Monday, October 06, 2014

Is the NYT Coverage of Amazon vs. Hachette Really Propaganda?

By now you've seen the NYT Public Editor's piece criticizing her own newspaper's coverage of the Amazon/Hachette situation.

Note to David Streitfeld: see what Margaret Sullivan did? Being a competent reporter, she researched the situation and presented both sides of the story. That means quotes from authors representing both sides, and quotes from the very source (you) she was critical of.

She's an excellent, smart, fair journalist, Mr. Streitfeld. Put your hat in your hand and go thank her. After you have, ask her for some pointers.

As well done as the piece was, Ms. Sullivan did write something that I didn't agree with.

"A pro-Amazon author (Barry Eisler) charges that the paper is spewing propaganda...“propaganda” is a stretch..."

Is it really a stretch? Let's dig a little deeper.

According to Wikipedia:

Propaganda is information that is not impartial and used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or using loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented.

Hyperlinked in that definition is "impartial" which leads to a wiki about journalistic objectivity:

Journalistic objectivity can refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities.

Also linked is "lying by omission":

Also known as a continuing misrepresentation, a lie by omission occurs when an important fact is left out in order to foster a misconception. Lying by omission includes failures to correct pre-existing misconceptions.

And "loaded messages":

In rhetoric, loaded language (also known as loaded terms or emotive language) is wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes.

Mr. Streitfeld says his stories have been driven by one value: "newsworthiness". Back to Wikipedia:

Newsworthiness does not only depend on the topic, but also the presentation of the topic and the selection of information from that topic.

Is Streitfeld presenting his topics well? What information is he selecting about the topic? Does it err to the side of journalistic objectivity?

Let's go back to May when the Amazon/Hachette story broke and Streitfeld wrote this piece. Looking at the definitions above, do these quotes from Streitfeld's piece qualify as propaganda?

Streitfeld: Among Amazon’s tactics against Hachette, some of which it has been employing for months, are charging more for its books and suggesting that readers might enjoy instead a book from another author.

Joe sez: Amazon "charging more for its books" actually means Amazon is charging Hachette's suggested retail price. Amazon suggesting that readers might enjoy a book from another author "instead" is unproven. Amazon advertises other authors' books on every book page. This isn't unique to Hachette. Amazon also offers used books for considerably less than the price of the new version, on the very same page. (buy Whiskey Sour for only $0.01!) But where has Amazon said "Buy this instead of this"?The word "instead" is loaded.

Streitfeld: The scorched-earth tactics arose

Joe sez: Scorched-earth? Misrepresentation, and loaded.

Streitfeld: “Outliers” was selling Friday for $15.29, a mere 10 percent discount. On Barnes & Noble, the book was $12.74.

Joe sez: See how the word "mere" is not impartial? No mention that many indie bookstores don't discount at all.

Streitfeld: Amazon raised the price of her book by $8. Then it ran a banner recommending other less expensive diet books.

Joe sez: Instead, how about: "Amazon raised her price to the one her publisher printed on the jacket." But that's not nearly as newsworthy, is it? And pay no attention to the banners recommending other things to buy on every single other product page on Amazon.

Streitfeld: “If you’re a monopolist, you get to be a bully,” said Richard Russo, the Pulitzer-winning novelist and Authors Guild vice president. “

“Like all repressive regimes, Amazon wants to completely control your access to books,” Sherman Alexie said in a Twitter post.

“Given AMZN’s near-monopoly position I think it’s an antitrust violation, but the U.S. antitrust regulators are broken,” Charlie Stross said, also on Twitter.

Joe sez: Yes, Streitfeld is quoting Twitter and not using this rhetoric himself. But where are the Twitter posts from the opposing viewpoint?

I can imagine Streitfeld replying: I didn't write the propaganda posters! I just hung them up where they could be read by millions of people!

