Jack Shafer: Why Jeff Bezos’ Tweets Are So Dumb

From a Jack Shafer Fourth Estate column on politico.com headlined “Why Jeff Bezos’ Anti-Biden Tweets Are So Dumb”:

Why do the billionaires tweet? The subject here, of course, is the motivation of the Ironmen of Twitter ego-tripping, Elon Muskand Jeff Bezos — not Bill Gates, whose tweets taste like weak dishwater, neither sudsy nor drinkable.

Musk tweets because his obsessive-compulsive disorder commands him to chime in on everything from his investments to his crackpot Covid-19 views to pronouns (they “suck”) to rude comments about Gates to name-calling (Elizabeth Warren, in his eyes, is a “Karen”) to raising the ire of the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Some people use their hair to express themselves, I use Twitter,” Musk tweeted in 2019.

Amazon mogul Bezos, who tragically can’t use his hair to express himself, has chosen to straddle the zone between junk mail from Gates and Musk’s shitposting. Last week, when President Joe Biden published a silly tweet saying that taxing billionaires will cure inflation, Bezos responded Musk-style that the Disinformation Governance Board should investigate that pitch. He followed that tweet with an anodyne one about inflation that could have been scripted by Gates’ pen, aligning Bezos’ anti-taxation philosophy with that of Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat from West Virginia. Today, he filed another two inflation tweets. Previously, Bezos asked on Twitter if the Twitter deal by his rocketeering rival would give the Chinese government “leverage” over Musk, who builds Teslas there. (Bezos concluded no, but the dig remained.)

While Bezos has every right to tweet, that still doesn’t explain why a man who personally owns the capital’s newspaper of record, the Washington Post, whose Amazon spends more on lobbying than any other tech company, who historically has talked frequently with the newspaper’s executive editor and editorial page editor, would feel the need to campaign for his business interests with the dumb brevity of Twitter that favors wisecracks over substance. He didn’t take that route in 2019, when the National Enquirer appeared to publish details about his personal life. Instead, Bezos went all long-form on the tabloid with a preemptive post on his Medium blog. Good Bezos! If Biden’s inflation tweet so wigged him out, he should have written something worthy of his station instead of resorting to the hit and run of Twitter like an average citizen (or a journalist!) would do.

Bezos should consider how counterproductive his Twitter spats with the president and his fellow mogul are. Whether he likes it or not, he’s now the face of the Washington Post. Twitter fulminations may give Bezos a Blue Origin rush of ego-gratification, but why should the man who owns an entire dairy get such a kick out of sipping from a personal-sized milk carton? Not only that, Bezos’ outbursts could also unfairly complicate life for his own journalists; if the paper produces critical coverage of the president — often more than justified! — Post skeptics will wonder if it was marching orders from the boss.

Like most businessmen, Bezos is as serious about high taxation (against it), unionization (against it), regulation (against it) and privacy legislation (against it) as Miguel Cabrera is about hitting a baseball. And he demands deep thinking from his subordinates, as an underappreciated November investigation by Jeffrey Dastin, Chris Kirkham and Aditya Kalra of Reuters concluded: Bezos orders his executives to write fluent “six pagers” when making presentations to him instead of bullet-point presentations. Wrasslin’ with Biden on Twitter would seem to be a little out of character for Bezos, except he took the bait in 2015, when candidate Donald Trump accused him of buying the Post to lower his taxes. Bezos tweeted back, “Finally trashed by @realDonaldTrump. Will still reserve him a seat on the Blue Origin rocket. #sendDonaldtospace.

Or is it so out of character? Like many billionaires, Bezos is rich enough to own a couple of faces and takes the initiative to wear the one that best suits his purposes. Amazon has always played a high-sticking brand of offense on the public relations front, routinely stiffing reporters who ask questions — or as the headline to this June 2021 Mother Jones piece by Ali Breland puts it, “bullies, manipulates, and lies” to them. “The typical [Amazon PR] move is to push for a number of corrections that are not actually factual errors but just mood/tone edits. And then to argue over the phone about them if they aren’t agreed to,” Motherboard tech and labor reporter Edward Ongweso Jr. told Breland. The Reuters piece uncovered a 2015 Amazon internal strategy memo in which company communications executive Drew Herdener summed up its overarching message in this margin note: “We want policymakers and press to fear us.”

Bezos’ Twitter outbursts make for a weird contrast when compared to the sobriety of the Washington Post itself. Ever since he bought the paper in 2013, I’ve been on the hunt for examples of the paper pulling Bezos punches, but to my disappointment, I’ve struck out. The Post has reported as thoroughly on Amazon’s union battles, its privacy issues, its products, and Bezos’ other interests as it would have when the previous regime — the Graham family — owned it. If anything, the paper has been more aggressive on Amazon stories, often beating competitors to the punch. Go ahead and accuse the Post of doing Bezos’ direct bidding in its pages, but provide some evidence.

This laudable separation of church and state can be attributed to both Bezos and also to Post editors and reporters. Did somebody tell Bezos when he bought the Post that a newspaper stays great only if it has a great owner who puts the interests of the paper before his own? Let’s hope so. That Bezos has allowed Amazon to mistreat the press can and should be held against him. The press shouldn’t have to fear his company, as his executive insisted in 2015. But old habits die hard. Still, as long as the company’s anti-press behavior doesn’t bleed into the Post, that’s a compromise we should be prepared to make.

Meanwhile, if Bezos wants to be taken personally seriously on the subject of inflation or other public policy issue, he can write a six pager. Jeff, buddy, leave Twitter to the civilians and pundits.

Jack Shafer is POLITICO’s senior media writer.  Previously,  Jack wrote a column about the press and politics for Reuters and before that worked at Slate as a columnist and as the site’s deputy editor. He also edited two alternative weeklies, SF Weekly and Washington City Paper. His work has been published in The New York Times MagazineThe New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Affairs, The New RepublicBookForum and the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal.

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