There's an old episode of "30 Rock" where ruthless businessman Jack Donaghy explains vertical integration to hopeless liberal Liz Lemon:
"Imagine that your favorite corn chip manufacturer also owned the number one [stomach] medication," Jack starts.
"That'd be great cuz then they could put a little sample of the medication in each bag," Liz says. "Except then they might be tempted to make the corn chips GIVE you…"
"Wow, that should not be allowed to happen," Liz summarizes.
In the era of new media, vertical integration isn't just for monolithic corporations anymore. Now news organizations like The Washington Post are getting in on it, too.
In an analysis of the top-rated books reviewed by The Washington Post for years 2017, 2018 and 2019, we found that nearly all links for purchasing books direct readers to purchase the books on Amazon.com. For example, for all 10 books featured on the Post's "Best Books of 2019" list, readers who click on the "Buy now" button are taken to a Kindle preview of the book where they can also click to buy it through Amazon.com.
Source: Washington Post
The practice of sending readers exclusively to one bookseller, Amazon, raises serious questions about potential conflicts of interest, given the fact that Amazon's founder and CEO Jeff Bezos now owns the paper.
In 2013, Bezos bought The Post for $250 million. In a statement announcing the deal, Bezos acknowledged "the critical role the Post plays in Washington, DC, and our nation" and pledged, "Our duty to readers will continue to be the heart of the Post."
A year later, Post employees protested the company's plans to freeze pensions and eliminate retirement medical benefits.
But the new arrangement has also led to concern among experts about the ability of the paper to objectively cover the company founded by its owner. Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram pointed out that the Post's coverage of a proposed review by the U.S. Postal Service of delivery fees for online retailers appeared to "downplay Amazon's role in the controversy."
Amid ongoing scrutiny about its relationship with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the Post's practice of driving traffic to Amazon.com is likely to raise fresh questions about whether lines are being crossed.
These questions could put the Post in an awkward position to explain itself, especially because other major publications seem to follow entirely different protocol.
A similar analysis of book reviews for Bezos's news competitors demonstrates an absence of preference for a particular bookseller. The New York Times, for example, presents readers with the several options to purchase books from top Amazon competitors such as Barnes and Noble and Apple Books, but also local booksellers through the IndieBound platform.
Source: New York Times
Whether it is a formal editorial policy or simply a matter of convenience, the Post's promotion is tilting the playing field in Amazon's favor at the expense of smaller, independent booksellers, and violating three of their seven principles for how they conduct the newspaper:
The newspaper's duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owners.
In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good.
The newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.
It is impossible for a news outlet to completely avoid conflicts of interest, as everyone has sacred cows. The Daily Caller is owned by Tucker Carlson, and will therefore be less likely to run a piece highly critical of him. The Deseret News is owned by the LDS Church, and will therefore take special care with some of its religion reporting. General Electric owns NBC News, which, as a result, probably won't report stuff like this, though "30 Rock" might have made jokes about it. And so on.
Yet the Washington Post still insists that "Democracy dies in darkness," referring to its supposed commitment to expose shadowy influence wherever it takes root. But they may as well add "...so keep the lights on with a nightlight from Amazon.com or one of our third-party sellers!"
Apparently, ethics are old-fashioned.
The Washington Post peddling books sold by Amazon might seem insignificant compared to other types of corruption that exist in Washington, but unethically pushing books is a sign that the paper might be testing the limits.
It seems as though they expect readers and independent booksellers to simply keep quiet.
Jared Whitley is a long-time politico who has worked in the U.S. Congress, White House, and defense industry. He is an award-winning writer, having won best blogger in the state from the Utah Society of Professional Journalists (2018) and best columnist from Best of the West (2016). He earned his MBA from Hult International Business School in Dubai. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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