Sure, Mr. Streitfeld. Way to be objective. Your piece is loaded with the hot-button words and statements like "monopolist, bully, antitrust, violation, repressive regime, and completely control your access to book", all in reference to Amazon.

Where are the critical quotes about Hachette? Where is the balance?

Let's move on to his next article.

Streitfeld: For months now, Amazon has been trying to put the screws on Hachette, the smallest of the Big Five publishers, by discouraging people from buying its printed books. Amazon’s goal: force Hachette to give it better terms on e-books.

Joe sez: That's the opening sentence. Amazon is putting the screws to the smallest of the big five. Amazon's goal is to force Hachette.

Or, in fairer words, Amazon is negotiating with a company worth ten billion dollars... a company trying to control Amazon's ability to discount ebooks.

See how the truth makes it sound a lot different than Streitfeld made it sound?

Streitfeld: If the 4,000 tweets on my two stories on the topic late last week are anything to go by, Amazon might need to worry more.

Joe sez: How many of those tweets were calling your story biased nonsense?

Maybe he needs to Google "no one I knew voted for Nixon."

Streitfeld has five quotes supporting Hachette. And 13 words from Hugh Howey, offering an opposing viewpoint.

Streitfeld: Independent bookstores broke with tradition in 2012 and decided not to sell books published by Amazon. That was their choice. And if customers chose as a result not to shop there, that was their choice. It’s a free country.

But Amazon is not saying it is dropping all Hachette books.

Joe sez: WTF?

So other bookstores can decide they don't want to sell certain titles, and that's free choice. But Amazon, which is still selling Hachette titles, is behaving worse? How can this be?

Streitfeld: Amazon wants to have it both ways, telling customers it has the book while discouraging them from buying it. This is why some Internet commentators are saying the real issue here is deception as defined by the FTC – “a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.”

That sounds like bait and switch, something the Federal Trade Commission frowns on as deceptive.

Joe sez: So Streitfeld is suggesting Amazon is using "bait and switch" fraud.

Did Streitfeld look up the definition of bait and switch?

However, no cause of action will exist if the purveyor is capable of actually selling the goods advertised, but aggressively pushes a competing product.

Amazon is still selling Hachette titles. Ergo this cannot be bait and switch.

And let's not even bring up that if a customer found Amazon's shipping times unacceptable, it would take ten seconds and three clicks to buy that same book from another website.

Moving along to the next Streitfeld article.

Streitfeld: “I am a big fan of Amazon and spend as much as $5,000 per year there (not just books),” Ms. Cowie, a Connecticut investor and landlord, wrote me. “But this treatment of Hachette is completely unacceptable. I called Amazon today to let them know that I will boycott them until this Hachette dispute is resolved.”

Joe sez: This entire article is about a landlord boycotting Amazon. Seven hundred words devoted to this single topic, with no mention that Amazon's approval rating has never been higher.

And this qualifies as newsworthiness? This isn't propaganda?

Onto the next one.

Streitfeld: Hachette is holding fast to the traditional publishing system that underpins modern culture.

Joe sez: Who wants Amazon to destroy modern culture? No one, so we must side with Hachette... even though there is no proof Amazon is destroying modern culture.

How things are worded matters so much, doesn't it?

Streitfeld: Authors published by the traditional houses, including Hachette, argue that their livelihood is at stake, and that the world where Amazon is the only gatekeeper would be a deeply problematic one. There have been vows of boycotts.

Joe sez: The first sentence is an appeal to pity fallacy. Their livelihood is at stake! Somebody help them!

The second sentence is just plain shitty journalism. Vows of boycotts? You mean that landlord you wrote about? She's representative of an entire "boycott Amazon" movement? Proof?

I've heard "rumors of bigfoot." Maybe I should mention that in a NYT article and give it some real credibility.

But then Streitfeld immediately lets the other side have some column inches as well, right?

Streitfeld: But Amazon is content to play the long game, as usual, and seems confident that Hachette authors will ultimately grow restive and blame the publisher.

