Back in October, The Atlantic and The New Yorker both ran very long feature stories on Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Unlike a lot of other reporting—such as Buzzfeed’s August piece about the “chaos and carnage” of next-day delivery—these took the widescreen view, attempting to reckon with the company and its founder in their mad multiplicity.
That was part of the point: How has Amazon, in a quarter century, gone from an online bookstore to an everything store (both physical and online), a marketplace platform, a grocery retailer, a purveyor of the hottest surveillance capitalist gadgets, the biggest cloud computing provider, a CIA contractor, a music streaming service, and a movie and TV studio, even as Bezos sends his priapistic Blue Origin rockets to the heavens where he hopes to sow large tubes in which future generations can live because he can’t imagine stifling growth?
If you've been paying attention to criticism of the company, neither article should shock you terribly. Read together they’re a handy summary of Amazon’s manifold shades of fraught: its strong-arming of book publishers (and, apparently, Birkenstocks), its poorly regulated third-party sellers, its Relentless.com culture, its troubling treatment of employees in fulfillment centers, Bezos’s insatiable ambitions. Franklin Foer, in The Atlantic, backed it up with some fun analysis, like how the company flouts economist anxieties around centralized planning: “If Marxist revolutionaries ever seized power in the United States, they could nationalize Amazon and call it a day.”
Foer is one of the many people interviewed in PBS’s new Frontline episode, “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos,” the two-hour result of a year-long investigation from producer James Jacoby, which is now streaming on PBS’s site. It adds to the genre of Amazon primers—which is to say, it emphasizes breadth over depth. The company’s early trajectory and hunger for market share? Yup. A segment interviewing former warehouse employees about being treated like robots? Of course. Its fight with Hachette Book Group? Ring getting hacked? Employees listening to your Alexa chats? Bezos’s forays into Washington DC? Each addressed in turn.
Most of this is still pretty interesting. Along with Amazon-focused journalists like Foer and Brad Stone, Frontline rounded up executives past and present—no Bezos but a number of CEOs and current and former executives. Yet those CEOs, interviewed extensively, are so typically polished that they add little, hitting talking points with athletic stamina (if not always finesse). Others, like Shel Kaphan, Amazon’s first employee, who left the company and is shocked by what it's become, fare better. “You don’t want to see your offspring become antisocial adults,” Kaphan says.
Does it cover much new ground? Not really. But if you forget why you were thinking about deleting your Amazon account—and why you didn’t because AWS supports half of the internet, including that PBS site, and, like, what would an actual boycott even be?—“Amazon Empire” is a fine reminder.