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A ‘Grass Roots’ Campaign to Take Down Amazon Is Funded by Amazon’s Biggest Rivals - WSJ
Sept. 20, 2019 | WSJ | By James V. Grimaldi.

Walmart, Oracle and mall owner Simon Property Group are secret funders behind a nonprofit that has been highly critical of the e-commerce giant

About 18 months ago a new nonprofit group called Free and Fair Markets Initiative launched a national campaign criticizing the business practices of one powerful company: Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -1.50%

Free and Fair Markets accused Amazon of stifling competition and innovation, inhibiting consumer choice, gorging on government subsidies, endangering its warehouse workers and exposing consumer data to privacy breaches. It claimed to have grass-roots support from average citizens across the U.S, citing a labor union, a Boston management professor and a California businessman.

What the group did not say is that it received backing from some of Amazon’s chief corporate rivals. They include shopping mall owner Simon Property Group Inc., SPG 0.27% retailer Walmart Inc. WMT -0.11% and software giant Oracle Corp. ORCL 0.19% , according to people involved with and briefed on the project. Simon Property is fighting to keep shoppers who now prefer to buy what they need on Amazon; Walmart is competing with Amazon over retail sales; and Oracle is battling Amazon over a $10 billion Pentagon cloud-computing contract.

The grass-roots support cited by the group was also not what it appeared to be. The labor union says it was listed as a member of the group without permission and says a document purporting to show that it gave permission has a forged signature. The Boston professor says the group, with his permission, ghost-wrote an op-ed for him about Amazon but that he didn’t know he would be named as a member. The California businessman was dead for months before his name was removed from the group’s website this year.

Free and Fair Markets, or FFMI, declined to reveal its funders or disclose if it has directors or a chief executive.

“The bottom line is that FFMI is focusing on the substantive issues and putting a spotlight on the way companies like Amazon undermine the public good—something that media outlets, activists, and politicians in both parties are also doing with increasing frequency,” it said in a statement in response to questions from The Wall Street Journal. “If Amazon can not take the heat then it should stay out of the kitchen.”

The creation of a group aimed solely at Amazon is an indication of the degree to which competing companies have coalesced to counter the growing and accumulated power of Amazon and how far competitors are increasingly willing to go to counter-strike. Lobbyists that exaggerate the extent of their grass-roots support—a practice known as “AstroTurf lobbying”—are common in Washington, but it is rare for a nonprofit group to be created for the sole purpose of going after a single firm.

Amazon is facing additional opaque opposition as well, with websites and articles popping up portraying the software giant as the Evil Empire. The website Monopolyamazon.com, which does not disclose who is behind it and registered its web address anonymously, includes a handful of articles calling on the Defense Department to reject Amazon’s bid for a $10 billion cloud-computing contract. For months last year, an anti-Amazon dossier circulated in Washington alleging conflicts of interest in the Pentagon procurement process and a chart from the document later reached President Trump before he asked for a review of the Amazon bid.

Free and Fair Markets is run by a strategic communications firm, Marathon Strategies, that works for large corporations, including Amazon rivals. Marathon founder Phil Singer is a veteran political operative who has worked as a top aide to prominent Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and on Hillary Clinton ’s 2008 presidential campaign.

In a statement, Mr. Singer defended the group. “FFMI is not obligated to disclose its donors and it does not,” Mr. Singer said.

Marathon initially asked for a fee of $250,000 per company to fund the anti-Amazon group, according to a person at one of the companies approached. Among those invited to fund the group but declined were a trade association that includes members who compete with Amazon, and International Business Machines Corp. , according to people familiar with the contacts. IBM, which declined to comment, previously was a client of Marathon.

In a statement, Amazon said, “The Free & Fair Markets Initiative appears to be little more than a well-oiled front group run by a high-priced public affairs firm and funded by self-interested parties with the sole objective of spreading misinformation about Amazon.”

Simon Property, the world’s largest mall landlord, declined to comment. Simon does not have any brick-and-mortar Amazon stores in its roughly 200 malls, outlets and open-air centers in the U.S., whereas its peers with smaller portfolios count multiple Amazon stores in theirs. The Indianapolis-based landlord recently launched its own online shopping platform, Shoppremiumoutlets.com.

Walmart funds the organization indirectly by paying an intermediary that pays for Free and Fair Markets, according to sources familiar with the arrangement. Walmart is a client of Marathon.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said, “We are not financial supporters of the FFMI but we share concerns about issues they have raised.” Mr. Hargrove declined to comment further.

The group’s aim is to sully Amazon’s image on competition, data-security and workplace issues, while creating a sense of grass-roots support for increased government regulatory and antitrust enforcement, according to people familiar with the campaign.

Free and Fair Markets has lobbied the government for legislation and investigations of Amazon, sent dozens of letters and reports to Congress and staff, according to congressional staffers, published scores of op-eds in local and online media and tweeted hundreds of social media posts blasting Amazon.

