When Writers are a Special Interest: The Press and the Movement to Break Up Big Tech

When Uber and Lyft brought competition to the Seattle taxi market, drivers fought back, asking the city to let them form a cartel to demand higher wages from rideshare companies. If that sounds anticompetitive, it is. But petitioning the government for protection from competition is also completely legal, because the courts expect that informed voters will make the right call about whether the petitioners need a bailout.

That system works well enough for cabbies, but not for another group that has been seeking government protection from competition of late: writers. In their role as journalists, writers give voters the information they need to make the right call about bailouts, but writers cannot be expected to do that dispassionately when they are the ones seeking government protection.

Over the past fifteen years, writers’ earnings have nose-dived thanks to competition from Google, Facebook, and Amazon directed at two of the main industries that employ writers: newspapers, which have lost advertising revenue to Google and Facebook, and publishers, which have lost the ability to dictate book prices as Amazon’s bookselling business has grown.

As a result, writers have quite understandably come to view these companies as a threat to their livelihood. Through the Authors Guild and the News Media Alliance, writers are calling for government protection from competition in the form of antitrust enforcement against Google, Facebook, and Amazon, and an antitrust exemption for newspaper cartels.

But writers’ views on big tech have also carried over into their reporting, making it hard for the public to judge whether government aid is warranted. I will focus on reporting by The New York Times that appears to me—as an antitrust scholar—to be colored by writers’ sense of professional vulnerability to the tech giants, but examples can be found in many other sources.

A Bully Pulpit

One expression of the strength of anti-tech feeling at the Times is the sheer volume of Times reportage suggesting that Google, Facebook and Amazon should be broken up or otherwise prosecuted under the antitrust laws.

In just the past few months, the Times has published an Op-Ed by a Facebook founder calling for breakup, reported that a House investigation into Google, Facebook, and Amazon suggests gathering antitrust jeopardy, and, in a single week, ran one article discussing legal changes required to “take down big tech” and another musing on what Amazon will do once its “domination is complete.”

That’s a lot of ink to spill on an issue that lacks either public or scholarly support. Polls show that the public has little interest in breaking up companies that either employ them, or sell them products at low or zero prices. And although I have decried Facebook’s treatment of app developers, to my knowledge no antitrust specialist has argued for the breakup of Google, Facebook, or Amazon. To the contrary, probably the two most prominent scholars in the field, Herbert Hovenkamp and Carl Shapiro, have urged caution. (Tim Wu, who has written on antitrust, but has much broader interests, has made the limited suggestion that Facebook should unwind its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram.)

Grasping for Scholarly Support

The absence of scholarly support for antitrust action was highlighted by the oddest episode to date in the Times’ reporting on the tech giants. In 2017, the paper reported extensively on academic work by a law student that sought to make a legal case for antitrust action against Amazon. What surprised antitrust scholars about the publicity wasn’t just that the paper had bypassed experts in the field in favor of promoting student work, but that the work itself broke no new ground.

Firms violate the antitrust laws by taking steps to disadvantage rivals. But the student, Lina Khan, offered no evidence of such conduct. Her closest attempt—the argument that Amazon had run diapers.com out of business by charging very low diaper prices—fell flat because charging low prices is anticompetitive only if the prices charged are below cost. Otherwise, low prices are a sign of healthy competition. Khan offered no evidence of below-cost pricing.

By reporting this work, however, the paper created the impression that there is an antitrust case to be made against Amazon, one that the paper reinforced by publishing two Op-Eds by Khan and then a profile by David Streitfeld that went so far as to call her a “legal prodigy.”

Khan’s association with Barry Lynn, a journalist and head of the pro-breakup Open Markets Institute, for which Khan worked both before and after law school, highlights the close relationship between the Times’s reporting and writers’ grievances against the tech giants. Lynn has written to the Justice Department on behalf of organized writers calling for antitrust action against Amazon.

