Big Bezos Energy

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Last week, the CEO of my employer, Jeff Bezos, published a lengthy blog post in which he described and offered proof of an apparent extortion attempt by American Media Inc. (AMI) whose aim was to cow him into silence. AMI claimed to have compromising photos of him and threatened to release them if Bezos didn’t make false statements about AMI’s motivations for its coverage of Bezos’s affair:

Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can? (On that point, numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI, and how they needed to capitulate because, for example, their livelihoods were at stake.)

In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.

For obvious reasons, I won’t comment much more on the post except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s an excellent piece of writing that has reshaped the narrative on this story and dramatically opened up the scope of what’s happening here. It also portends bad things for AMI going forward [As usual, although I’m an employee of Amazon, all opinions expressed on this blog are my own and don’t represent my company].

There’s also a few supplementary pieces that helped me further understand this story. Bloomberg has a piece describing the history of AMI’s lawyer (he used to work for Amazon). The Daily Beast explains how blackmail has been part of AMI’s business model for awhile now. And finally, Scott Galloway has a smart (and surprisingly poignant) take on a bonus podcast episode of Pivot.


New York magazine did a cover story on The Matrix this week with tons of articles, many of which are worth reading:

But my favorite piece is the interview by Bilge Ebiri with Chad Stahelski, where they talk about The Matrix’s influence on action films. Here’s Stahelski on filming that lobby sequence:

I remember my first time on camera was in the government lobby sequence, when Carrie-Anne does her wall-up. We had rehearsed it a million times. We had squibs that had to go off. It was all practical effects, so you couldn’t have a cell phone within 300 feet of the stage, because at the time, the frequency of cell phones could set off the electronic squibs. They had over a thousand squibs, and they’re blowing off, and we’re seeing them and just going, “Oh my God.” I had to do a thing where I cartwheel over to an M16 rifle, pick it up with one hand, and then Keanu shoots and goes into the fight or whatever. I remember the setup was a day turnover, so you get one take, and it takes a day to reset, and then you do the second take. I had barely met anybody on set at this point. I’m in the getup, and I’m getting ready to go, and I remember producer Joel Silver walking over to me — I had never met the man before in my life — looking me right in the eye and saying, “Don’t fuck this up.” Basically, don’t miss. And he gave me that little stare. He’s a very intense person. And I was like, Okay. Don’t miss gun. They said there’d be a lot of debris, so I just practiced doing the flip with my eyes closed. And I swear to you, as soon as they yelled action, the first squib went off, and I couldn’t see shit. I just threw myself in there and magically found the gun and grabbed it. I was only 25 and I was like, Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. But after that scene finished, I remember calling everybody back in the States and just going, “Yeah, this is gonna be something different. This is real stuff.”

Amazing stuff that makes you remember why this film still retains such immense power.


If you keep up with the news in the podcasting world, you might have heard that Spotify is acquiring Gimlet Media for $230 million! While I’m happy for all the folks at Gimlet who have labored hard for years producing hundreds of hours of entertainment to get to this point, I’m apprehensive about what it means for the state of podcasting. As usual, Nicholas Quah has a smart take on what all of it means:

[T]he major assumption I’ve been seeing around this deal is that in Gimlet, Spotify is primarily getting a show portfolio to use as the cornerstone of their “original podcast programming,” with which they could push more of its users towards consuming podcasts on its platform. That push may or may not take the form of Gimlet’s shows becoming Spotify exclusives, but I’m pretty comfortable betting it will.

But I also think Gimlet Creative, the company’s advertising division, is another key piece to appraise here. Consider that Spotify’s core competency isn’t content, but distribution, engagement, and monetization — and that monetization, in particular, is both a podcast problem a good deal of people are fixated on and the one that established media platforms (like Spotify, but also Pandora) fancy themselves well-positioned to solve with their existing assets.

For decades now, podcasting has been a meritocratic open standard. Essentially, podcasts are just RSS feeds pointing to hosted mp3 files. Anyone with a podcast could rise from a complete unknown to someone with a minimally popular movie podcast (*ahem*). Podcasts could also monetize at will and take a large portion of the profits.

With massive companies like Spotify getting into the content game, absorbing more profits, and pushing more and more for exclusives on its own platform, I see choppy waters up ahead for the wonderful, open world of podcasts. We’ll see how things play out.


