Much Ado about Nothing

Those breathless critics of Amazon doth protest too much...

Much Ado about Nothing

I was stumped for a column topic until the New York Times bailed me out this weekend by launching its latest salvo in its ongoing war against Amazon.

“Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” (subtitled: “The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions”) took up much of page one in the Sunday edition. That’s more page-one space than was given to the Times’ riveting exposés of Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Bernie Madoff, and Allen Stanford, which resulted in their arrests for multibillion-dollar frauds that destroyed thousands of lives.

Wait a second! There were no exposés about those crooks BEFORE their arrests. My bad. I guess you can’t be on top of everything going on right under your nose a few blocks away on Wall Street.

(For the record, when I worked at the Times, I told my editors that Boesky and Milken were crooks. It was during a story conference when they asked me to write glowing profiles about them. Needless to say, I was not the most popular guy at that meeting. After I left the Times, I blew the whistle on Stanford while the media was still singing his praises, thus basically promoting his Ponzi scheme.)

I mention this only to show that I can smell a rat faster than your average junkyard dog.

And the Amazon story — which accused management of running its operations like those factories in Thailand and China where little children are paid a few grains of rice to make $200 sneakers for would-be LeBrons — smelled to high heaven. 

Now, thriller writers are naturally paranoid. We see conspiracies in everything. I keep two grassy knolls in my garage for inspiration. So when the Times quoted some Amazon employees who complained that they were constantly harassed, overworked, and, it seems, universally left crying at their desks, I became suspicious.

For one thing, the article was co-authored by David Streitfeld, whose previous stories about Amazon during its fight with Hachette and other publishers were so tilted against the company that the paper’s own ombudsman criticized him for lack of balance.

(Interestingly, the other co-writer on the current Times story, Jodi Kantor, walked back many of the charges when she was interviewed on “CBS This Morning” on Monday. In that interview, she made it sound as if Amazon was a wonderful company that just has many of the flaws most American companies have. Is that news? Is it page-one material? What happened to ISIS? Where is Donald Trump when we need him?)

Reading any story in the New York Times that excoriates a corporate culture that stresses backbiting and political infighting is particularly amusing to those of us who have worked at the paper. During my long stint at the Gray Lady, I was surprised that some senior editors did not employ food tasters. (I myself took most of my meals in the company cafeteria, where I figured I could build up my immune system in case I was ever promoted to a position of authority, which, not surprisingly, I wasn’t.)

As for being overworked, I was one of those idiots who thought that if you did jobs other people were supposed to be doing, you’d get noticed by those in charge. Well, I did. They gave me even more to do. At one point I was writing the daily Stock Market Report, the Credit Column, the Market Place Column, and the odd feature story, and had an unprecedented four bylines in the same edition! The managing editor, the legendary Abe Rosenthal, went berserk, probably wondering where the hell the rest of his staff was. And I loved every minute!

Now, I understand that if someone at Amazon is working at a job they hate, or have come to hate, because their superiors demand too much of them, it’s different. If I had worked in a coal mine, I don’t think I’d have volunteered for extra shifts.

(By the way, is the answer for solving the looming Social Security shortfall really to extend the retirement age? That might not hurt someone sitting behind a desk, but all it gets a coal miner is a deeper shade of black lung. Sorry, I had to get that in.)

Is Amazon perfect? No, of course not. The Times said that the company does not offer paternity leave. Amazon claims that fact was cherry-picked to show the company in a bad light, and noted that 80 percent of American companies don’t offer such leave. That’s not a valid defense. Saying that you’re adhering to policies common to other American companies is ridiculous. American companies, in general, lag far behind the rest of the world in providing benefits to their workers.

And Amazon is thinking about delivering packages via drone. That may be the worst idea since the Bush Administration decided to avenge 9/11 by attacking a country, Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. Drones are a tragedy waiting to happen. They are already scaring the bejeebers out of airline pilots, invading our own sensitive military facilities, buzzing political leaders, and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

I don’t know the laws concerning the airspace over my home, but I don’t like the idea that it can be invaded by a remote-controlled drone dropping off a package or a pizza. I’ll go so far as to say that even if Amazon used drones to deliver only my books, and no one else’s, I’d be against it.

But Amazon is changing the way the publishing industry works, and certain people who have the Times’ ear don’t like it. Amazon is a disruptive force that allows anyone with a computer to publish a book and make money. Many of those books are terrible and, thus, not that different from the books published “traditionally.” But Amazon is driving down the price of books, and some “established” authors, used to a certain lifestyle, are worried.

Yet many other authors, even traditionally published authors, love Amazon, because their books, fiction and nonfiction, are finding audiences they otherwise never would have. Don’t forget, Amazon invented the e-book business. Many authors can put their out-of-print and backlist books on Amazon as e-books and make a pretty penny.

Amazon is good for reading. It is creating thousands of authors and millions of new readers. The number of indie bookstores in the United States has increased by 27 percent since 2009. You could probably make a good case that Amazon is the only entity preventing the extinction of serious reading as an activity in a culture where most people are glued to the Internet or their iPhones.

This is something that the Authors Guild, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, and Authors United do not seem to understand. In a recent letter to the Justice Department, they said that “Amazon has used its dominance in ways that we believe harm the interests of America’s readers, impoverish the book industry as a whole, damage the careers of (and generate fear among) many authors, and impede the free flow of ideas in our society.”

I get the fear part of that sentence. I’ve written all my adult life and have rarely been without fear of failure. But whose careers are damaged? Certainly not the tens of thousands of new authors who otherwise could not be published. Who decides what is good for “America’s readers”? And how does allowing people to write and publish “impede the free flow of ideas?”

Lawrence De Maria was part of a New York Times team nominated for a Pulitzer for its business reporting. His 14th e-book, a thriller featuring private investigator Jake Scarne, will be out shortly, assuming he is not hit by a drone.

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