Monday, November 10, 2014

Fear-O-Matic: Keith Gessen Attacks Amazon for Vanity Fair

The Amazon fear mongering continues with a "new" piece of "reporting" in Vanity Fair, "The War of Words" by Keith Gessen.  And as long as the fear mongering continues, you can count on the faithful Amazon Fear-O-Matic to munch it into bite size chunks for easy consumption.

EDITED TO ADD: (While the Fear-O-Matic is kind of a joke, it's based on a real issue.  I didn't pick these 10 talking points at random.  I went through all the anti-Amazon articles over the last six months, many of which are long and kind of pointless, and tried to identify what common issues they raised.  A real pattern quickly emerged, and not one inherent in general anti-Amazon or anti-technology craziness.  It became very clear this is a managed media campaign and writers are being told what to focus on so the echo chamber fully repeats.)

For those of you who aren't familiar with how to launch a big media campaign to convince the public to care about something they don't care about, here's how it works.  Start by planting a "serious journalism" piece in a major magazine.  It should be something like a reporter investigating and coming to the conclusion that, based on his research, "Amazon might be evil and out to destroy literature."  Then you follow it up with as many editorials, commentary and opinion pieces as possible with talking (or writing) heads shouting, "Yes!  That reporter is right.  Amazon is evil!  And it will destroy literature."

See how nice that works?  Someone who is supposedly "objective" and a "real journalist" investigates.  Supposedly they don't have any agenda but to find the truth.  Then they present their information and pundits pounce on the "revelations."  Of course, the key to this is to coordinate it all in advance and make sure all the key talking points are hit.  The reporter already knows what he's going to find, and simply goes out and tries to prove it, usually by interviewing people who are in on the con and will tell him what he wants to hear.  Then all he has to do is avoid any information that might disprove his conclusions.

As fans of the Fear-O-Matic know, the original "serious reporting" anti-Amazon piece was by George Packer, which came out about six months ago and gave birth to dozens of opinion pieces attacking Amazon.  But I guess the PR team running the Amazon hate machine felt the need to relubricate the media sphere with another "serious" reporting piece, and thus Keith Gessen and Vanity Fair were called into action.

The piece is written to appear to be objective while making sure to hit all the usual Amazon hate talking points.  It appears objective enough that a lot of the commentators on the Passive Voice praised it for covering both sides, including Hugh Howey.  To achieve this appearance of objectivity, Gessen borrows heavily from Packer by making the piece very, very long.  He starts with a lot of history and somewhat neutral backstory and then sneaks in the hate in here and there by quoting haters and adds an extra big dollop of his own hate toward the end.  I doubt the PR machine cares if people read it all, and probably they hope no one does carefully.  So being long actually helps.  People skip over the actual article and only read the opinions of later pundits to point at it's "objectivity" and then respin the hate stronger.

But that's where they Fear-O-Matic comes in, it tosses out all the clutter and focuses on the true message.  Let's take a look:


Gessen hits an excellent 7.5 on the Fear-O-Matic, making sure to cover ALL ten anti-Amazon talking points!  He scores a little less than the 8.5 Franklin Foer got with his terrifically hateful piece for the New Republic, primarily because Gessen waffles on the (widely discredited) idea that Amazon has a monopoly and that big publishers are helpless (which is also absurd).  Interestingly, he gets the exact same score as the other "serious journalism" piece by Packer.  It's difficult to really pile on the hate when you're trying to appear objective.  But, to Gessen's credit, he did manage to slip in some extra hate against self-publishers and "kinda" demanded government action, two points Packer didn't originally cover.


Now, I don't want to go out of my way to attack Mr. Gessen, only his writing.  You can do your own Google search and come to your own conclusions about him.  He does have some "serious journalist" credentials.  And just because he went to Harvard, it would be unfair to assume he's exactly the kind of person Clay Shirky was referring to as a "member of the Sancerre-swilling East Coast Media Elite" who feel their privileged status threatened by Amazon's willingness to let the unwashed masses publish books with permission.  Yet, given that he is investigating whether Amazon is destroying literature, I think it's fair to point out that he is, according to Vanity Fair itself, not only a "reporter" but a handsome young literary darling of the traditional publishing world.  Not just any handsome young literary darling, he is, according to Vanity Fair, one who would have been a "made man" if it wasn't for the nasty old internet who doesn't seem to appreciate Harvard and being told which writers should now be admired and loved.  I guess he was really flamed after his first book was traditionally published.  Does that mean he already has an agenda against technology?  Or that he might not approach the subject of Amazon, technology and self-publishing objectively?  That he might be prone to see the world of technology as an evil place ruled by a super-villian like Dr. No?  We can't know for sure based on his past.  (I mean, who trusts what Vanity Fair says anyway?)  We also can't know for sure that he won't be objective because he wants a good deal for his next literary masterpiece from a big publisher.  But we certainly can know that this particular piece is highly biased against technology, is snobbishly dismissive of self-publishing and is pretty much what you would expect from an unappreciated literary darling who has been bruised by the internet.