I almost quit watching Netflix’s Russian Doll after two episodes, finding it to be an unpleasant warmed over rehash of the “Repeat Your Day” trope. But after a bunch of people urged me to keep going, I finished the series and was richly rewarded. It’s an incredible work, and seems destined to become one of the great shows of 2019.

While Russian Doll owes a lot to Groundhog Day and No Exit, the piece of work that it most closely resembles for me is Makoto Shinkai’s recent film Your Name, which is about two people connected by apparently-supernatural circumstances that help and teach each other what it means to be a better version of themselves (Your Name was one of my favorite films of 2017).

While I’m hoping to make a video essay about the show’s ending in the near future, I did want to point to Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece about the series at Vulture. He has written what I think is the most thorough reading of the film that I can find so far:

What makes this series stand apart from its predecessors is the way it blends parable, psychodrama, and science fiction while maintaining plausible deniability, so that the story doesn’t fall too neatly or obviously into any of those three categories.

Alan Sepinwall also has an interesting interview with Natasha Lyonne about the series. And Jackson McHenry interviewed the production designer who helped make Nadia’s bathroom “reset point” a reality.


That’s it for this week! There was so much news that happened that I tried a different format where I commented a bit more on each story, rather than focus on one main one. As always, feel free to share your feedback in the comments below.

When the bleeding won’t stop

This week saw another massive wave of media layoffs. Vice is cutting 10 percent. McClatchy offered buyouts to 450 employees. And Machinima is shutting down entirely. In all, it’s estimated that over 2,100 people lost their media jobs in the past two weeks.

There are many possible explanations for why digital media is experiencing its moment of reckoning. It’s now a business that is past its growth period and already in retrenchment. Some people blame the big tech companies, which have absorbed the overwhelmingly vast majority of growth in the ad business. Others think it’s the fact that a huge portion of digital media outfits today were launched using venture capital. Still others think it’s vulture capitalists. Most likely it’s some combination of these things. Add into the mix that supply of “things for our eyeballs to look at” has dramatically eclipsed demand and it’s clear that the forces conspiring against digital media are formidable.

Whatever got us here, in a column for The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo argues that the layoffs at Buzzfeed are “devastating for democracy,” writing:

Consider: We are in the midst of a persistent global information war. We live our lives on technologies that sow distrust and fakery, that admit little room for nuance and complication, that slice us up into ignorant and bleating tribes. It is an era that should be ripe for journalists and for the business of journalism — a profession that, though it errs often, is the best way we know of inoculating ourselves against the suffocating deluge of rumor and mendacity. […]

The need for journalism has never been greater, but the economics surrounding it have never been more brutal. For awhile it seemed like folks like Buzzfeed could lead the way, but now that it’s clear that they’re just trying to figure it out too. Manjoo continues:

So where does that leave media? Bereft. It is the rare publication that can survive on subscriptions, and the rarer one that will be saved by billionaires. Digital media needs a way to profitably serve the masses. If even BuzzFeed couldn’t hack that, we are well and truly hosed.

I once dreamed of a career in digital media. The idea of being able to write about what you love and make money doing it is an intoxicating one. But at this moment, it’s looking like the only people who are able to successfully make a living at it will be, more or less, the people who are currently making a living at it. The barriers to entry are growing ever greater and the entry points are shrinking. Margaret Sullivan wrote about this phenomenon awhile back, when another digital media company was announcing layoffs:

With the tragic demise of local newspapers, places like Mic have become the entry point into the craft for a lot of young journalists. What’s more, their newsrooms have been admirably diverse, a diversity that their journalism has admirably reflected. As they go under, such entry points disappear. And the journalists who have been through this ugly process — sometimes more than once — burn out.

As a society, I hope we’re able to figure out how to make this work. We need the accountability.


How to make a documentary in one day

Love this video from the newly-rebooted Indy Mogul about how to make a documentary in one day. The tips, which are elaborated in detail in the video, are as follows:

  1. Start with your own curiosity
  2. Find a character
  3. Write it out
  4. Throw out your script
  5. Just start

Nightline’s post-mortem of Theranos

Nightline has a new two-part post-mortem of the Theranos scandal that’s worth watching. Of note: they were able to obtain deposition footage of disgraced CEO Elizabeth Holmes acknowledging some of her deceptions, plus an interview with the COO’s defense lawyer. I also appreciated that they got in touch with a Theranos customer to allow people to understand the human misery and wasted resources that this company was capable of causing.

