The Curious Case of the Amazon Op-Ed

Stephen S. Fuller

For decades, Stephen S. Fuller has been regarded as a regional asset.

His study of the state’s economy as a professor at George Mason University has been praised as insightful, especially his idea that Virginia needs to diversify from its traditional reliance on federal government spending.

So, it seemed odd that Fuller, who plans to retire in the near future, would get mired in a minor controversy over the ethics of an opinion piece he wrote for a local business newspaper.

One couldn’t ask for a more loaded sense of circumstances. Retail giant Amazon, which is building its second headquarters near Reagan National Airport with a payroll of thousands of people, wanted Fuller to write and pitch a story extolling the virtues of the multi-billion dollar project.

Amazon’s public relations people wanted the article out before the Arlington Board of Supervisors was due to consider $23 million in incentives for the plan in March.

Fuller agreed and made one bad mistake. He showed a draft of the work to Amazon and asked for their comments. He got some, rejected them and then tried to pitch it to the Opinions Section of The Washington Post.

That’s plenty sticky since Amazon owner Jeff Bezos also personally owns the Post, which has to tread water very carefully when any issues about Amazon and Bezos come up. According to a Post news story, its opinions editors turned the piece down without giving a reason (full disclosure: I occasionally contribute to the section).

Then, Fuller went to the Washington Business Journal without telling them about having shown Amazon a draft. They published it but later, Journal Editor in chief Vandana Sinha said they’d have handled it differently had they known that Amazon had had such an unusually close involvement with the story’s development.

There’s more baggage as well. George Mason University is widely regarded for hiring professors and funding programs with a conservative point of view, thanks to early and often financial support from Charles and David Koch, ultra-rich conservatives with a libertarian strain.

They bankrolled GMU’s Mercatus Center, which claims it is dedicated to “free market” ideas in economics. Unlike other right-wing schools such as Lynchburg’s Liberty University, GMU does not get much involved in social policy such as abortion or gay marriage. Rather, it pushes less government regulation, low taxes and less government involvement in business development.

That alone is curious since Fuller’s piece was being used to promote government involvement in a private project but this kind of contradiction is as old in Virginia as Natural Bridge.

The state has always turned to government incentives to push its economy. Let’s not even talk about military spending that makes Virginia or California (depending on who’s doing the figuring) the No. 1 defense industrial state. Forget the legions of civil servants whose generous and steady salaries fuel housing sales, schools and stores.

We’ve been through the tobacco commission that has shuffled millions in public money to questionable projects (including helping build the infrastructure of the private Liberty University). We’ve had the state consider an unneeded $450 million highway from Petersburg to Suffolk along with publicly-funded boosterism from a Richmond economic analysis firm.

For years, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership shuffled millions of public funds out the door to startup projects with all but zero checks until the practice was put to a halt a few years back.

Although Fuller has been highly regarded for his ethics, he stumbled into the familiar Virginia whirl-a-gig of inside baseball, less than full transparency and back room manipulation.

Even more ironic is that George Mason University, the supposed hallmark of honest and muscular free market economics, it at the center of this small, but interesting, mess.

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9 responses to “The Curious Case of the Amazon Op-Ed”

  1. Fuller erred, and he needs to take heat for his mistake.

    However, that’s no reason to drag the Mercatus Center and the Koch brothers into the discussion. Fuller is a professor at the Dwight C. Schar School of Policy and Government. He has no connection to either the Mercatus Center or the Koch Brothers, and vice versa.

    Indeed, Mercatus was critical of the Amazon HQ2 subsidies, as can be seen here — This op-ed was tagged under “corporate welfare.”

  2. djrippert Avatar

    Fuller is an economist not a journalist. Given the current mood of frustration with “fake news”, social media, manipulation and a widespread sense of bias on the part of Mainstream Media journalism has gotten a bad name. That’s unfortunate. In my opinion, journalism no more deserves a bad name in light of recent issues than economics deserved a bad name in the midst of the so-called Great Recession.

    I don’t know the details of what Fuller did in this situation. I do know that he has a good reputation for integrity as an economist. My guess is that he was “over his head” on the journalistic front. He should have been working with a real journalist who could have warned him of the pitfalls of doing what he did.

