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Midday Scan: Is Amazon's BFF the U.S. Department of Justice?

Funny how well that lawsuit appears to be working for the Seattle company. But do consumers really gain?

The courtyard outside the Van Vorst Center on Terry Avenue N. offers seating for Amazon employees and the public.

The courtyard outside the Van Vorst Center on Terry Avenue N. offers seating for Amazon employees and the public. Courtesy of Amazon.com

When William Shakespeare wrote Sonnet XXXV, he probably didn't predict how well his verse may have translated into describing the current view of Amazon.com in a lot of quarters: Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud:/Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,/And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.

Following the series of reports by Seattle Times about Amazon's (un)surprisingly (un)philanthropic ways, comes speculation that the company may have been responsible for instigating an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and major book publishers, according to Seattle Times writer Amy Martinez. Currently, the Justice department is charging the defendants for conspiring to raise ebook prices, a charge which is suspiciously tied to Amazon's focus on low ebook prices. In fact, Amazon is mentioned about 90 times in the lawsuit, according to Martinez, even though they are not technically part of the lawsuit. Moreover, according to Martinez, some say they appear to be the main beneficiary of the suit.

"I couldn't imagine it going much better for Amazon than this decision," said publishing analyst Michael Norris, of Simba Information in an interview with Seattle Times. "I was joking that I'd like to see Jeff Bezos drink a glass of water while the Justice Department talks about the settlement. It was a lot of what Amazon would have wanted."

More than anything, this is a sad tale for authors, bookstores, and publishers alike, who, for lack of a better term, would be on the "totally screwed" end of the deal should the lawsuit go through. All this, from the company that showed so much potential and promise for the literary world's reach.

The Amazon story gets the New York Times treatment, too. Columnist David Carr raises, among other points, the question of how charging book publishers with the lawsuit is at all good for competition, let alone the consumers themselves. (Hint: It's not.)

"Now Amazon has the Justice Department as an ally to rebuild its monopoly and wipe out other players. If the decision to charge the publishers was good for competition, why had the stock price of Barnes & Noble dropped more than 10 percent since Wednesday? Borders is long gone, and the possible loss of Barnes & Noble would be bad for consumer choice, online or off."

Back in Eatonville, a fateful decision will be made this week for the schools, when voters decide whether to push a school levy through (which first failed in February), or to let it wriggle and die, once and for all. If anything — and perhaps most interesting from a journalist point of view — the Dispatch appears to be conspicious about its position, displaying last week not only a front-page report largely favoring the levy, but also five, count them, five letters to the editor all in support, as well as a "Questions and Answers" article by the district's superintendent, Rich Stewart. (The headline of the front-page report is the only one to appear in all-caps on the Dispatch website.)

This is not all for naught, however. If the levy is not passed, it would not be a "lesson taught" to money-abusive officials, as some believe, but rather a tragedy for the kids, since the levy traditionally supports up to 20 percent of the schools' funding. As one letter from a recent graduate points out: "If this levy fails, you can bet that extracurriculars, sports, teachers and staff will be cut, creating less choices, bigger classes, and students will find themselves without creative or atheltic outlets. For many students, these events are very important and keep them motivated to strive academically."

Without a doubt, this small town fiasco can provide a lesson for Seattle, where sometimes all the hubbub happening on the School Board or with the superintendent can lead us to forget about how the students themselves are affected.

There's a lot of history behind Washington State University's new coach Mike "Pirate" Leach, and it doesn't, as you might think, consist of raiding imperial British ships for booty or brandishing a wicked hook or, even, sporting an eyepatch. Rather, Leach's past, as thoroughly detailed yesterday by News Tribune writer David Boling, is full of improbability, peculiarity, and a passion that can only belong to a good coach.


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