Bigger And Brawnier: Clout Of Amazon And CEO Jeff Bezos Under Scrutiny | KBIA

Bigger And Brawnier: Clout Of Amazon And CEO Jeff Bezos Under Scrutiny

Jul 28, 2020
Originally published on July 29, 2020 10:12 am

Updated at 7:19 p.m. ET

Jeff Bezos is a man of many firsts. On Wednesday, he'll face a new one: his first appearance before Congress.

In a hearing via video with other major tech CEOs, lawmakers will grill Amazon's founder about the reach of his company, the rules it sets for workers and the power imbalance with other sellers on its platform.

It all comes at a time when both Bezos and his business are seemingly at their zenith. And the transformation of both the founder and his company couldn't be more tightly woven together.

About 17 years ago Bezos gave a Ted Talk, comparing the dot-com boom to the early days of the invention of electricity — the primitive "1908 Hurley washing machine." The promise of the Internet was so young, Bezos was saying, that it made no sense to be bothered by doubters or negative headlines such as "Amazon.bomb."

Since then, the Internet has progressed to become the power grid of everyday life. With it, Amazon has progressed to become America's online-shopping habit, worth a whopping $1.5 trillion. This made Bezos worth more than $100 billion — and one of the country's biggest corporate celebrities.

"The first noticeable thing to me in recent years was the way he physically transformed himself as he became more wealthy," says Chip Bayers, who wrote one of the first definitive profiles of Bezos for Wired back in Amazon's early days.

Back in the '90s, Bezos was a Pillsbury biscuit-chomping Trekkie family man, with wispy hair, a sensible Honda and an infinite assortment of khaki pants. In 2017, at age 53, shortly before leapfrogging Bill Gates as the world's richest person, the "jacked Bezos" meme broke the Internet. People joked that he went from a dorky guy who clearly sells books to an aviator sunglasses-wearing guy who sells and buys whatever he wants.

With physical stores and delivery trucks, movies and Internet-connected cameras, a million workers, a cloud business that props up the CIA and enough paying subscribers to populate the ninth-largest country on Earth, Amazon and its founder occupy ever-greater space in American culture.

Bezos has shown up in Hollywood parties, on TMZ and gossip columns, especially after landing in a lascivious scandal involving an affair, intimate text messages and allegations of blackmail by a tabloid. In a power play, Bezos exposed the matter himself in a Medium post.

Bezos buying The Washington Post fueled public contempt from President Trump, who regularly tweets about "Jeff Bozo." Amazon, in turn, tried to call the president to testify in a lawsuit over a Pentagon contract.

With Amazon expanding its selection, Bezos poses with a power drill and reciprocating saw in a Western-style hard hat at a 1999 news conference in New York.
Richard Drew / AP

Perhaps the company's ultimate corporate flex was Amazon HQ2 — a mundane search for a second headquarters that turned into a nationwide spectacle.

Scrutiny has started to catch up to the legend of Bezos: a Wall Street wunderkind who built a vast digital book catalog unburdened by sales tax, then trained shoppers to expect deliveries in two days — obsessed with finding inefficiencies that can turn into profits.

"He's singularly focused in a way that very few of the business people that I've interviewed over the years could possibly be," Bayers says.

In his first appearance before Congress, Bezos will face questions in an antitrust probe by the House Judiciary Committee, focused on Amazon's dual role as the operator of a top online marketplace as well as a merchant on the same platform.

Lawmakers want to know, for example, whether Amazon exploits data it collects from other sellers for its own benefit, or whether it undercuts competitors by charging lower prices at a loss or in other ways. The retailer has long rejected those and other accusations of anti-competitive behavior.

And Amazon is a hugely popular company — which has strengthened one of its key defenses in the face of regulatory scrutiny. U.S. competition law is centered around consumer harm, and Amazon's consumers love its cheap prices and convenience.

Workers hustle in one of Amazon's warehouses, in Leipzig, Germany, ahead of the 2009 holiday shopping season.
Sebastian Willnow / DDP/AFP/Getty Images

"All big institutions of any kind are going to be — and should be — examined, scrutinized and inspected," Bezos told an audience of Washington elites in 2018. "It's actually healthy, it's good, we want to live in a society where people are worried about big institutions."

Under any regulatory regime, people will want low prices, big selection and fast delivery, he continued. "We are so inventive that whatever regulations are promulgated ... that will not stop us from serving customers."

