Amazon And CEO Jeff Bezos Under Scrutiny In U.S. House Hearing The first congressional testimony by Jeff Bezos comes at a time when he and Amazon are seeming at their zenith, occupying ever-growing space in American culture.

Bigger And Brawnier: Clout Of Amazon And CEO Jeff Bezos Under Scrutiny

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Jeff Bezos is a man of many firsts and now comes a new one, his first ever appearance before Congress. His company, Amazon, has been criticized for anti-competitive behavior. And the company has fought those accusations. Tomorrow, lawmakers will have a chance to grill Amazon CEO about the power and reach of his company, its troves of data and the rules it sets for workers or those who sell on its platform. Ahead of the hearing, NPR's Alina Selyukh takes a look at the evolution of Jeff Bezos. And we should just note here, Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: In 2003, Jeff Bezos gave a TED talk...

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JEFF BEZOS: We are at the 1908 Hurley washing machine stage with the Internet.

SELYUKH: ...Comparing the dot-com boom to the early days of the invention of electricity. The promise of the Internet was still so young, he was saying, that you just cannot be bothered by doubters or negative press.

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BEZOS: 1998, "Amazon.Toast." In 1999, "Amazon.Bomb."

SELYUKH: That was the era of Bezos as a nerdy bookseller and family man with wispy hair, a sensible Honda and an infinite assortment of khaki pants. The "Amazon.Bomb" story had questioned his decision to build warehouses and failure to turn a profit. The cover image showed a cartoon of his distorted face inside a bomb about to explode.

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BEZOS: My mom hates this picture.

SELYUKH: This was only the beginning of the American public's love-hate relationship with the ever-growing legend of Bezos.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: No one in history has become as rich as quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The world's richest man.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The world's first centi-billionaire.

SELYUKH: A man worth over $100 billion, a Wall Street wunderkind who built a vast digital book catalog unburdened by sales tax and trained shoppers to expect deliveries in two days - obsessed with finding inefficiencies that can turn into profits.

CHIP BAYERS: He's singularly focused in a way that very few of the business people that I've interviewed over the years could possibly be.

SELYUKH: Chip Bayers wrote one of the early definitive profiles of Bezos for WIRED Magazine. A lot has changed since. The Internet's progressed from Bezos' early electricity metaphor to become the power grid of everyday life. With it, Amazon progressed to become America's online shopping habit, a company worth a trillion and a half dollars, employing 800,000 workers with enough paying subscribers to populate the ninth largest country on earth. Bezos himself also changed.

BAYERS: The first noticeable thing to me in recent years was the way he physically transformed himself as he became more wealthy.

SELYUKH: At age 53, Bezos broke the Internet, appearing at a gathering of moguls as Jacked Bezos. The CEO at one point said the '90s version of him used to start every day with a can of Pillsbury biscuits. Now, people were joking that he went from a dorky guy who clearly sells books to aviator sunglasses guy who sells and buys whatever he wants.

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JIM CRAMER: Holy cow. This is such a game changer - Amazon to buy Whole Foods.

SELYUKH: Not just that but also security cameras and delivery trucks. With a cloud business that props up the CIA, even a whole new shopping holiday named after Amazon, Bezos and his businesses occupy more and more space in American culture. As Amazon Studios grew in Hollywood, Bezos began turning up at the Oscars...

(SOUNDBITE OF 92ND ACADEMY AWARDS TELECAST)

CHRIS ROCK: Jeff Bezos is here.

STEVE MARTIN: Oh. Wow. Great actor.

SELYUKH: ...And soon in gossip columns at the center of a lascivious scandal involving an affair. Bezos buying The Washington Post fueled public content from then-candidate Donald Trump.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If I become president, oh, do they have problems.

SELYUKH: Amazon, in turn, tried to depose President Trump in a lawsuit over a Pentagon contract. Perhaps the ultimate corporate flex was Amazon HQ2, a mundane search for second headquarters turned a nationwide spectacle.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Amazon has received - whoa - 238 proposals.

SELYUKH: Bezos is often asked how so many business streams fit together inside Amazon. And, he says, they do.

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BEZOS: When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes.

SELYUKH: That's because they both feed the reputation and popularity of Amazon, which is powerful on many levels and one of them is laws regulating competition. In the U.S., they are laser-focused on consumer harm. And consumers always love cheap prices and convenience, making this Amazon's key defense to legal critics. Publicly, Bezos says bring on the scrutiny.

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BEZOS: My view on this is very simple. All big institutions of any kind are going to be - and should be - examined, scrutinized, inspected.

SELYUKH: This speech was in 2018, many years after that Internet as electricity TED Talk. This time, Bezos, perched on a ballroom stage that hosts the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a transformed leader of a much-transformed Amazon with a talent to appear self-deprecating, direct, but also still unfazed by skeptics.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "FIREFLIES")

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