Much is being said, almost all of it guesswork, about why Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, what he plans to do with it, and what it all means. Some argue it’s just a kind of trophy purchase, others that it was done to gain political influence, for Mr. Bezos and/or Amazon, in the Nation’s Capital.
Still others see in the purchase a path leading to a future in which important elements of the news media are nonprofit entities, either by design or in consequence of operations that, while unprofitable, are subsidized by owners with deep pockets.
I would guess, and hope, that all of these speculations are false. The more likely reason that Mr. Bezos bought the Post is because he suspects he can operate it, using the tools of the new technologies, at a profit. That by doing so he would also, serendipitously, save professional journalism may be a by-product of his purchase, whether it’s part of his motivation or not.
In 2000, The Media Institute gave Mr. Bezos its Free Speech Award, largely in recognition of the global reach of his book selling operation, sometimes over the objections of local governments. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Bezos talked at length about the path he and his wife had followed in the creation and growth of Amazon, and the picture that emerged was not that of a politician or a philanthropist.
Instead, Mr. Bezos came across as an ambitious, disciplined, and hard-charging businessman. (That same year, the Institute gave its other annual award to Robert Johnson, founder of BET, and I have often thought how similar the two men are.)
To put it another way, I think Mr. Bezos has too much self respect, and too little ego, to have purchased the Post either as a kind of grandstanding event, the better to aggrandize himself or Amazon, or to stand by and subsidize indefinitely a financially failing company.
After all, if news organizations are not created to make a profit, what are the standards of success or failure? The idea that nonprofit status produces a more value-free product is belied by the reality that most philanthropists operating in the realm of the media have decided political views, a la the Knight Foundation, ProPublica, Open Society Institute, etc.
Going forward, there is one thing I would recommend to the gentleman: that he insist that the editors and reporters at the Post understand how important it is that the media be a watchdog on government. After all, if the media are not a check on government, who is? If the only role of the media is to deliver eyeballs to advertisers, the media wouldn’t deserve a First Amendment and the Founders wouldn’t have produced one.
Which is not to say that the Post is in all ways politically or ideologically one dimensional. As contrasted with the New York Times, where the right-leaning Ross Douthat toils away in solitary isolation, the Post’s editorial page features lots of conservative columnists.
The problem so defined is not in the editorial pages but in the news pages – the paper’s breaking, feature, and investigative reports. No subject better illustrates this point than the paper’s coverage of the ruinous, not to say corrupt, fiscal antics of Congress and the Administration.
Perhaps the greatest threat not just to the financial health but to the very security of this country’s citizens is the growth of government, and of the corresponding governmental debt, at the federal, state, and local levels. Nor is this a new development. It’s been going on for years and the Washington Post has looked right past the kind of things that, were they done in the private sector, would yield indictments and incarceration.
There are things to admire in the Washington Post, and it’s to be expected that Mr. Bezos would not come out with early comments of concern about the editorial product there. But if he cares about the promotion of excellence in journalism, and would like to add conservatives and Republicans to the newspaper’s admirers, this is something he ought to put in his cart.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.