Despite being presented as a journalistic investigation, there is little real reporting or new information. (Other than long quotes from the Gessen’s own literary agent.)  While it pretends to cover both sides, there is absolutely nothing negative about big publishing.  The DOL conspiracy is portrayed as their innocent attempts to deal with Amazon's heavy handed tactics.  There is nothing about big publishers forcing “standard” contracts on writers and other bad practices, which logically should be part of the debate.  There is nothing negative about the consolidation of big publishing houses into even bigger media conglomerates.  He even portrays it as good news that there is even more consolidation, because maybe that will help big publishing fight Amazon.  Like many other Amazon fear mongers, somehow the end of advances to writers means the end of civilization. That meme has been discredited, over an over, but Gessen never questions it.

Not surprisingly for a handsome literary darling, while he mentions that there is a culture war at the bottom of it all, it's clear which side he is on.  AU and Douglas Preston are presented as trying to protect culture, they are people who  “feel very strongly about books.” Self-publishers are dismissed as people who rise “to the defense of their benefactor (Amazon).” Self-publishers are also bitter people who, when they “lashed out at traditional publishing, they often spoke with the passion of the dispossessed. ” Is it possible self-publishers also care about art and literature, but disagree about Amazon’s role?  Nope, self-publishers arguments “… were self-interested or disingenuous or silly…”  

There are two particularly interesting tidbits buried in all the manipulated history, empty reporting and hidden commentary.  Overall, the piece smacks of smugness, with Gessen making an occasional snarky aside that would seem to hint that he knows he's writing in favor of the wrong side.  (For example, admitting that the loss of book advances personally concerns him more, since it will effect his future writing deals, than the destruction of Western Civilization.)  Not surprisingly, he doesn't actually interview or quote anyone on the self-publishing side.  But he does reprint a section of Hugh Howey and J. A. Konrath's petition so he can mock it later as being "silly."  Why not actually interview Howey or Konrath, who are easy to get a hold of?  Well, that would require time consuming reporting and leave less space for long quotes by his own agent.  And it would actually treat them as popular writers with valid opinions on book publishing, rather that those crazy internet people that just don't appreciate real literature (see Vanity Fair article on Gessen not being appreciated by the internet just because his book was about Harvard).  

Here's part of the quote from the petition with Gessen's comment in parenthesis:

 “They decided which stories you were allowed to read. They decided which authors were allowed to publish. They charged high prices while withholding less expensive formats. They paid authors as little as possible.” (Actually, that last sentence is largely true.)

Gessen tosses out that the last line is true and then quickly moves on to attacking self-publishers as being silly.  But look at what he choose to quote.  He, himself, admits that it's true that big publishers pay "…authors as little as possible."  Isn't this a huge point?  If he knows it's true that big publishers pay authors as little as possible, how can big publishers be the ones protecting literature?  (And let's ignore that it's not just the last sentence that is true, all the statements in the quote are objectively true also.)  He throws this out and then doesn't comment on what he means by saying it is true.  Paying authors well doesn't matter in protecting literature?  Paying authors doesn't matter in a debate about whether Amazon is good or evil?  Doesn't whether authors are fairly paid deserve a tiny discussion in a very long "serious journalistic investigation" about protecting big publishing?  Nope, better to dismiss it with a passing smug aside.  Sure, writers get screwed, but "books" need to be protected.

Finally, it's rather hard to be taken seriously as a reporter if all you do is go to your powerful agent's office and let him rant about how Amazon is as evil as the terrorist group "ISIS," even if it is in a really prestigious New York building.  (Though it probably will help with your next traditional book deal, since your agent never bothered to email you in the past.)  So, in a moment where the reader might think that some real reporting is about to be done, Gessen details taking a trip all the way to San Bernardino, California to investigate a desert Amazon warehouse.  Anyone following this story knows why.  Amazon has been widely accused of being evil because it's warehouse workers are fainting in hot warehouses.  But Gessen makes no comment on whether or not the warehouse has air conditioning, or is too hot inside, which any real reporter should have mentioned right away.  Nor does he quote any of the workers there.  So presumably, his trip was wasted because the warehouse was cool, the workers said nice things and he couldn't attack Amazon.  But then, he had to expense the trip to Vanity Fair, so I guess he decided to comment on it anyway.  So he mentions the fact that the warehouse workers have to walk a lot.  (Like a lot of other workers, including waitresses.)

He does successfully spin his fruitless warehouse trip into his larger meme of Amazon technology destroying humanity.  The warehouse is filled with conveyer belts and docks and computers and scanners (great reporting!) and people having to hurry about to get things delivered.  We then go to testing labs where Amazon super-villians are dressed in lab coats "as if they had once worked for Dr. No."  Oops, they're not super-villians but technicians in light blue lab coats (lab coats are so sinister). It's all very long and doesn't have much point, but maybe if readers skip over it they will simply catch "desert warehouse" and "Dr. No" and assume Amazon is torturing it's warehouse workers anyway.

Amazon is as bad as ISIS and run by Dr. No.  Excellent fear mongering!

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