Creating the Impression of Crisis

Equally troubling is the paper’s reporting on the ongoing House investigation into big tech. The Times ran a front page story on the investigation under the headline “Antitrust Troubles Snowball for Tech Giants”, suggesting a groundswell of interest in antitrust action.

What the story did not disclose is that the Congressman leading the investigation, David Cicilline—whom the Times quoted extensively in that article—is a sponsor of legislation pushed by the News Media Alliance that would allow newspapers to cartelize for purposes of fighting Google and Facebook. Cicilline has, incidentally, hired Khan to help with the investigation.

Similarly, the Times recently gave front page coverage to a preliminary step by antitrust enforcers to consider an investigation into big tech, and suggested that a case would have merit. But the paper did not mention that the only major antitrust action brought by the Trump Administration to date was the politically-motivated, and failed, attempt to block AT&T’s acquisition of TimeWarner, owner of Trump rival CNN. Given the President’s animus toward Google, Facebook, and Amazon, the possibility of an investigation tells little about whether a case would have merit.

The Giant that Didn’t Bark

Further suggestion that writers’ professional concerns are coloring their coverage of the tech giants comes from the conspicuous absence of Apple from the paper’s crosshairs. Under the standard measure of monopoly power, the ability profitably to raise price, Apple has far more power than Google, Facebook, or Amazon, earning twice what runner-up Google earned last year.

But it has been hard to find a critical word about Apple in the Times’s pages.

That may be because Apple has played the role of hero to a beleaguered trade. In 2009, as the Kindle was sowing panic among publishing executives, Steve Jobs entered into a cartel agreement with the major publishers to sell ebooks via iTunes at fixed prices several dollars above the prices Amazon insisted upon for the Kindle. The Justice Department frustrated these plans, however, suing to break up the cartel, and winning at trial against Apple.

Against this backdrop, other connections between the Times and advocates of breakup appear in a new light. Times writers have repeatedly appeared to cast Elizabeth Warren, who has called for breakup, as the Democratic frontrunner, even as she has lagged in the polls. And the Times endorsed Zephyr Teachout in her failed 2018 bid for New York Attorney General. Teachout, who made her name as a scholar of corruption, rather than antitrust, is, to my knowledge, the only current law scholar publicly to call for breakup of Google and Facebook.

I don’t think there is a writers’ conspiracy here. But just as you won’t hear a good word from a cabbie about Uber or Lyft—even if these companies have made life for the rest of us much easier—you won’t hear a good word from a writer about Google, Facebook, or Amazon. The difference is that when writers complain, America is forced to listen.

The Bronx River Parkway at the New York Botanical

He shouts through Peggy's garden
At the Countess Maurinais;
And heckles Henri Martin
As I stroll conif’rous way.
I hear him in the forest,
Though the Mill Creek strikes him dumb;
The tulipfera highest,
Cannot escape his awful hum.
His monologic discourse
Goads the ornamental pines;
I flee his mutt’rings hoarse
Among the restaurant’s fine wines.
I pause beside a lilac,
Through ancient cherries having stirred;
For all his rantings manic,
I know I have not caught a word.
I think I hear “modernity."
Or “planning that’s done wrong."
But he says in reality:
“This world, it is already gone.”

Neighbor’s Passing

I dare not argue long with Death 
For fear that she might pause,
And spend too long a time with me
Explaining of her laws.
But when she stopped this morning at
The house just up from mine,
To remonstrate with her awhile,
I found myself inclined.

I did not know my neighbor well,
I saw him in the yard,
Still less yon’ thousand-year-old oak
Know I in this regard.
Its roots pull up the earth around,
To form a little hill,
Its crown gilds the horizon line,
To stanch the sunlight’s spill.

The oak, it samples carefully
Most everything around,
From light, to dew upon the air,
To microbes in the ground.
But though it recognizes all,
It takes not all too close,
To prey of hawk a shelter,
But to pests a poison dose.

To gaze upon an ancient oak,
To feel a bit its shade,
That is enough to know of what
Nobility is made.

Realism in Action

A surprising number of Medals of Honor have been awarded for disobeying an order. For example:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Technician Fifth Grade Lewis R. Hall, United States Army, for gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 10 January 1943, while serving with Company M, 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, in action at Mount Austen, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. As leader of a machinegun squad charged with the protection of other battalion units, Technician Fifth Grade Hall’s group was attacked by a superior number of Japanese, his gunner killed, his assistant gunner wounded, and an adjoining guncrew put out of action. Ordered to withdraw from his hazardous position, he refused to retire but rushed forward to the idle gun and with the aid of another soldier who joined him and held up the machinegun by the tripod to increase its field of action he opened fire and inflicted heavy casualties upon the enemy. While so engaged both these gallant soldiers were killed, but their sturdy defense was a decisive factor in the following success of the attacking battalion.

War Department, General Orders No. 28 (June 5, 1943).

The contrast, incidentally, between this sort of disobedience, and the disobedience that involves killing a child so that you can brag falsely to your friend back home that you used your knife in action, is rather stark. What matters for the realist project is that we can tell the difference.

Legal Realism and Two Forms of Obedience

You are told that an artillery barrage will begin at 5am and last for ten minutes, after which you are to attack and hold the enemy’s trench. Under no circumstances are you to advance beyond that trench until you receive further instructions. At the appointed time, your regiment scrambles across no-man’s-land and takes the objective with moderate casualties. But now you spy the enemy retreating in disarray down a communications trench perpendicular to the one that you have just taken. It is clear to you that with a minimum of loss you can take and hold the communications trench as well. Moreover, it is clear to you that if you do not take the communications trench, you will be vulnerable to counter-attack while you await further instructions from your commander.

The distinction between legal realism and legal formalism is this and nothing more: In blatant disobedience of orders, the legal realist would take and hold the communications trench. The legal formalist would not.

The appeal of legal realism is that legal realists will be more effective at carrying out the ends of the governmental enterprise, just as the army that nurtures officers who know when to disobey orders will be more effective at defeating the enemy. Nothing more.

Clearly, the distinction between realism and formalism has to do with consequences. It is the possibility of counterattack if you do nothing that induces you to advance. But it would be a mistake to see legal realism as a kind of consequentialism, as David A. Simon seems to do in his surreply to my reply to a piece by Adam Mossoff. At least if by consequentialism Simon means the method of value creation that purports to find values through an examination of their consequences. The problem of value creation–of ends–is for the lawgiver, whether a military general, or the legislature. The problem of the law, by contrast, is how to act according to received values–how to achieve a given end.

Legal realism is a humanism in the sense that it acknowledges and seeks to leverage the capacity of the human being to absorb and carry out the visions of others with a level of effectiveness–of faithfulness to the vision–that simply cannot be captured by mechanical obedience. Realism understands that mechanical obedience fails because of the impossibility of anticipating all possible future states of the world and writing a determinate rule for each. Realism accepts that the mind is able to coordinate with other minds in ways that science is not yet able to spell out. Realism therefore asks those who apply the law to use their minds to internalize the law’s values and take responsibility for realizing them, not merely to obey commands. The realist is to the legal formalist as the AI tasked with achieving an objective is to the conventional computer program executing a set of static instructions. The AI can identify the cat, even if the AI has not been given specific instructions about how to find it, and even though the builders of the AI are unable to explain precisely how the AI is able to achieve that.

But the identification of the objective remains in the hands of the programmer. I have no problem characterizing the sort of obedience owed by the legal realist to the lawgiver as religious in character. The worshiper asks himself: how can I live my life in a way that is obedient to God? The legal realist asks: how can I apply the law in a way that is obedient to the lawgiver? In other words, the legal realist is constantly asking: what would the lawgiver want me to do here? Just as the worshiper is constantly asking: what would God want me to do?