He perched on the ballroom stage that usually hosts the White House Correspondents' Dinner a transformed leader of a much-transformed Amazon — with a talent to appear self-deprecating, direct but also, still, unfazed by skeptics.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Jeff Bezos is a man of many firsts and now comes a new one, his first ever appearance before Congress. His company, Amazon, has been criticized for anti-competitive behavior. And the company has fought those accusations. Tomorrow, lawmakers will have a chance to grill Amazon CEO about the power and reach of his company, its troves of data and the rules it sets for workers or those who sell on its platform. Ahead of the hearing, NPR's Alina Selyukh takes a look at the evolution of Jeff Bezos. And we should just note here, Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: In 2003, Jeff Bezos gave a TED talk...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF BEZOS: We are at the 1908 Hurley washing machine stage with the Internet.

SELYUKH: ...Comparing the dot-com boom to the early days of the invention of electricity. The promise of the Internet was still so young, he was saying, that you just cannot be bothered by doubters or negative press.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEZOS: 1998, "Amazon.Toast." In 1999, "Amazon.Bomb."

SELYUKH: That was the era of Bezos as a nerdy bookseller and family man with wispy hair, a sensible Honda and an infinite assortment of khaki pants. The "Amazon.Bomb" story had questioned his decision to build warehouses and failure to turn a profit. The cover image showed a cartoon of his distorted face inside a bomb about to explode.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEZOS: My mom hates this picture.

SELYUKH: This was only the beginning of the American public's love-hate relationship with the ever-growing legend of Bezos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: No one in history has become as rich as quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The world's richest man.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The world's first centi-billionaire.

SELYUKH: A man worth over $100 billion, a Wall Street wunderkind who built a vast digital book catalog unburdened by sales tax and trained shoppers to expect deliveries in two days - obsessed with finding inefficiencies that can turn into profits.

CHIP BAYERS: He's singularly focused in a way that very few of the business people that I've interviewed over the years could possibly be.

SELYUKH: Chip Bayers wrote one of the early definitive profiles of Bezos for WIRED Magazine. A lot has changed since. The Internet's progressed from Bezos' early electricity metaphor to become the power grid of everyday life. With it, Amazon progressed to become America's online shopping habit, a company worth a trillion and a half dollars, employing 800,000 workers with enough paying subscribers to populate the ninth largest country on earth. Bezos himself also changed.

BAYERS: The first noticeable thing to me in recent years was the way he physically transformed himself as he became more wealthy.

SELYUKH: At age 53, Bezos broke the Internet, appearing at a gathering of moguls as Jacked Bezos. The CEO at one point said the '90s version of him used to start every day with a can of Pillsbury biscuits. Now, people were joking that he went from a dorky guy who clearly sells books to aviator sunglasses guy who sells and buys whatever he wants.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SQUAWK ON THE STREET")

JIM CRAMER: Holy cow. This is such a game changer - Amazon to buy Whole Foods.

SELYUKH: Not just that but also security cameras and delivery trucks. With a cloud business that props up the CIA, even a whole new shopping holiday named after Amazon, Bezos and his businesses occupy more and more space in American culture. As Amazon Studios grew in Hollywood, Bezos began turning up at the Oscars...

(SOUNDBITE OF 92ND ACADEMY AWARDS TELECAST)

CHRIS ROCK: Jeff Bezos is here.

STEVE MARTIN: Oh. Wow. Great actor.

SELYUKH: ...And soon in gossip columns at the center of a lascivious scandal involving an affair. Bezos buying The Washington Post fueled public content from then-candidate Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If I become president, oh, do they have problems.

SELYUKH: Amazon, in turn, tried to depose President Trump in a lawsuit over a Pentagon contract. Perhaps the ultimate corporate flex was Amazon HQ2, a mundane search for second headquarters turned a nationwide spectacle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Amazon has received - whoa - 238 proposals.

SELYUKH: Bezos is often asked how so many business streams fit together inside Amazon. And, he says, they do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEZOS: When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes.

SELYUKH: That's because they both feed the reputation and popularity of Amazon, which is powerful on many levels and one of them is laws regulating competition. In the U.S., they are laser-focused on consumer harm. And consumers always love cheap prices and convenience, making this Amazon's key defense to legal critics. Publicly, Bezos says bring on the scrutiny.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEZOS: My view on this is very simple. All big institutions of any kind are going to be - and should be - examined, scrutinized, inspected.

SELYUKH: This speech was in 2018, many years after that Internet as electricity TED Talk. This time, Bezos, perched on a ballroom stage that hosts the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a transformed leader of a much-transformed Amazon with a talent to appear self-deprecating, direct, but also still unfazed by skeptics.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "FIREFLIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.