Over the past year, many of the actions advocated by the group have gained traction. Amazon has come under increasing antitrust scrutiny from the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, states attorneys general and the European Union. In New York, Amazon backed out of plans to open a second headquarters in Long Island City after facing political opposition. Free and Fair Markets campaigned against government subsidies to support the site and tweeted more than 300 times on the topic.

Oracle provided financial support as part of an all-out strategy to stop Amazon from getting a $10 billion mega-contract to handle cloud computing for the Defense Department. The Pentagon eliminated Oracle as a bidder in the first round. Kenneth Glueck, who runs Oracle’s office in Washington, confirmed that the computer technology firm has contributed to the effort.

A goal of the organization was achieved in July when President Trump said he wanted to conduct a review of the contract. In August, the secretary of defense said he was investigating conflict-of-interest allegations surrounding the $10 billion contract known as Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI. At the urging of President Trump, the bid award has been put on hold during the review.

Mr. Trump, a frequent critic of Amazon, cited complaints about the project from several of Amazon’s competitors, which in addition to Oracle included IBM and Microsoft Corp. , saying he had heard the contract “wasn’t competitively bid.” The contract has not been awarded and Microsoft remains one of the two remaining bidders.

Though Free and Fair Markets has contacted members of Congress and the administration, it has not registered as a lobbying organization. Such groups are required to file with Congress if more than 20% of their work involves lobbying. Marathon said it complies with lobby disclosure rules.

None of the articles notes that Mr. Engel’s group is funded by rivals of Amazon.

A spokeswoman for The Hill said the publication was unaware of the funding sources and failure to disclose such payments violates a standard written agreement all op-ed writers are required to sign.

Sandy Shea, managing editor of opinion for the Inquirer’s parent company, the Philadelphia Media Network, said, “We aren’t equipped to investigate the makeup or structure of a nonprofit that submits a piece.”

Bill Zeiser, RealClearPolicy editor, said RealClearMedia publishes “commentary on politics and public policy from a wide array of sources. These submissions are assessed on their editorial merits.”

Representatives of the Post-Gazette and Chronicle did not respond to emails.

In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Engel said the motive of the group was not to promote the views of Amazon’s rivals. He said Amazon has been the only target because its business tactics run counter to the group’s goal of free and fair markets. “The one organization that feels it stands above that is Amazon,” Mr. Engel said.

Marathon did not make Mr. Engel available for comment a second time after the Journal determined that rivals were funding the group.

Mr. Engel and his group have been quoted in publications, including once each in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. None said who funded the group.

One article about Free and Fair Markets was commissioned by Marathon.

Last October, an Iowa writer and consultant, Jeff Patch, published an article on RealClearPolicy.com, a news website known for political coverage, about a report by Free and Fair Markets critical of Amazon’s record of hiring and firing women. “Many [women] were fired after Amazon concocted pretexts for their terminations,” Mr. Patch wrote.

Mr. Patch, who has worked as a journalist and a staffer for a Republican congressman and conservative think tanks, did not disclose in his article at the time that he was a paid contractor for Marathon.

Bank statements and invoices reviewed by the Journal show that Mr. Patch billed Marathon, and was paid thousands of dollars… [more]
Amazon  clandestine  contra-Amazon  countermeasures  counternarratives  dark_side  e-commerce  grass-roots  lobbying  lobbyists  nonprofit  Oracle  Simon_Properties  sophisticated  Wal-Mart 
september 2019 by jerryking
Think Like a Libel Lawyer
March 9, 2019 | The New York Times | By David McCraw, deputy general counsel of The New York Times.

It's the best way to keep an open mind in our “pick your side and stay on it” era.

My job, when I am doing it right, is to please no one. I’m a press lawyer. I’m paid by this newspaper to vet stories before publication.

Think of me as a story’s first and worst reader: doubtful, questioning, blind to subtlety, skeptical of the facts, regularly prodding editors and reporters to do something more or different. And if I have done my job well, many of the subjects of those same stories will be unhappy as well, but for all the reasons we want them to be: We got it right.

The basic idea of libel law is simple. A publisher can get sued for making a factual statement that proves to be false and hurts a person’s reputation.......I am all about the villains in many pieces — the doctor who botched the surgery, the insurance company that shafted its customers, the professor who hit on the student, the greedy industrialist who ground up workers to make a fortune. I try to look for the counternarrative that they could (and their lawyers will) build from the same set of facts. It’s a counterintuitive form of reading. It’s looking for the innocent explanation or the possibility that what appears to all the rest of the world to be nefarious may in fact just be a mistake made in good faith. It’s a tricky skill to take into the real world....for a libel lawyer, a little sympathy for the villain is almost an occupational requirement. And maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea for all of us in the tribalized “pick your side and stay on it” era we are living in......Libel lawyers don’t serve as the fairness police. If anything, they are more like fact cops. Coverage can be wildly unfair and still be true. .....Over the past half-decade, The Times and others had reoriented themselves to reader-centered journalism. The shift in attitude has been like opening a window after a long winter. Journalism should be done as if the readers mattered.