I read reporter John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood last year and found it to be thoroughly engrossing, but almost a year later I’m still really shaken by what the Theranos case says about our culture. Here was a CEO that was making claims about her product that were, on their face, medically impossible. Through some really skillful self-hype and through a corporate culture that prized silence and complicity (and punished anyone who stepped out of line), she was able to convince the world she was right to the tune of a $4 billion valuation.

It says a lot about a culture that we allowed this to happen, and that our only bulwark against it was a lone journalist willing to risk his own livelihood to find the truth.

Don’t rush

The news cycle runs at hyper speed now. About one week ago, a group of students from Covington High School Catholic High School were filmed at the Lincoln Memorial behaving in a rowdy fashion in front of Native American activist Nathan Phillips.

A video of the incident received near-universal condemnation on Twitter, most of it coming from liberal online personalities. This was followed by a conservative backlash that came with more video showing further context and insisting that the situation was perceived unfairly. A counter-backlash followed, plus an apology tour by the teen in the video, Nicholas Sandmann, in which he claims that nothing untoward occurred. All of this took place in less than a fortnight.

[If you’re looking for an even-handed assessment of what actually happened at the event, I’d recommend this piece by Josh Marshall, who assessed each piece of evidence and links out to more so you can make some decisions yourself.]

I recently read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, in which he runs down a number of situations where the internet tried to destroy someone’s life. A terrible joke about AIDS in Africa became an international meme and blew up a woman’s life. A woman took a jokey photo at Arlington National Cemetary and lost her job helping people with learning disabilities. Time after time, the internet mob has shown that it is willing to annihilate people, seemingly randomly, if they step out of line in a way that strikes the right nerve.

Ronson’s thesis in the book is that shaming lessens us all. It can leave the subject irrevocably scarred, and it changes the mob doing the shaming too. It reshapes our values in ways that are troubling and make us less compassionate and more violent.

As a result of the book, I’ve tried to publicly shame people less often these days. But it can be a challenge because Twitter makes it so easy. Have a thought? Want to ruin someone who’s offended you? Fire off a tweet! It’s all very tempting and sad.

That said, I don’t think my approach is for everyone. I’ve tried not to condemn people for shaming, because one of the weaknesses of Ronson’s book is that it doesn’t delve into all the times that internet shaming has actually been unequivocally beneficial, such as when it is done in the name of justice, and the last recourse for people with no other options.

But one thing I have concluded I can do and recommend: Wait before tweeting. Think before tweeting. Deliberate before posting. Mull it over before blogging.

The Phillips-Sandmann video felt like it was genetically engineered to tap into all the sensitivities of our day. A group of white kids stood around a Native American war vet, seeming to mock him. The video is the video; the response to it revealed our sensitivities and anxieties. To one side, public shaming felt like it was necessary, because what other response could there be? This might be the only way to make this child pay for his insolence! If you’re on the other side, there’s a need to defend this innocent child from a liberal mob that’s ignoring the facts.

No matter what your assessment, I think it’s safe to say that all sides were bloodied in the fiasco. But to me, one thing remains clear: the rush to judgment benefits no one. I really appreciated Casey Newton’s take on the situation, in which he shares lessons from this incident.

I do think there was value in watching more video of the protests as it emerged before offering up a take. The more angles of the conflict that I watched, the more unsettled I was by the teens’ behavior — and by their chaperons’ inaction. Not everyone has the luxury of waiting until day four of a story to have a take. But a lot of members of the media … do? And if you do, you might consider holding your tongue, at least for 24 hours or so. It’s here that Twitter’s incentive system deserves criticism — the earlier you tweeted the first video, and the more incendiary your view, the likelier you were to have it shot into the algorithmic stratosphere. (One Vulture contributor was fired over the weekend after saying that he wished the teens were dead.)

Don’t rush. If it’s not a time-sensitive situation, the target of your outrage will still be there in a day or two. Plus, you’ll probably have a lot more information from which to craft your position.


Some more news and links from the week: