
Extending the big buzz-off to the press and the public is a tradition that Jeff Bezos's Amazon.com Inc. has restored to the commonweal, as the New York Times slyly noted yesterday in its business section feature about the $25 billion man. As many journalists noted, the piece quotes James Marcus, former Amazon employee and current executive editor of Harper's magazine, talking about the company's sense of reserve. "Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,'" said Marcus. The next line of the Times story went completely meta, reading, "Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment."
It doesn't matter whether the topic is Amazon operations, the number of Kindles it has sold, the company's video plans, a new Kindle commercial that tweaks the iPad, Bezos's plans for his Blue Origin rocket or Bezos's recent salvage of the sunken Apollo 11 rocket engines: "no comment" is the default response by Bezos and the company. Today, when the entire Amazon site went down for about 45 minutes, some reporters couldn't even reach a company spokesman to gather an explanation for the outage.
The company's disdain for the press seems to know no limits. In 2011, for example, when the Allentown Morning Call reported that Amazon workers in Pennsylvania warehouse were being baked alive, the company offered only a mechanical response to the paper's questions. After consumers protested the working conditions but before next summer's heat hit, Amazon spent $52 million on air conditioners. But even then, company avoided the Morning Call's specific questions about the ameliorations.
Amazon and Bezos aren't alone in avoiding the press corps's questions. Unless the product cycle has produced a new gadget that needs selling, Apple habitually sneers at questions from non-captive reporters. Amazon probably keeps its lips tight because 1) it rarely has a new product to sell and 2) Bezos so dominates the company no rogue powers exist inside it to dare speak out of turn. Or perhaps Bezos and Amazon think they can remain mute and avoid criticism because the good-will bucket overflows with warm fuzzies of their happy customers.
"No comment," of course, is a comment, as the many guides to public relations explain. It makes the speaker look like he's hiding something embarrassing. It sounds like a guilty plea or like stalling. It makes the speaker sound like he's saying "it's none of your business." To a reporter's ear it sounds like, "Hey, you might be onto something there. Keep on digging and you might find a story."
As much as journalists would like to believe they're proxies for the public and the people's court all wrapped up in one, companies have every right to remain silent to their inquiries. Only the courts and the regulators can demand them to speak, and even then the lawyers act as mediators.
Ever since the courts had bestowed upon corporations the legal status of "person" in the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the public has had good reason to regard corporations as "soulless," as historian Roland Marchand put it in his 1998 book Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business. Considered cold and aloof by the public from the beginning, fixated on profits above all, the large corporations birthed by the industrial revolution did little to counter this image. "I owe the public nothing," said J.P. Morgan. "Silence is golden," John D. Rockefeller said to his questioning public, presaging Bezos's refusal to brindle his actions with explanation and qualification.
Some early corporations played offense, as Chris Roush reported in his history, Profits and Losses: Business Journalism and Its Role in Society. Hotels, railroads, and steamboat lines started using public relations firms in the 1880s to manage and sometimes "thwart" newspaper articles. As far as corporations were considered, the less the public knew about corporate operations the greater the profit, as one scholar wrote.
As the muckrakers of the 1890s and early 20th century exposed corporate perfidy, some firms employed public relations firms to temper the journalistic message. Over the 20th century, Marchand wrote, much of corporate America adapted to this kind of criticism by reshaping their identities through public relations gestures and advertisements. The outreach and ads were designed to make the corporations to appear neighborly (General Motors), a member of your family (Westinghouse), patriotic (Ford), or heralds of a brighter future (General Electric).
For the most part, Amazon has avoided such image fluffery, probably to its credit. But that leaves it more vulnerable to critics who would brand it a sweatshop operator. Some wealthy corporations and tycoons committed massive acts of philanthropy (Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, et al.) in part to transmute their namesakes into beneficent overlords. This almost always works. Does anybody who matters have a mean word to say about Bill Gates now that he's giving his Microsoft billions away? So far, Bezos has been a philanthropic low-baller, giving little to charity while building a 10,000-year clock for his own amusement. Meanwhile, he has expressed the view that for-profit systems are a better way to solve social problems than philanthropy. While I think he's right, this libertarian position is still a very hard sell with the public.
Depending on your personal temperament, a Bezos-style snub angers you less than the image-massages so many company's engage in. After all, when a company spokesman snubs you, at least he isn't giving you the runaround. Idealists will find equal outrage in both tactics, and wonder why corporations just won't speak straight. (The answer, of course, is their lawyers often won't let them because the truth can be incriminating.) As long as we're at it, let's rebuke the corporate press for shunting questions about its conduct and content to its own neutered mouthpieces. Bezos can honestly say his company does the same thing the New York Times and scores of lesser newspapers do regularly.
Bezos's recent purchase of the Washington Post will make him both the person who declines inconvenient questions from the press and the commander in chief of an army of inconvenient question-askers. Cracking this paradox will be one of Bezos's first tasks as owner of the Post. I hope he doesn't decide the 1-click solution is "silence is golden."
(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)