At one point in my piece on Amazon and the book world in this week’s issue of the magazine, a former employee describes a fellow new hire who had come to the company from the N.S.A. He wondered how she would fit in: “It took me a few weeks. She was going to fit in a lot better than I was.” It took me at least a few weeks to realize that writing about these two worlds—Amazon and publishing—and their fraught, complicated relationship was going to be a reporting challenge not that much easier than covering national security and intelligence.
To some degree, secrecy prevails in all American corporations, and in large institutions generally. No one at these places wants to get caught saying the wrong thing. A gaffe (famously defined by Michael Kinsley as inadvertently telling the truth) is more likely to get you fired than dishonesty, deception, or any number of other ethical breaches. And this situation keeps getting worse, as any reporter who has had to negotiate ground rules with phrases like “on background with quote approval” knows all too well. It was a great relief to read Will Blythe’s Times Op-Ed about refusing to sign a termination agreement after being fired from the digital publisher Byliner because it would have prohibited him from saying anything disparaging about the company. The inexorable inflation of ground rules, non-disclosure agreements, and other impediments to speaking and writing can only be stopped when people refuse to go along with them.