This Is Not Journalism
CNN's 'interview' with Jeff Bezos was shameful PR nonsense.
Let’s say you’re a billionaire tyrant and the company you founded, ran for decades, and are still intimately involved with is about to announce its biggest layoffs ever, even as you get to keep on being one of the richest people in world history. Awkward! So what do you do???
Why not throw some money at a beloved celebrity, and then call up a news network, and arrange a super-soft interview about how much of a warm philanthropist you are?
This was the tactic deployed by Amazon founder and executive chair Jeff Bezos on Monday—the same day, as it turned out, that the New York Times reported that Amazon was set to lay off as many as 10,000 employees. The celebrity he chose was Dolly Parton, whom he has handed $100 million. The network he chose to talk about his gift to Dolly Parton was CNN.1 And the resulting interview—in which Bezos also gave the broad but completely non-specific promise that he plans to give most of his money to charity—was so mind-numbingly gauzy, so devoid of critical thinking, such an outrageous waste of an opportunity to ask one of the world’s most powerful and important people some real questions, that it was practically an insult to decent journalism.
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The interview, conducted by CNN’s Chloe Melas with Bezos and his partner Lauren Sanchez, kind of has to be seen to be believed.
Take a look:
Here, in order, are all of the questions that Melas asked Bezos in the above clip:
“Talk to me about choosing Dolly Parton.”
“The nation is very divided right now on many issues. Do you think that the American dream is something that really is still attainable right now?”
“You know, when you go and you look at your net worth, it's too much money to even spend in a lifetime. Do you plan to give away the majority of your wealth in your lifetime?”
“How do you decide where to put your efforts?”
“Talk to me about this team that you two have built together.”
“We are in some tough economic times. Some people say that perhaps we're already in a recession. Do you think that we're in one and what is your advice for small business owners?”
“Well, you tweeted, batten down the hatches. That's what you mean by that?”
“Any idea in terms of what you're hearing or just with your expertise as to how long this recession could last?”
That’s it. I won’t go through Bezos’ answers, because they are worthless. (Essentially, he said that deciding where to give all your money is hard, and also that people should maybe not make too many big purchases because the economy’s going down the drain. Thanks Jeff. Oh, and he decried people being mean on social media, which is rich coming from someone who personally instigated a pile-on against a Black woman because she dared to criticize the Queen. )
But don’t worry—there’s more to come, as Melas promised her CNN colleagues (who, by the way, were all as credulous as she was—“it's a great get!” Don Lemon crowed): “We also got into other things, like I said, in space and what it looks like on their Saturday night and how they fight over what movies to watch. And so, later in the day, we'll show you some more.”
Finally, the Jeff Bezos movie night info we’ve been craving!!!!
You won’t find anything more probing in the written posts that accompany the video on CNN’s website. Here’s the closest reporter Brian Fung gets to mentioning that Bezos, y’know, has some issues (emphasis mine):
Though Bezos is now Amazon’s (AMZN) executive chair and not its CEO — he stepped down from that role in 2021 — he is still involved in the greening of the company. Amazon is one of more than 300 companies that have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint by 2040 according to the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement, Bezos said, though Amazon’s (AMZN) footprint grew by 18% in 2021, reflecting a pandemic-driven e-commerce boom. Amazon’s (AMZN) reckoning with its own effect on the climate mirrors its outsized impact on everything from debates about unionization to antitrust policy, where the company has attracted an enormous level of scrutiny from regulators, lawmakers, and civil society groups.
This is explicit PR work for someone who absolutely does not need CNN’s help to boost his profile—and rather than treating Bezos as the highly controversial person he is, Melas and CNN treated him as a warm and fuzzy oracle whose every banal pronouncement is a prized gift from above. That’s not just me editorializing. Here’s how CNN framed the interview on its business page:
“Advice from a billionaire,” my god. Bezos is very rich, so therefore we must kneel at his feet while he tells us what to do. We’re not worthy Jeff!!!!
CNN presumably didn’t know what Bezos knew—that mass layoffs were coming to Amazon on the same day as this interview dropped—but even if the network had known, would that have changed the overall nature of the chat at all? I’m going to guess not. In the corporate media world, “billionaire” equals “incredible person whom we should not ever question in any way,” and if you’re one of those billionaires, you can expect a red carpet every time you decide you need a nice little boost to your ego.
You can call this crap a lot of things, but please don’t call it journalism—at least not any kind of journalism that is worthy of the name.
Note: I updated the post very slightly to clarify that Dolly Parton was not the person interviewing Jeff Bezos for CNN. The previous language was apparently a little muddy on that point!