Joe sez: So rather than quote some Amazon supporters, and mention how many author livelihoods Amazon has fostered, Streitfeld avoids the opposing viewpoint altogether.

Streitfeld: When Amazon felt threatened then by publishers demanding a different pricing system for e-books, it had two responses: It removed the “buy” buttons from one publisher, and sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission with accusations of illegal behavior. The buttons were soon restored, but the publishers were hit by a government antitrust suit whose consequences are still being felt.

Joe sez: Sneezing Jesus with an asthma attack! Amazon "felt threatened"? You mean when five publishers illegally colluded to fix prices and force Amazon to accept the agency model? Why would Amazon feel threatened by that?

And where is the mention that Hachette lost the antitrust suit? You know, the one where Hachette was found guilty of collusion and price fixing?

Streitfeld: “I’m shocked that Amazon would do anything to fuel the speculation that once they grow big enough, authors will suffer,” wrote Hugh Howey, an author who is usually a champion of Amazon’s way of doing things.

Joe sez: Way to cherry pick, David.

Howey, like many blogging activists, is pro-author. Saying he is "usually a champion of Amazon's way of doing things" is a cute and sleazy way of calling Howey a sycophant who finally got upset with his lord and master because they did something so heinous.

Of course, anyone who read the Howey piece that Streitfeld quoted would know that isn't the case. But Streitfeld didn't link to that post. He made it seem like Howey gave him that quote directly.

Is that what good reporters do?

Moving on.

Streitfeld: So when Amazon took the rare step of explaining why it decided to hold 5,000 Hachette books hostage

Joe sez: Hostage, huh? Can Wikipedia help?

(A hostage is) someone who is seized by a criminal abductor in order to compel another party such as a relative, employer, law enforcement, or government to act, or refrain from acting, in a particular way, often under threat of serious physical harm to the hostage(s) after expiration of an ultimatum.

Such a serious, hot-button, polarizing word. I had no idea Amazon had a ticking clock ultimatum, or that Amazon was forcing Hachette authors to sell their titles on its website. I thought Amazon was using leverage during a contract negotiation--a negotiation that both parties are willingly entering into--by flexing its retail power.

But to Streitfeld, it is an actual hostage situation. Can't Hachette compel the government to send in a SEAL team to rescue all those poor hostages?

Streitfeld: “The use of its market position to purposely delay delivery of books from selected publishers in order to pressure them to accept their demands for conditions is not only a threatening sign for the book industry, but a clear affront to those who read and buy books,” wrote a group of some 880 independent booksellers and publishers, members of a loose organization that calls itself the Booksellersmeeting in protest against Amazon’s action.

Joe sez: Wait... indie bookstores are criticizing Amazon? And publishers don't like the fact that Amazon is a fierce negotiator? Amazon, who built the world's largest bookstore and invented the ereading device that the majority of readers are using?

My only question is: why wasn't this front page headline news?

Next on the Streitfeld Report: 880 bananas sign a petition accusing monkeys of "trying to eat them". Hold the presses.

And more.

Streitfeld: Amazon has been heavily criticized for using writers as pawns, although it also has its defenders.

Joe sez: And that's the only line about Amazon's defenders in this entire post. The rest of it presents a case against Amazon with no opposing views.

Balanced coverage? Really?

Streitfeld's next journalistic endeavor on this issue (Barry Eisler calls it stenography, not journalism) is simply recounting Stephen Colbert's incorrect stance. No opposing viewpoint at all. The newsworthiness of his story is that Colbert is angry with Amazon.

Why isn't it newsworthy that Colbert is wrong?

Can't this be a story about a rich and famous celebrity media personality with his own TV show who uses it to expose truths about the government and society but is actually using his platform for ill-informed, selfish purposes that are illogical?

More newsworthiness: Amazon Stops Taking Orders for Time Warner Videos.

