The Memory Hole

Orwell
Eric Blair (George Orwell) prepares to cut the baby in half

As a best-selling  modestly selling occasionally selling book author on Amazon, I received a letter recently from “The Amazon Books Team” urging me to write to the CEO of Hachette Book Group to demand that Hachette capitulate to Amazon in a battle over ebook prices.

The letter from Amazon invoked George Orwell. It was an exceptionally poor choice on Amazon’s part for two reasons:

  1. Amazon is notorious for once having remotely erased digital copies of George Orwell’s “1984″ from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them. Oh, the irony.
  2. In the latest battle, Amazon took a quote from “the famous author George Orwell” and, in a blackwhite transformation worthy of Big Brother, completely twisted and reversed its true message.

Here’s what The Amazon Books Team wrote to me:

“Dear KDP Author,

“Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

“With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

“Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Let’s pause only briefly to marvel at Amazon’s “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” non sequitur. Here’s what Orwell really said:

“The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.” … “It is of course a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade. Actually it is just the other way about … The cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books.”

Suggestion to Amazon corporate communications: It might be a good idea to avoid mentioning George Orwell henceforth.

The Amazon letter to authors then gives me the email address of the head of Hachette’s USA Book Group and urges me to tell him that:

  • “We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
  • “Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
  • “Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
  • “Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.”

Here’s my open letter to the CEOs of Amazon and Hachette:

Dear Jeff and Michael:

You are attempting to thrust me, a powerless writer, into the middle of your corporate dispute over revenue and profits. The only analogy that comes to mind is that of two acrimonious parents, in the midst of a bitter divorce, each appealing to the children to take sides against the other parent.

I depend on you both. I love and hate you both with equal passion. Both of you have afforded me great opportunities, and both of you have treated me and other authors with breathtaking contempt. And, increasingly, I fear you both, Amazon because it is becoming a fearsome monopoly for book sales, and Hachette (as well as other book publishers) for lavishing attention on a handful of superstar writers while slashing advances, royalties, and support for your less-favored children.

We all agree on one thing: All of us want to sell more books. It doesn’t matter to me whether the books are made of atoms or bits, although I confess to a fondness for atoms; either way, all I want is an audience and a fair deal from both book publisher and book seller.

Amazon, if you don’t want to offer ebooks for more than $9.99, fine. Expand your in-house book publishing business, sign up your own authors, pay them decently out of your $9.99 — you can do this because, as you note in your letter, “there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs” — and win authors away from Hachette by giving them a better, more supportive home.

Hachette, if you don’t want Amazon to dictate prices for your books, don’t sell to Amazon. If you insist on charging higher prices for ebooks, and are confident that people will buy them at those prices — and confident that your authors will accept being cut off from the world’s biggest bookseller because of a battle over corporate profits — make a commitment to use some of your profits to support independent bookstores that offer an alternative to Amazon. Do more to support your mid-list authors. Take chances on first-time authors.

But leave George Orwell out of it. I’m pretty sure he would not be fond of either of you.

images

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No comment.

A reader asks why the Words & Ideas blog no longer allows comments.

It’s not because I don’t value feedback and discussion with readers; rather, it’s because spamming technology is advancing faster than anti-spamming technology.

Kills 99% of Spam Dead
Kills 99% of Spam Dead

According to WordPress’s official spam-blocking partner Akismet, Words & Ideas is about to reach a major milestone: 250,000 spam comments blocked since the current iteration of this blog went live.

I’m guestimating that this represents a success rate of about 99 percent, which is admirable … but it also means that 1 percent (0.01) percent of spam comments elude the filters. This translates to about 2,500 solicitations for erectile dysfunction pills, counterfeit designer purses, beyond-dubious investment opportunities and other scams that have required manual intervention over the years. It is a piddling amount compared to other, larger web sites, but it’s still a time-wasting annoyance.

Imagine one typo for every 100 characters in a newspaper article. (Yes, it’s increasingly easy to imagine.) The lede story in today’s New York Times contained 10,197 characters. If the copy editors at The Times had the same success rate as Akismet’s spam filters, there would have been more than 100 typos in the article.*

A typo in the Constitution?
A typo in the Constitution?

The difference, of course, is that The Times‘s writers are not constantly devising diabolical new ways to insert typos into their copy. (Copy editors, being testy by nature, might disagree.)

So, regrettably, comments are no longer accepted. And if you don’t like it … well, I’ll never know.

* No, the spelling of “tranquillity” in the Times article’s second paragraph is not a typo. Tranquillity with the double-L has long been the preferred spelling, and it is mandated in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, even if tranquility with a single-L is used in the preamble of the Constitution.

P.S.: New discovery: WordPress has a 100 percent success rate in automatically and arbitrarily overriding my stylebook’s spelling of WordPress (I refused to capitalize the “P”).