But in a divided America there was a risk, too — the risk that we would set our compass by what people wanted rather than giving them the journalism they needed.......It was discouraging that so many people apparently believed that the time-honored journalistic act of telling a story straight had become a problem and that The Times needed instead to take sides and coach readers on what to think.

Journalism is hard when people feel the failure to take sides is in and of itself a surrender....The great risk we face comes not in giving them (the alt-right) voice but in taking their worst instincts and making them our own.

The First Amendment gives a lot of protection to even nasty speakers.....we write about people in the news, not just the people we agree with.....that is how the First Amendment works — thanks to our “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open,......Speakers are allowed to be provocative, colorful, contradictory and wrong.

....
counternarratives  counterintuitive  dark_side  facts  First_Amendment  free-press  journalism  lawyers  libel  NYT  skepticism  open_mind  villains 
march 2019 by jerryking
How to Counter China’s Global Propaganda Offensive -
SEPT. 21, 2016| The New York Times | By MAREIKE OHLBERG and BERTRAM LANG

Above all, it’s crucial to show that it is possible to point out the flaws and failures of current Western political systems without undermining what is valuable about them: pluralism, freedom of speech and the willingness for introspection. Let’s not sacrifice those values by entering into a propaganda war.
propaganda  China  China_rising  Confucius_Institutes  storytelling  counternarratives  Communicating_&_Connecting 
september 2016 by jerryking
One Firm Getting What It Wants in Washington: BlackRock - WSJ
By RYAN TRACY and SARAH KROUSE
Updated April 20, 2016

The Problem: BlackRock believed that the U.S. Federal Reserve was leaning towards designating it as a source of financial system risk, like other big banks, and as such, be “too big to fail”.

What Was At Stake: the designation “systemically important” would draw BlackRock in for greater oversight by the Federal Reserve which would mean tougher rules and potentially higher capital requirements from U.S. regulators.

The Solution: BlackRock didn't take any chances. The company began spending heavily on lobbying and engaging policymakers. Executives at the firm began preparing for greater federal scrutiny of their business in the months following the 2008 financial crisis. BlackRock aggressively prepared a counter-narrative upon discovered a Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Research report that asset-management firms and the funds they run were “vulnerable to shocks” and may engage in “herding” behavior that could amplify a shock to the financial system. The response took the form of a 40-plus-page paper rebutting the report. The firm suggested that instead of focusing on the size of a manager or fund, regulators should look at what specific practices, such as the use of leverage, might be the source of risks. While other money managers such as Fidelity and Vanguard sought to evade being labeled systemically important, BlackRock’s strategy stood out.
BlackRock  crony_capitalism  Washington_D.C.  risks  lobbying  too_big_to_fail  asset_management  advocacy  government_relations  influence  political_advocacy  policy  U.S._Federal_Reserve  systemic_risks  Communicating_&_Connecting  U.S.Treasury_Department  counternarratives  oversight  financial_system  leverage  debt  creating_valuable_content  think_differently  policymakers  policymaking 
april 2016 by jerryking
Rivals Secretly Finance Opposition to Wal-Mart - WSJ.com
JUNE 7, 2010 |WSJ | By ANN ZIMMERMAN. Rival Chains Secretly
Fund Opposition to Wal-Mart. Saint Consulting Group is a specialist at
fighting proposed Wal-Marts, and it uses tactics it describes as "black
arts." Mr. Saint, a former newspaper reporter and political press
secretary, founded his firm 26 years ago. It specializes in using
political-campaign tactics—petition drives, phone banks, websites—to
build support for or against controversial projects, from oil refineries
and shopping centers to quarries and landfills. Over the years, it has
conducted about 1,500 campaigns in 44 states. Mr. Saint says about 500
have involved trying to block a development, and most of those have been
clandestine.
Wal-Mart  competitive_intelligence  retailers  clandestine  big-box  unions  countermeasures  counternarratives  political_campaigns  controversies  oil_refiners  dark_side  sophisticated  power_to_obstruct 
june 2010 by jerryking
America vs. The Narrative
November 28, 2009 | - NYTimes.com | By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN. It
seems that Major Hasan was just another angry jihadist spurred to
action by “The Narrative,.” which is the cocktail of half-truths,
propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the
Arab-Muslim world since 9/11. Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque
preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books — and
tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes — this narrative posits that
America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand
“American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down. Yes, after
two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to
rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia,
Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan,
post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says
America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.
anti-Americanism  Tom_Friedman  U.S.foreign_policy  Arab-Muslim_world  counternarratives 
november 2009 by jerryking

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