Both Amazon and Warner declined to comment on what is simply a negotiation between two businesses. But Streitfeld managed to write 600 words about it, fanning the anti-Amazon sentiment fire he's been building.

But wait! Maybe Streitfeld actually had a reason to call this newsworthy.

Streitfeld: “Considering all the press regarding Hachette it seems strange that no one is reporting this,” one commentator wrote on the Amazon forum.

Joe sez: Now I see! An anonymous commenter on an Amazon forum wanted this reported, so the NYT devoted a whole column to it.

I can imagine Streitfeld pitching this story.

INT. NYT OFFICE, DAY

A serious looking David Streitfeld speaks to his editor, Suzanne Spector.

Streitfeld: The haven't been any developments in the Amazon/Hachette dispute in a few days. But I've got a new angle.

Spector: Do tell.

Streitfeld: Lego.

Spector: I'm not even touching you.

Streitfeld: No, not "let go". I mean The Lego Movie. Huge hit, but Amazon isn't selling any pre-orders of the movie. In fact, it isn't taking advance orders on any Warner movies.

Spector: So Amazon not selling something that isn't available is news?

Streitfeld: When you say it that way you make me sound stupid.

Spector: I'm sorry. I know you don't need help in that area.

Streitfeld: Don't you get it? Amazon is doing the same thing that they did to Hachette.

Spector: Sounds like two businesses in negotiation.

Streitfeld: It is. That's what Warner said, before declining to comment.

Spector: So what's the spin? You're all about authors being harmed by Amazon in the Hachette dispute. Are you thinking Lego Batman is being harmed by Amazon now?

Streitfeld: No. That would be silly. Lego Batman is too busy fighting Lego crime to care.

Spector: So who does care, exactly?

Streitfeld: A lone anonymous commenter on an Amazon forum.

Spector: Run it!

...

And Streitfeld's next article.

Streitfeld: For more than six months, Amazon has been trying to wring better e-book terms out of Hachette. The publisher, which is the fourth largest in the United States and whose imprints include Little Brown and Grand Central Publishing, is energetically resisting.

Joe sez: Have those reading this caught on to what Streitfeld is doing?

Amazon is trying to wring better terms. Hachette is resisting.

But all evidence points to Hachette wanting to prevent Amazon from discounting ebooks in order to control its paper oligopoly, and Amazon wanting to keep ebook prices low.

Why is Hachette above reproach, and Amazon the enemy?

The above article is about Amazon offering to compensate authors during the negotiation period. A good thing, right? It's a response to critics, and a move to help authors.

Streitfeld: The proposal “has several real benefits — to motivate us and Hachette to reach an agreement sooner rather than later and to insulate the authors,” said Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s senior vice president for Kindle content. “It would make things better for readers, too,” he added.

But Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild, dismissed the proposal.

“If Amazon wants to have a constructive conversation about this, we’re ready to have one at any time,” she said in an email. “But this seems like a short-term solution that encourages authors to take sides against their publishers. It doesn’t get authors out of the middle of this — we’re still in the middle.”

Joe sez: As I said in my last blog post, what sort of reporter wouldn't call Robinson on her blatant stupidity?

Actually, Roxana, Amazon's offer DOES get authors out of the middle of this. And authors SHOULD be taking sides against Hachette, for not only getting them into this mess, but also refusing to compensate them as Amazon offered.

But Streitfeld gives Robinson's ridiculous dismissal equal weight to Amazon's proposal. Apparently because the Authors Guild bending over for Hachette isn't newsworthy.

Streitfeld: (Robinson) added. “From our publishers we want a fairer share of e-book revenues; from Amazon we want an end to predatory practices that unfairly threaten their competitors, as well as the continued existence of the printed book.”