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Morbid Curiosity

Cartoon by David Horsey, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
David Horsey, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

I have a perverse habit: I listen to AM radio whenever I’m alone in the rental car while visiting family in Texas or the Midwest. I start at the low end of the AM radio spectrum, 535 kiloHertz, and methodically scan my way to the opposite end, 1705 kHz, usually in 10 kHz increments. Over thousands of miles I’ve concluded that AM radio in the heartland consists of five major categories:

  • Right-wing talk radio
  • Christian radio
  • Country-western music
  • Ranchero music
  • Sports

If I can’t get good reception on a baseball game, I search for right-wing talk radio. My son refers to this as my “morbid curiosity” – the same morbid curiosity that compelled him to attend a Rick Perry campaign event earlier this year near his home in the People’s Republic of Berkeley.

Yes, this is an actual graphic from dickmorris.com
Yes, this is an actual graphic from dickmorris.com. And Dick Morris knows a thing or two about prostitution.

On my latest trip to Texas, a conservative radio host was explaining to a caller that even the journalists at Fox News are now catering to the Obama White House. (Fox News had reported that enrollment in Obamacare was higher than expected.) The AM radio talk-show host explained to the caller that the White House press corps has always been made up of liberals, and that “everyone knows” that “they’re all in bed together.”

I, for one, did not know that. In fact, my understanding is that the relationship between the current White House and journalists is about as strained as at any time since the George W. Bush White House gave press credentials from 2003 to 2005 to “Jeff Gannon,” Washington Bureau Chief and Chief White House Correspondent for Talon News. [* See footnote.]

On AM radio’s conservative talk shows, anyone who reports news favorable to the president, or unfavorable to the conservative base, fits into the conservative trope of “liberal media.”

6a00d8341bf6cb53ef010535c02df5970b-800wiA bit closer to reality: The Obama Administration is “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation,” according to James Risen of The New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who is facing prison for doing his job. And remember, Risen is measuring the Obama Administration against the Bush Administration, with whom he famously tangled. From the New York Times:

“When the Bush administration first subpoenaed Mr. Risen in early 2008, he was already well known inside the White House. He was one of two reporters for The Times who in 2005 broke the news that Mr. Bush’s government had conducted warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Mr. Bush described the reporting on the wiretapping program as “shameful.”

According to former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson:

“This is the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering, and that includes — I spent 22 years of my career in Washington and covered presidents from President Reagan on up through now, and I was Washington bureau chief of the Times during George W. Bush’s first term.”

In its efforts to discourage government officials from talking to the media, the Obama Justice Department secretly obtained phone records from more than 20 phone lines belonging to the Associated Press, including home phone numbers of some reporters. It also went to court to obtain the personal email records of Fox News reporter James Rosen, even arguing that he was a “criminal co-conspirator” in an investigation of government leaks. Why? He was doing his job, asking questions.

imgres-1If the Texas conservative AM radio talk show host and his callers are correct in saying that the “liberal media” and the White House are “all in bed together,” it certainly isn’t a bed of Rose Garden roses.

The discord is not limited to national security issues, and it is not entirely the fault of the administration. Experienced (i.e. expensive) journalists are losing their jobs, news budgets are being slashed, and competition for “glamorous” journalism jobs — like White House correspondent — is fierce. Having won the coveted White House press pass, no journalist wants to lose it. But to keep it, the journalist has to have access to sources within the administration.

Ask too many uncomfortable questions, and that access goes away. The journalist’s job is then at risk.

Contrary to popular belief, reporters are human. They don’t want to lose their jobs. The communications people in the White House know this, and they exploit this. This is true whether the administration is Republican or Democratic. The good reporters seek sources deeper in the government, sources that might not be approved by the administration. Lazier reporters don’t want to annoy the people who hand out press credentials, so they don’t ask the hardball questions.

At the same time, the hyper-competitive 24-hour news cycle is now the “digital first” 60-second news cycle. Reporters lose their jobs for being consistently scooped by other reporters, even by a few minutes, even if the news is merely rumor, even if the news turns out to be wrong. Reporters are also competing against bloggers and tweeters and other social media “news” breakers. There are fewer fact-checkers, fewer editors willing to delay publication to insist on bulletproof stories. And yet, once a reporter writes or tweets a nugget of news — verified or not — other reporters frantically pick it up and pass it along. No wonder the White House is wary of dealing with the modern press corps.

