Column: Bezos' silence, lobbyists and Egypt, and the inner workings of State-owned TV

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 27, 2013 8:00 AM

By Steven Brill

1. Wash Post reporters: Get a Bezos comment

These sentences in last week's Times profile of Amazon's Jeff Bezos beg for a follow-up from the house the Grahams built:

"Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,'" Mr. Marcus said. Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.

Over the years, in reading stories about Amazon I've noticed the same pattern of Amazon simply refusing to comment no matter what the story was about. And, although Amazon's website lists a phone number for a public relations office, it lists no names of anyone specific to call, nor do its press releases list names for reporters to call for follow-up. Amazon's resolute refusal to answer press questions and the paradox of Bezos now owning a business whose employees are paid to ask them is captured nicely in this column by Jack Shafer.

The first time Bezos shows up in the Washington Post building I hope a reporter will ask him about this and about how reporters at places like the Post are supposed to present complete, fair stories if a company as influential as Amazon is — in areas ranging from books, to employment conditions, to the retail economy, to sales taxes, to international trade, to antitrust law — won't answer any questions. Let's hope we get more than a "No comment."

2. Unlikely lobbyists for Egyptian aid?

This smart New York Times report last week by Eric Schmitt points out that although the $1.3 billion in annual military aid the United States gives Egypt pales against the amounts offered to Egypt's military rulers by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries, the U.S. maintains outsized leverage because its aid includes authorizing American arms makers to supply their hardware and software to Egypt. According to Schmitt, Egyptian military chieftains are "enamored of Apache attack helicopters, M1A1 battle tanks and F-16 fighter jets."

If I had a Capitol Hill beat I'd be wondering what the American arms giants that make these products might be doing to help keep the supply line open to the Egyptian coup regime, despite their recent human rights abuses.

How are the ubiquitous lobbying squadrons representing the companies that make the Apache (Boeing, although GE makes the engines), the M1A1 tank (General Dynamics), and the F-16 bomber (Lockheed Martin) working the issue? And are they aligning with those who represent other interests — such as Israel, which seems to prefer the military regime to the democratically-elected Islamists they replaced?

3. Inside State-owned TV:

Lately, a cable news channel called RT has been increasingly appearing on various cable and satellite systems' channel lineups. Its profile has also been raised by the hiring of CNN veteran Larry King to do an interview show.

Last weekend, RT was still more in the news when the New York Times reported that during a live guest appearance on RT, American journalist Jamie Kirchick had "surprised producers in Moscow on Wednesday by raising the subject of Russia's anti-gay legislation and denouncing the network's employees as propagandists for President Vladimir V. Putin." That report then propelled Kirchick onto various American cable news shows.

The Times mostly wondered how the producers at RT — which is financed by the Kremlin and whose website describes it as providing "an alternative perspective on major global events" — could have been surprised by Kirchick's outburst, because he is an outspoken conservative as well as an ardent gay rights proponent.

But beyond wondering in which gulag the producers who failed to research Kirchick now reside, for me the Kirchick-RT episode — as well as the launch last week of Qatari-owned Al Jazeera America — suggests a more intriguing story: How do these government-owned media outlets actually pull off controlling their message in an age in which so much of what they do is live and sent through channels ranging from multiple websites, to YouTube, to multiple cable and satellite broadcasts? Controlling the message, assuming they seek to do so, has to be a lot of work.

Al Jazeera America, of course, protests that its reporting will not be influenced by its Gulf State owners. A definitive story about the background and operating methods of its American chief executive officer Ehab Al Shihabi, which I have not seen anywhere, would shed light on that. Where has he worked in the past? What are his political affiliations? To whom does he report? What independent authority does he have? How is he compensated? What ties do he or his family have to the government? In what ways does he interact with his leading editors? How are they compensated? Do the owners have to approve any bonuses they get?

Equally important would be stories detailing the channel's internal reporting guidelines and its internal editorial meetings. Better yet, I hope one or more of its new hires is keeping a journal of everything going on behind the scenes. For inspiration he or she should check out this article in the Atlantic Wire by a young reporter recounting his year of doing "journalism" at the state-owned China Daily.

Of course, if Al Jazeera really is playing it straight, that would be a better story, as would a diary in which, for example, a journalist is told to go hard after a story the Qataris will hate.

I'm assuming that RT's thumb-on-the scale practices are less subtle than whatever we might find out about Al Jazeera America. But given its growing presence, I'd love to see an inside story about how RT operates. I assume Larry King and his harmless interviews are left alone. But what about making sure that the hard news is given "an alternative perspective?" For those of us who think straight news is as important as safe food, that kind of inside report might be like reading Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

(Steven Brill is a Reuters columnist. The opinions are his own)