Joe sez: So the Authors Guild wants a fairer share of ebook revenues, but Streitfeld doesn't ask what the Guild is doing to reach that objective. Streitfeld also doesn't ask Robinson how Amazon is supposed to negotiate with Hachette without using any leverage. Or how it is Amazon's job to encourage competition. Or how or why Amazon has to ensure that the paper market continues.

This kind of Streitfeldian reporting is ridiculous. What's next?

Today Unicef trucked 25,000 pounds of supplies to Hurricane Schlomo victims in Laurelstan to help with reconstruction efforts.

Opposing this humanitarian effort is the group FuelIsEvil. President Harry Nuts said, "Unicef is using trucks that operate on fossil fuels, which is greatly impacting global warming. If we continue to support massive efforts to help those in need, we'll destroy the earth."

I can't be the only one who sees how silly that is.

Did Streitfeld try to ask any Hachette authors if perhaps they'd like to be compensated monetarily? Is that not a story? Is "Hachette Refuses to Help Its Authors" not a good headline for some reason?

Streitfeld's next article is Amazon, A Friendly Giant as Long as It's Fed.

The point of this blog post is to show that Streitfeld is a propagandist on this Amazon/Hachette dispute. He's clearly anti-Amazon.

But he isn't in this post. He's pretty even-handed, and gives roughly equal time to both sides of the issue.

I'm a blogger, not a reporter. I don't get paid for this. My personality and opinions are supposed to shine through in my posts, so it serves me no purpose to give Streitfeld props when I'm trying to excoriate him. But I will, because I try to be fair.

So nice work, David Streitfeld, on this article. Why aren't they all like that?

Streitfeld returns to anticipated form here. This Streitfeld article was so one-sided, so biased, that Eisler and I fisked it in-depth.

David Steitfeld - An Embarassment to the New York Times

We weren't the only ones that lambasted Streitfeld. Somewhere else on the internet, someone coined the phrase "whale math" to make fun of Streitfeld's ridiculous suggestion that 906 signatures is greater than 7650.

"The petition has 7,650 signatures. By comparison, a 2012 Change.org petition calling on Amazon to ban the sale of whale and dolphin meat drew over 200,000 signatures."

Streitfeld's article was front page. He devoted it almost entirely to Douglas Preston's petition, and dismissed the opposing petition with 8x as many signatories as a "rambling love letter" to Amazon.

Streitfeld recently defended his whale math to Margaret Sullivan.

When established authors band together against the largest bookseller, he says, “it’s just a great story, period.” And he says that 900 of their signatures mean much more than “a petition that’s open to anyone on the Internet.” To treat them as equal would be false equivalency, he says.

As for his own viewpoint, he says: “I am on no side here. I view my role as opening up these questions.”

Barry Eisler refuted this nonsense in his recent blog post. Go read it.

It's worth noting that one of the earmarks of propaganda is dehumanizing the enemy and creating false images.

So 900 established authors mean much more than 8600 authors and readers. Makes no difference that some of the 8600 signatories on the anti-Hachette petition were authors who outsell many of the 900 signatories. Makes no difference that the anti-Hachette petition included readers, whose opinions don't seem to matter even though the anti-Amazon petition purported to be on behalf of readers.

Instead, Streitfeld points out that more people care about dolphins than books, but somehow doesn't think that's a false equivalency.

Then he says he's "on no side here".

You dismissed a petition with whale math, Streitfeld. Of course you're taking sides.

Next came Streitfeld's Orwell pieces. Hugh Howey obliterates them here and shows Streitfeld was being purposefully disingenuous here.

Have I made my point yet? Is calling Streitfeld a propagandist really stretching it? Or is he clearly spewing propaganda? What's next? How could he possibly raise the anti-Amazon sentiment he's propagating?

Amazon Takes Muppets off the Shelf - by David Streitfeld

That's not a joke. That's an actual Streitfeld newsworthy article.

Streitfeld: Eliminating the preorder button is thus a potent weapon for Amazon. It declined to take orders for Warner Home Video for several weeks at the beginning of the summer. And it has been engaged in a pitched battle with Hachette for months, causing some of the publisher’s authors to see their sales on the site drop by half.