An interesting peek behind the scenes is Reid Cherlin’s account in the latest Rolling Stone about “the history of the toxic relationship” between Obama and journalists. Cherlin is a former Obama Administration assistant press secretary, now a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Excerpt:

“When I catch up with [former White House Press Secretary Scott] Carney a few days after he left the White House, he says one effect “of all the cutting and slashing” of the news media is that “everybody’s strung out and incapable of taking a breath and actually thinking about what they’re saying or writing.” It drives conflict between the president’s staff and the press, he says, because reporters are under so much pressure and constantly demanding that the White House confirm every rumor and react to every slight. “More than ever,” Carney says, “press offices are bracing themselves and have to resist being reactive to what’s just coming over the transom – and so much more comes over so much more quickly that you get into that reactive mode very quickly.” Before you know it, everyone is fuming – or shouting.

“And then there is Twitter, which is now the premier driver of a news cycle that boils around the clock. In an erosion of traditional editorial neutrality, reporters take to Twitter not just to break stories but also to break half-stories, or rumors, or just retweet another reporter’s tweet about a possible development. It’s a kind of accelerating group-reporting that blurs traditional ideas of journalistic responsibility. “The intensity of the way stories break and become huge deals,” Carney says, “and on the back end the way they burn out more quickly, too” – as the hive moves on to the next item of interest – “that’s totally new.”

* “Jeff Gannon” was later revealed to be gay prostitute whose real name was James Dale Guckert. He had no professional journalism background. Talon News was a blog operated and paid for by a conservative activist group in Texas called GOPUSA. Guckert’s White House press corps duties appeared to consist entirely of interrupting news conferences to ask pro-Administration softball questions whenever the questioning from legitimate journalists became uncomfortable for Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan.

*

Revisionist History: This post was edited to fix typos.

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Nut Neutrality

UPDATE 16 JULY: Because of Internet traffic congestion, the Federal Communications Commission has extended the deadline for public comments on the net neutrality debate until Friday, July 18. You can send your comments to openinternet@fcc.gov

Let’s say the final score in Tuesday’s 2014 baseball All-Star Game is National League 97, American League 3. It’s a tie, right?

ADDED UPDATE: The All-Star Game ended in a tie, with a score of National League 3, American League 5.

Congressman Blackburn
Congressman Blackburn

Despite the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists believe urgent action is needed to address the potentially catastrophic environmental changes caused by the burning of fossil fuels, “The science is inconclusive,” says Marsha Blackburn, the Congressman* from Tennessee’s 7th District.

Similarly, Congressman Blackburn believes that the theory of evolution and the hypothesis of creationism deserve equal emphasis in the science curriculums of American public schools. The score on this one is even more lopsided: Scientists Who Believe In Science and Evolution 99.99, Scientists Who Believe the Universe, Planet Earth And All Its Life Forms Were Created By A Supernatural Entity Six Thousand Years Ago 0.01. Again, she says the science is inconclusive.

But on the issue of net neutrality, Congressman Blackburn argues, the score is absolutely conclusive: Broadband Internet Providers 100, Consumers 0. There is not a shred of evidence, she wrote last week in the conservative National Review Online, that consumers need net neutrality rules for the Internet. In fact, she says, any attempt by the Federal Communications Commission to regulate America’s broadband infrastructure gatekeepers will actually harm consumers, kill jobs, slow innovation, and push freedom-loving Americans farther down into the burning pit of socialism.

And she is an expert on this. According to her Congressional website, Congressman Blackburn “has earned a special reputation as a bi-partisan leader and policy expert on telecommunications issues.” Her lifetime voting record in Congress is Conservative 96, Liberal 4, according to the American Conservative Union. I suppose that in the current political climate you could score that as bipartisan. (She was not always so willing to reach across the aisle; in the majority of years since she entered Congress her A.C.U. score has been Conservative 100, Liberal 0.)

By the way, her Congressional website says Congressman Blackburn “is also a strident support [SIC] of the 287(g) grant program which she helped bring to Davidson County.” (For readers who aren’t Latino and therefore might not have heard of it, 287(g) is the widely discredited program that deputizes local sheriffs and police officers to assume the role of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and to stop, question, arrest, and possibly deport people who don’t look sufficiently “American.”)

I suspect the Congressman did not mean “strident.”

define_strident_-_Google_Search

But maybe she did.

Anyway, back to Net Neutrality. At the risk of being strident, here’s why Congressman Blackburn is wrong: There is plenty of evidence that consumers will be hurt if the F.C.C. fails to hold Comcast and Time Warner Cable and Verizon and AT&T to the principles of net neutrality.

However, on one point I do agree with Congressman Blackburn (the first time that’s happened since Fred Flintstone rode his dinosaur to church): She says that consumers neither know about nor care about net neutrality. Percentage Of Americans Who Believe The Sun Revolves Around The Earth 26, Percentage Who Talk About Net Neutrality At Dinner Parties .0001.

Net neutrality is the precept that private telecommunications companies are subject to the same free speech principles as individuals. Net neutrality requires them to offer Internet service on a neutral, non-discriminatory basis. They can’t block or discriminate against legal Internet traffic just because they disagree with the message, or because they want to stifle competition. The rule requiring net neutrality was called the Open Internet Order. It prevented discrimination on the Internet the same way that other regulations prevent phone companies, electric utilities, water districts and other “common carriers” of essential services from discriminating against some customers and not others.

