Imagine British Prime Minister Theresa May each time she sees an unflattering article in The Guardian or The Observer. She might bristle with rage. She might ignore the reporters, attack the newspaper or deny the story.
But it’s highly unlikely she’d go after the outlets’ parent company, the Scott Trust Limited, and try to financially cripple it in order to get even for perceived affronts.
While the analogies are not exact, this is what President Trump apparently is trying to do to Amazon, whose chief executive Jeff Bezos personally owns The Washington Post. Why? Because Bezos bought the Post with his own money for $250 million in 2013, and Trump detests the paper’s coverage — especially of him.
I emphasize that Bezos owns the Post because Trump doesn’t seem to get that the Post operates independently of Amazon. Bezos shells out reporters’ salaries; Amazon shareholders do not. In tweets, Trump calls it the “Amazon Washington Post.”He insists the paper is really a “lobbyist” for the retail behemoth and should register as an Amazon lobbyist.
What would U.S. journalists or politicians say if another country’s head of state tried to control coverage by hurting an owner’s bottom line?
Few companies have earned Trump’s fury like Amazon. His antipathy toward Bezos and his company isn’t new but it heated up last December when the president said he wanted the United States Postal Service to charge “much more” to Amazon, its biggest shipper of packages, and other retailers. The president believes the e-commerce giant has been getting a free ride with the USPS, even though there’s evidence to the contrary. The Post broke a story last week that Trump had been quietly pushing the Postmaster General to double the rates it charges shippers, which would likely cost Amazon and other firms billions of dollars.
Trump’s use of social media to target people he doesn’t like (Bezos) or news outlets (the Post) or certain companies (Amazon) is unprecedented. Beyond that, it is dangerous and unfair for a sitting president to use his bully pulpit to repeatedly rant about a specific retailer because its CEO owns a newspaper that publishes stories Trump perceives as unfair. And by the way, Bezos has no say in the Post’s daily coverage.
By trying to indirectly hurt the Post and Bezos, the president is interfering with the First Amendment. Freedom of the press protects the right of the Post and anyone to obtain and publish information without government censorship or fear of punishment.
In late March, the Post published a detailed report on how the Trump Organization’s businesses were “under unprecedented assault” because of three legal investigations. Trump is known to be particularly sensitive to stories about his business dealings and personal affairs. So it’s no surprise that Trump responded by attacking Amazon and “the fake Washington Post” on Twitter — part of a pattern of Trump attacks on Amazon after the Post publishes an article he doesn’t like.
Then, in early April, the president ordered a task force to review the post office’s operations and finances. He claims Amazon’s proprietary deal with the Post Office to deliver last-mile packages is costing American taxpayers billions of dollars, and that the independent government agency is losing money because of Amazon. This is odd since the Post Office began Sunday delivery in some cities because Amazon makes it financially feasible.
Many analysts say that Amazon-USPS deal is mutually beneficial. (The contract is not public because it contains commercially sensitive details.) Amazon gets a reliable delivery service at bulk rates while shoring up the Post Office, which loses money, especially with the sharp decline of first-class mail. Few pay bills or send birthday cards, letters and invitations through the mail anymore. Since 2001, the volume of first-class mail has dropped 43%, exactly the same time as the Internet and Amazon took hold of the way we live.
Trump has often incorrectly criticized the online retailer via Twitter and speeches for not paying state sales taxes (it does in 45 states that have sales tax) and for taking financial advantage of the Post Office, which delivers packages for 40% of Amazon orders.
There are many legitimate reasons to go after Amazon that have nothing to do with the Washington Post.
Amazon has effectively put many mom and pop retailers out of business. It is killing shopping malls and brick and mortar stores. It has practically wiped out independent booksellers. It creates a tremendous amount of trash for the environment. Who hasn’t opened a box with an item engulfed in bubble wrap, and thrown it away, cringing at the waste?
Amazon also doesn’t pay its employees well. (Median compensation is $28,466.) Conditions for factory workers are notoriously demanding. Why else would a former employee with a masters degree, write in The Guardian, “I am homeless. My worst days now are better than my best days working at Amazon.” Even white-collar workers complained about conditions in a 2015 New York Times expose.
But whatever one thinks of Amazon or the Washington Post, the president shouldn’t use the power of the Oval Office to settle a personal gripe. It’s un-American.