The letter of the law matters to the legal realist, but only to the extent that it helps the legal realist understand better what the lawgiver would want the realist to do, if the lawgiver were standing in the realist’s shoes, surveying the situation in light of what has been revealed about the world between the time when the lawgiver wrote down the law and the present moment.

This is an experience of constraint. Legal realism is not about value creation. The realist must be the lawgiver at a time and place that the lawgiver could not access for himself when the lawgiver wrote the law. This is precisely why legal realism is so much more powerful than formalism: because the realist becomes an extension of the lawgiver. By taking the spirit of the lawgiver into himself, the realist replicates the lawgiver across time and space. But, again, the decisions that the realist makes must be those of the lawgiver, or the realist’s best possible projection of the lawgiver. The decisions are not to be a reflection of the realist’s own personal values.

When the formalist approaches a situation that the lawgiver did not anticipate–which is always, because, in its multiplicity, experience is never as we imagine it to be in advance, when we make our laws–when the formalist approaches such an unanticipated situation, and goes ahead and applies the legal rule as written, not because the formalist believes the rule as written to be what the lawgiver would want the formalist to do in that particular situation, but simply because that is what the writing on the page says to do, the formalist does something unimaginably perverse and stupid.

For the formalist has no reason to believe at all that he is doing what the lawgiver wants. He may in fact be doing precisely what the lawgiver would not want if the lawgiver had known that events would unfold as they have. Moreover, the formalist might well be in a position to intuit, with minimal effort, the fact that the lawgiver would not want the formalist to act according to the letter of the law, if only the formalist would stop and think. The formalist takes the faculty of collective action in humans, evolved over billions of years to allow us to act as one mind, and shuts it off. We spank our children for that kind of behavior, for taking us literally, instead of doing what we want.

When the legal formalist seeks to deduce from existing rules new rules, not by asking what rules would be consistent with the values of the lawgiver, but through analogical thinking, the perversion is even greater, because what the formalist actually ends up doing will not even accord with the letter of existing rules, but only with the new rules that the formalist has dreamed up using some deductive process that is unmoored from the vision of the lawgiver.

Now, the lawgiver may not object to formal obedience; the lawgiver may even punish realism, just as the officer who takes the communications trench may be courtmartialed, or shot. But unless the lawgiver does that out of a fetish for formalism–meaning that one of the lawgiver’s values is formalism itself–in which case the problem of how to apply the law is resolved by mere fiat, the lawgiver does no more than harm himself, hampering his ability to achieve collective action in accordance with his values.

In the United States today, I think it is fairly uncontroversial to say that values are supposed to come from the people, and that the people care about business law only to the extent that it generates an economy that makes them better off. It is in that spirit that I offered, in my reply essay, some illustrative remarks about the considerations that might go into proper legal realist decisionmaking about whether to treat trademark rights as property rights. I did not suggest, however, that legal realism requires that trademark law must always be applied with the end of maximizing consumer welfare in the economic sense. It seems to me that our lawgivers today would like that. But tomorrow they might not — they might prefer that trademark law be applied only to advance worship of the Great Seal of the United States of America. And then the legal realist’s job would be to interpret trademark law to carry out that vision instead.

[Kindly note that I do not view posts on this blog as complete once posted, and do not flag revisions.]

But Fear Itself

From the pathetic tenor of the American response today, I should think that, if the Russians were in fact not just to scare an American cruiser into slamming on the brakes–itself a shameful thing–but to sink one, that there would be no American military action in retaliation. We would lodge a formal protest. We would impose more sanctions. We would congratulate our officers for having shown more discipline than did the Russians. Gosh, we might even go so far as to expel the Russian ambassador. But we would not fight. (After all, that might end in nuclear war!) We have gotten so used to menacing countries that present no military threat to us whatsoever, so proud of ourselves for the trifle of having managed to kill some non-state actor or other, that we have lost the taste for running real military risks. And no matter how firm your muscles, if your mind cannot absorb risk, you are quite powerless. Without a complete transformation of our flagging American spirit, we are in for a fall, and perhaps sooner than anyone thinks.