How Amazon cons the press.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Dec. 27 2008 3:00 PM

Amazon.con

How the online retail giant hoodwinks the press.

I am the most successful writer in the United States. Based on what, you ask? You'll just have to take my word for it. Not good enough, you say? Then why is it good enough when Amazon claims to be the most successful retailer in the United States?

The day after Christmas, Amazon put out a press release  declaring the 2008 holiday season "its best ever, with over 6.3 million items ordered worldwide on the peak day, Dec. 15." The story was eagerly snapped up by the Associated Press, Reuters, the Washington Post, the AtlantaJournal Constitution, and even the Web site  for Business Week, which really ought to know better. Some, but not all, of these accounts went on to concede that Amazon would not provide revenue data for the entire shopping season, or even for its "peak day." Nor would Amazon confirm or deny that one or both of these revenue figures exceeded those for 2007. Without this information, we can't possibly know whether Amazon had a good year in comparison either to other retailers or to its own sales during the previous Christmas shopping season.

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The same gullibility applies to coverage of the Kindle, Amazon's e-book reader. The New York Times reported on Dec. 23 that "the e-book has started to take hold." We "know" this "in part because of the popularity of Amazon.com's Kindle device," which is "out of stock and unavailable until February." The Post fronted essentially the same story in its business section on Dec. 27. But these newspapers were unable to report how many Kindles Amazon sold, much less how much revenue these sales generated, because Amazon won't release that information. We don't even know whether Amazon sold more Kindles this year than last. Amazon is famously stingy with financial numbers generally. This Christmas season, that's proving to be a winning strategy in dealing with a business press that, between layoffs and the usual holiday vacations, appears short-staffed to the point of utter witlessness.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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