February 17, 2020

A Casualty on the Battlefield of Amazon’s Partisan Book Reviews

In the biggest, most overt and most successful of these campaigns, a group of Michael Jackson fans used Facebook and Twitter to solicit negative reviews of a new biography of the singer. They bombarded Amazon with dozens of one-star takedowns, succeeded in getting several favorable notices erased and even took credit for Amazon’s briefly removing the book from sale.

“Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly killed,” said Trevor Pinch, a Cornell sociologist who has studied Amazon reviews. “In theory, a very good book could be killed by a group of people for malicious reasons.”

In “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson,” Randall Sullivan writes that Jackson’s overuse of plastic surgery reduced his nose to little more than a pair of nostrils and that he died a virgin despite being married twice. These points in particular seem to infuriate the fans.

Outside Amazon, the book had a mixed reception; in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it “thoroughly dispensable.” So it is difficult to pinpoint how effective the campaign was. Still, the book has been a resounding failure in the marketplace.

The fans, who call themselves Michael Jackson’s Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks, say they are exercising their free speech rights to protest a book they feel is exploitative and inaccurate. “Sullivan does everything he can to dehumanize, dismantle and destroy, against all objective fact,” a spokesman for the group said.

But the book’s publisher, Grove Press, said the Amazon review system was being abused in an organized campaign. “We’re very reluctant to interfere with the free flow of discourse, but there should be transparency about people’s motivations,” said Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic, Grove’s parent company.

Amazon said the fans’ reviews had not violated its guidelines but declined further comment.

The retailer, like other sites that depend on customer reviews, has been faced with the problem of so-called sock puppets, those people secretly commissioned by an author to produce favorable notices. In recent months, Amazon has made efforts to remove reviews by those it deemed too close to the author, especially relatives.

The issue of attack reviews, though, has received little attention. The historian Orlando Figes was revealed in 2010 to be using Amazon to anonymously vilify his rivals and secretly praise himself. The crime writer R. J. Ellory was exposed for doing the same thing last fall.

Attack reviews are hard to police. It is difficult, if not impossible, to detect the difference between an authentic critical review and an author malevolently trying to bring down a colleague, or organized assaults by fans. Amazon’s extensive rules on reviewing offer little guidance on what is permissible in negative reviews and what is not.

With “Untouchable,” Grove had hopes for a modest best seller. The book was excerpted in Vanity Fair, and Mr. Sullivan, a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone who lives in Portland, Ore., promoted it on “Nightline” and “Good Morning America.” Amazon selected it as one of the best books of November, encouraging readers to “check out this train wreck of a life.” The retailer also selected it as one of the 100 best e-books of the year.

None of that helped when Mr. Sullivan tried to complain, saying reviews of his book were factually false yet being voted up by the fans so that they dominated the page for “Untouchable.” The bookseller replied with boilerplate. “Rest assured, we’ll read each of the reviews and remove any that violate our guidelines,” adding, “We’ve appreciated your business and hope to have the opportunity to serve you again in the future.”

In an interview, Mr. Sullivan asked: “Should people be allowed to make flagrantly false comments about the content of a book or its author? This is suppression of free speech in the name of free speech.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/21/business/a-casualty-on-the-battlefield-of-amazons-partisan-book-reviews.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Airfares With Less Fine Print

Beginning Jan. 24, the Transportation Department will enforce a rule requiring that any advertised price for air travel include all government taxes and fees. For the last 25 years, the department has allowed airlines and travel agencies to list government-imposed fees separately, resulting in a paragraph of fine print disclaimers about charges that can add 20 percent or more to a ticket’s price.

But with airlines now promoting fares on Web ads, Facebook and Twitter, and adopting a menu of fees for services that used to be part of the ticket price, the government decided it was time for a change so travelers have a clearer sense of the total price they must pay. (The price will not include baggage fees, though, because they are optional.)

“Requiring all mandatory charges to be included in a single advertised price will help consumers compare airfares and make it easier for them to determine the full cost of their trip,” Bill Mosley, a department spokesman, said by e-mail in response to questions about the rule.

The government and the airlines are being guarded in discussing the full-fare advertising policy, since Spirit Airlines, Allegiant and Southwest have asked the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to block the proposed change, arguing that it violates their commercial free speech rights.

Spirit has built its business around advertising $9 fares, then charging additional fees for checked and carry-on bags, advance seat assignments and now a “passenger usage fee” of up to $17 each way for tickets booked online.

Since that online booking fee is technically optional — travelers can instead drive to the airport and buy a ticket there — Spirit is not required to include it in advertised prices. The proliferation of these types of fees has prompted the government to impose a growing number of fines against airlines and travel agencies that violate existing rules.

This year, the Transportation Department has assessed 21 penalties for fare advertising violations, with total fines of more than $1 million; in 2001, there were 14 penalties and $379,000 in fines.

Since August, Spirit, LAN Airlines, South African Airways, Orbitz, Virgin Atlantic, Thai Airways, JetBlue and Air Canada have all been fined at least $50,000 each for advertising infractions.

Under current regulations, ticket sellers may list government taxes separately on an ad promoting a fare, but those mandatory fees must be clearly disclosed — hence the asterisk pointing to additional text or a Web page that itemizes these charges. One of Spirit’s violations was advertising a $9 fare on Twitter and forcing customers to click links to two more Web pages to find out the full cost, including taxes and fees.