Six months ago, a federal appeals court ruled that the F.C.C. lacked jurisdiction to enforce the Open Internet Order, because the Internet was classified as an “information service,” and not as an essential “common carrier” service under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. The court scolded the F.C.C. for trying to regulate the Internet as if it were a Title II entity, without classifying it as a Title II entity.

As a result of that ruling, the F.C.C. no longer has the authority to enforce an open Internet playing field. Cable and telecom companies and Congressman Blackburn rejoiced.

“This ruling is a historic victory for America’s innovators and the free market,” Congressman Blackburn said. “I have been fighting these socialistic regulations since former F.C.C. Chairman [Julius] Genachowski first proposed them. At that time, I cautioned that these egregious rules would be overturned. Instead of putting in place more rules that restrict our freedom, this administration should be working with Congress to enact solutions that encourage more innovation and job creation.”

This seems to be the current meme in conservative politics: The government violates or restricts your freedom if it tries to stop you from discriminating against women, gays, non-Christians, ethnic minorities, and poor people.

The court ruling sent the F.C.C. back to the drafting table, leaving it with basically three choices:

  • Abandon the Internet to unregulated free market forces (Congressman Blackburn’s solution);
  • Craft new net neutrality rules that will upset everyone more or less equally; or
  • Reclassify the Internet as an essential service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 (my solution).

Fortunately for freedom-loving cable TV and telecom executives, the decision on how to craft new net neutrality rules is now in the hands of the F.C.C. chairman, Tom Wheeler. Mr. Wheeler is a Democrat, and thus might be expected to side with consumers over corporate interests. However, he is also the former top lobbyist for the cable TV and telecom industries.

George-Orwell-Animal-Farm-All-Animals-EqualPerhaps in the spirit of compromise, Mr. Wheeler’s proposed solution is to give the F.C.C. some powers to enforce net neutrality principles, but also to allow cable TV and telecom companies to effectively divide the Internet into “fast, reliable, and very expensive” and “slow, less reliable, and merely expensive” lanes. Content providers wanting to deliver their websites, applications, and services to consumers quickly and reliably would have to pay the cable TV and telecom gatekeepers a premium. Small businesses, startups, nonprofits, schools, and other content providers that can’t pay the premium, or choose not to pay, would be limited to basic service.

Keep in mind that basic Internet service, as defined by Comcast, is so pathetic and expensive by global standards that if it were forced on countries like Lesotho or Estonia or the Czech Republic, it would be considered an act of war.

The “tiered Internet” proposal places the interests of corporations above the interests of consumers. If enacted, the proposed rules will allow the Internet infrastructure companies, which own effective monopolies, to charge extra for access to its customers, who also must pay extra for faster service. Comcast, which operates its own streaming video and music services, could charge large competitors a premium just to compete, and make it financially difficult if not impossible for new market entrants to challenge them.

The term robber baron comes from unscrupulous German barons (Raubritter) who strung chains across the Rhine, demanded exorbitant tolls and tariffs from passing ships.
The term robber baron comes from unscrupulous German barons (Raubritter) who strung chains across the Rhine, demanding exorbitant tolls and tariffs from passing ships.

The cable and telecom companies would be able to reap billions of dollars in new profits by selling access to their pipes at both ends, without actually producing new services or new value.

Congressman Blackburn and other conservatives say the Internet has thrived since Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which dialed back government oversight and regulation. Adding regulation now, the conservatives say, will lead to less competition and less innovation.

You remember the 1996 Telecommunications Act, don’t you? We were told that removing regulations would lead to more competition among cable TV and broadband providers, and thus lower prices for consumers.

How did it turn out? There is less competition today than there was in 1996, and prices have soared. If the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger is allowed to proceed, Comcast will have a broadband monopoly in 19 of America’s 20 largest metropolitan markets, and control approximately 40 percent of all broadband connections.

The innovation Congressman Blackburn cites? The United States created the Internet. The World Economic Forum now ranks the United States 35th out of 148 countries in available Internet bandwidth. The only category in which American broadband leads the world is in cost. The most notable innovation I see is in the business models of the monopolies: erecting toll booths at both ends of the same road, not just one. Not even the Robber Barons of medieval Germany thought of that.

Jobs? I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell, the only new jobs likely to be created by the proposed telecommunications policy change will be gardeners, pool boys, and maids for the cable and telecom execs.

* In defiance of both the AP Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Congressman Blackburn wishes to be referred to as Congressman rather than Representative Blackburn or Congresswoman Blackburn. We will honor her wishes.

Biography___U_S__Congressman_Marsha_Blackburn

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