    When Peter writes that Amazon, “… wanted Fuller to write and pitch a story extolling the virtues of the multi-billion dollar project.” does that imply that Amazon paid Fuller?

    I wrote an article on this blog extolling the Amazon deal in Northern Virginia …

    Had Amazon asked me to write the article or, moreover, paid me to write the article I would have been honor bound to disclose that in the article. I learned that lesson by watching how real journalists like Peter, Jim and Steve handle themselves in similar situations. For example, from this article …

    ” … (full disclosure: I occasionally contribute to the section).”

    The lesson? If you have involvement with the subject of your article you have to disclose that involvement in a clear and understandable manner.

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Last year I sent the Post a proposed op-ed challenging the way the General Assembly ordered the construction of an expensive underground transmission line to serve an Amazon facility, sending the bill to ratepayers. The nice folks have published several of my pieces, but that one didn’t make the cut. 🙂 It morphed into this: I had made the points before, and that was one reason given for not running my piece – it wasn’t all unique.

    Happy to have Peter posting again, but ad hominem and guilt by association are often his go-to moves. I suspect Mercatus and ODU were his targets all along, not Fuller. Having merely shown a draft to Amazon doesn’t offend me. He’s not claiming to be a journalist. Taking money would be different, either directly or indirectly. That should be transparent.

    Heck, if Amazon was passing out goodies, I would have appreciated something for my post on this blog that sought to defuse the whole hoorah over the local incentives! For the record, not even a thank you from them!

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    A few points:
    Don, the Post news story said that Fuller did not accept pay for this. Had this been an academic research project, it would have been perfectly appropriate for Fuller to show his work to Amazon as long as he controls it. But since it seemed aimed at being propaganda to pass incentives, it is different.
    Steve, please stop patronizing me. I have been doing this longer than you have.
    Jim, I tried to get Michael Mann in the piece but I couldn’t figure out how to do it.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      My subscription to the Washington Post lapsed … in 1978 as I recall. Haven’t found time to renew.

      Hard to know why Fuller decided to write unpaid propaganda pieces for Amazon. If he wants to write for free he should join the crew here at BaconsRebellion!

      I get that Fuller made mistakes in his approach but if he didn’t gain economically from these mistakes I guess I’m more likely to chalk it up to unintentional bumbling.

      There ought to be a two hour online course in basic journalism for all bloggers. If you take the course and pass the quiz at the end you get to link to a graphic badge that goes along with your posts and comments indicating that you made at least a minimal effort to understand right from wrong with regard to journalism.

  5. CrazyJD Avatar

    Just a few things that went by me:
    What is meant by a “loaded sense of circumstances”?
    Why do you think Steve is patronizing you? In any event, your response to him is one of those arguments that falls into the category of informal fallacies known as the “appeal to authority”, namely your own.

  6. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Fuller has a reputation for writing/advocating economic conclusions that tend to support entities that fund him, most especially for real estate developers. Whether this is coincidence or not, I leave to others.

    Many of his documents take the position that development is coming to NoVA such that taxpayers need to fund the infrastructure necessary to support the growth. Interestingly, Dr. Gerald Gordon at the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority has often taken the position that, absent great marketing efforts and freebies (both paid for by taxpayers), businesses won’t come to NoVA.

    The bottom line is: Taxpayers get screwed whoever is correct. Instead of the Old Dominion, Virginia should call itself: ‘The Crony Capitalism State.”

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      TooManyTaxes hits nail on the head.

    2. Speaking from extensive personal experience, TMT is dead on. Fuller is nothing more than a parasite and hack who will draft a “paper” on whatever topic he is paid to write, delivering a predetermined conclusion. Fuller and ethics do not belong on the same page much less the same sentence. I have seen him deliver to the local Board of Supervisors one duly paid for presentation advocating a position in January and then delivering another, diametrically opposed, presentation paid for by someone else in July.

      If one publicly questions his methodology, figures or basis for his findings, say at a public hearing, on several occasions he has been unable to support those findings with any tangible evidence or numbers. The guy is just a hack for hire.

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