Joe sez: Sweet Jesus on a Cinnamon Roll! Amazon is engaged in nefarious acts of capitalism!

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during that pitch meeting.

INT. NYT OFFICE, DAY

A serious looking David Streitfeld speaks to his editor, Suzanne Spector.

Streitfeld: It's happening again.

Spector: What is? Obama killing people in drone attacks without the approval of Congress? Snowden and Greenwald revealing more about the NSA's illegal surveillance? Greater depth about the CIA enhanced interrogation report?

Streitfeld: Bezos is targeting Muppets.

Spector: Hot damn! You know I submitted your Lego Batman piece to the Pulitzer committee for consideration. This sounds even more newsworthy.

Streitfeld: I'm thinking we run a picture of Jeff Bezos, Photoshopped to look like Bin Laden, shooting a crying Kermit the Frog in the face.

Spector: I like it. Or maybe Fozzy being waterboarded. Or some other enhanced interrogation technique.

Streitfeld: Remember; it's okay to call it torture from now on.

Spector: Oops, yeah. Forgot.

...

Joe sez: I could go on. Streitfeld harping on Amazon's Fire Phone, covering the non-story of Authors United sending a Fed Ex to Amazon's board of directors, Amazon's super-secret Campfire, devoting a full article to the nonsense spouted by Wylie and Le Guin, Amazon's treatment of Paul Ryan...

At what point does the NYT have to admit that this is indeed anti-Amazon propaganda? 

Let's get back to the definition of "newsworthiness".

More recently, the focus similarly remains on political and local issues; however, the news mass media now comes under criticism for over-emphasis on "non-news" and "gossip" such as celebrities' personal social issues, local issues of little merit, as well as biased sensationalism of political topics such as terrorism and the economy. The dominance of celebrity and social news, the blurring of the boundary between news and reality shows and other popular culture, and the advent of citizen journalism may suggest that the nature of 'news' and news values are evolving and that traditional models of the news process are now only partially relevant.

I'll opine that's clearly what is happening in this case.

Amazon is newsworthy in that it is a big, successful corporation, and everyone wants to read dirt about celebrities. When the NYT keeps quoting anti-Amazon morons without fair time for opposing common sense, devotes inches to Amazon's negotiations that harm Legos and Muppets, and throws journalistic integrity out the window, it is behaving more like TMZ than the Grey Lady. 

Perhaps that's why the influence the NYT once had to sway opinion is diminishing. Citizen journalists--bloggers--are the ones who are truly reporting on the Amazon/Hachette dispute. Bloggers are the ones digging for truths, exposing nonsense, taking authorities to task. 

There are no good guys and bad guys in any of this. Only individuals, groups, and companies, acting out of self-interest.

But self-interest can be enlightened. While benefiting yourself, you can also benefit others.

The Authors Guild, Authors United, and Hachette benefit some people, but harm others. The few they do benefit, benefit greatly. But they harm more than they help. 

Amazon has helped more authors earn money than any other company in history. Right now it could be argued that they are harming authors (even though I think the better argument is that Hachette is the company harming authors in this dispute.) The thousands of authors having their pre-order buttons removed is still a long way from the tens of thousands of authors making money via Amazon, many who never made money before (but still not as many people as those who care about whales).

The NYT could be taking Amazon's side occasionally, and it would still sell papers. The story is still compelling when told from the opposite side. Or from both sides equally.

Instead, they have been siding with the status quo old school establishment. Hugh Howey just did a terrific post about how odd this is, compared to how the NYT reports fairly on other topics.

I suppose that why I, and many others, get our publishing news from Howey, and Eisler, and Milan, and Penn, and Gaughran, and Passive Guy, and Mayer, rather than the New York Times.

But if reporters and editors listened to Sullivan, maybe that would change.