The new advertising rule is one of a dozen passenger protections the Transportation Department proposed in 2010 and adopted last spring. It extended the deadline for some provisions to give the airlines more time to comply.

Spirit and Allegiant have also challenged new rules requiring airlines to allow passengers to cancel a ticket purchase without penalty within 24 hours of booking; include information about baggage fees on e-ticket confirmations; and notify passengers more promptly about flight cancellations and delays.

Misty Pinson, a Spirit spokeswoman, said the airline could not comment on its objections to the new rules because of its coming stock offering. But in its S-1 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Spirit cited “burdensome consumer protection regulations” as a risk factor for its business model, saying, “We are evaluating the actions we will be required to take to implement these rules, and we believe it is unlikely that we will be able to meet the 2012 compliance deadline in every respect.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/27/business/airfares-in-ads-soon-must-include-taxes-and-fees.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

U.S. Releases Graphic Images to Deter Smokers

In the first major change to warning labels in more than a quarter-century, the graphic images will include photographs of horribly damaged teeth and lungs and a man exhaling smoke through a tracheotomy opening in his neck. The Department of Health and Human Services selected nine color images among 36 proposed to accompany larger text warnings.

Health advocacy groups have praised the government plan in the hope that images would shock and deter new smokers and scare existing smokers into quitting.

The images are to cover the upper half of the front and back of cigarette packages produced after September 2012, as well as 20 percent of cigarette advertisements.

“These labels are frank, honest and powerful depictions of the health risks of smoking and they will help encourage smokers to quit, and prevent children from smoking,” Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said in a statement Tuesday.

The four leading tobacco companies were all threatening legal action, saying the images would unfairly hurt their property and free-speech rights by obscuring their brand names in retail displays, demonizing the companies and stigmatizing smokers.

The government won one case last year in a federal court in Kentucky on its overall ability to require larger warning labels with images; the specific images released on Tuesday are likely to stir further legal action.

The Kentucky case is before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The new labels were required under landmark antismoking legislation giving the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate, but not ban, tobacco products. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act required F.D.A. action on the graphic warning labels by Wednesday, the two-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing it into law.

The United States was the first nation to require a health warning on cigarette packages more than 25 years ago, but since then, at least 39 other nations including Canada and many in Europe have imposed more eye-catching warnings, including graphic photographs.

“This is a critical moment for the United States to move forward in this area,” F.D.A. Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said in an interview. “The trends in smoking really support the need for more action now. For four decades, there was a steady decline in smoking, but five to seven years ago we leveled off at about the 20 percent level of adult and youth smoking in this country.” 

  Lawrence R. Deyton, director of the F.D.A. Center for Tobacco Products, said the government estimates — based on other countries’ experience — that the new warning labels will prompt an additional 213,000 Americans to quit smoking next year.

“We are pleased with the images they picked,” said Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Association. “They strongly depict the adverse consequences of smoking. They will get people’s attention. And they will certainly be much more memorable than the current warning labels.” 

  Gregory N. Connolly, a professor and tobacco expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, also praised the strength of the pictorial warnings, but he said the F.D.A. needed to take tougher action against cigarettes.   “What’s on the pack is important, but if you really want to cut smoking rates, you’ve got to get inside the pack and deal with ingredients like menthol and nicotine,” Dr. Connolly said.  

The nine images chosen in the United States include some that are among the most graphic of the 36 draft images. But they also include some of the less vivid, including a cartoon depiction of a baby rather than a photo in the draft set that showed a mother blowing smoke at a baby.

The images to appear on cigarette packs on a rotating basis also include one of a man proudly wearing a T-shirt that says: “I QUIT.”

All of the packs will also contain a toll-free telephone number for smoking cessation services.

The F.D.A. has already proposed nine different text warnings that will be paired with the photographs, including, “Warning: Cigarettes cause cancer” and “Warning: Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.”

The government surveyed 18,000 Americans of all ages to determine which of the 36 proposed labels would be most effective to deter smoking.

The F.D.A. can revise the selection of color photographs in the future.

A submission to the F.D.A. by R. J. Reynolds, Lorillard and Commonwealth Brands, the second, third and fourth largest cigarette makers, said the “nonfactual and controversial images” were “intended to elicit loathing, disgust, and repulsion” about a legal product.

Those companies and a few others filed suit in Kentucky in August 2009 over several provisions of the law. United States District Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr. ruled that the companies could be forced to put graphic warning labels on the packages, but said they could not be forced to limit marketing materials to black text on a white background, saying that was too broad an intrusion on commercial free speech.

  Gregg Perry, a spokesman for Lorillard Tobacco, said on Tuesday that the company was reviewing the graphics and would not comment at this time. A spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds repeated its earlier opposition to thegraphic labels.  Altria said it would not comment.

Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, the only major tobacco company to support the overall F.D.A. legislation, said in a letter earlier this year that the graphic warning provision was an unconstitutional part of the law “added in a last-minute amendment.”

The rate of smoking in America has been cut roughly in half, to about 20 percent, from 42 percent in 1965, but health officials say progress has stalled. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death, killing 443,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Each day, an estimated 4,000 youths try their first cigarette and 1,000 a day will become regular smokers, the government says.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=13c49d51f544b30dd00407b9a6e20753