THR Blog   /   December 3, 2013

60 Minutes Bows to Amazon, Delivery Drones, and the Endless Joys of Disruption

Jay Tolson

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos (Photo by Jurvetson | Flickr)

60 Minutes has never been the journalistic paragon of its makers' proud imaginings, but its slips have been particularly noticeable of late. Last month, the program banished correspondent Lara Logan and her producer for their Oct. 27 segment on the Benghazi consulate attack that credulously retailed a falsified account by security contractor Dylan Davies in his book The Embassy House. The imposed leaves of absence for the two journalists might strike some as a case of at least partial scapegoating. The greater sin had to have been committed  by whoever saw fit to assign Logan to a story on which she had already voiced strong critical views—and, even worse, to use an account that drew from a book published by CBS subsidiary Simon & Schuster without even acknowledging that connection.  As of yet, though, no higher-up heads have rolled.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos (Photo by Jurvetson | Flickr)

If Logan's fall was a result of carelessness and weak journalistic ethics, the more recent 60 Minutes slather of adulation for Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was journalism as an all-out travesty of itself.  In this uncritical piece of puffery, a resurrected-looking Charlie Rose marveled repeatedly over the "disruptive" brilliance of his subject before disclosing the big new new thing on Amazon's horizon: delivery drones that will bring your Amazon orders to your doorstep (or rooftop or chimney or whatever) almost before you can click "send" on your order.

The introductory lines from Rose set the unswerving tone:

There has never been a company quite like Amazon. Conceived as an online book seller, Amazon has reinvented itself time and again, changing the way the world shops, reads and computes. Amazon has 225 million customers around the world. Its goal is to sell everything to everyone. The brainchild of Jeff Bezos, Amazon prides itself on disrupting the traditional way of doing things.

It's hard to say enough about how indistinguishable this is from all those infomercials we're now too familiar with. Is there ever a critical perspective offered, even a word of mild demurral? Nary a one. With "unprecedented access inside Amazon's operations,"  does 60 Minutes even consider asking one of Santa's "elves" in the distribution center what he or she thinks about working in this devoutly disruptive enterprise? 'Fraid not. The only other voice we hear from is that of Amazon vice president Dave Clark, and he's certainly not ready to dish.  ("Anything you want on, on Earth you’re gonna get from us," Clark chirps).

Rose broaches the question of anti-competitive pricing, aimed at killing off any last remaining brick-and-mortar competitors or discouraging other wannabe disrupters:

Charlie Rose: Yeah, but I mean, there are areas where your power’s so great and your margin, you’re prepared to make it so thin that you can drive people out of business and, and you have that kind of strength. And people worry: Is Amazon ruthless in their pursuit of market share?

But gobstruck Rose seems to take Bezos's answer as fully sufficient:

Jeff Bezos: The Internet is disrupting every media industry, Charlie, you know, people can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy. And Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling.

The future is happening to the news, too. And it's just as ugly.  And, no, it's not demonizing Bezos or Amazon to say that both they and we, the public, deserve the kind of hard-hitting coverage that has all but disappeared from TV news and that is struggling to survive in the old print media (one former pillar of which, The Washington Post, is now owned by Bezos).

Without the critical probing of journalism, who will challenge the assumptions, the hype, and even the dishonesty of those who are making and shaping the new economy and, through its huge influence, wide swaths of our culture? Of course, there are still devoted challengers out there willing to take on the giants. But the challengers are seldom the ones whose voices are magnified by the big media. Indeed, as a piece by tech writer Dan Lyons in The Huffington Post pointed out, Bezos couldn't have put 60 Minutes to better strategic use if he'd arranged it himself:

Did Amazon control the timing of the story and insist that the piece must run on the night before Cyber Monday? Was this a condition of the deal in exchange for getting access to Bezos? I think you'd be naive to believe otherwise, but who knows? Maybe it was just a lucky coincidence.

But there's another factor at work here. Bezos and Amazon are still reeling from the recent publication of a not entirely flattering book by Businessweek reporter Brad Stone. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon portrays Bezos as a ruthless tyrant and a "penny-pinching ballbuster," as Gawker put it.

All that drone hype, Lyons explains, wasn't even about drones, which more realistic FAA estimates say probably won't fly anytime before 2026, if at all:

 But who cares? These drones weren't created to carry packages. They were created, and put on display, to boost sales and buff up a CEO's wounded pride. Toward that end, they worked like a charm.

And did so even while allowing Pioneer Bezos to drone on about the glories of disruption, blissfully heedless of what it does to countless disruptees who will at least be able to order whatever they want whenever they want until the last few cents on their credit cards expire.

With promotion like that, who needs advertising?