Jeff Bezos Owns the Washington Post – and the Journalism It’s Practicing

The Washington Post has for years been a newspaper that favors Democrats and liberalism generally. This has been seen in the kind and quality of issues covered, and not covered, in its feature and investigative stories, and in its editorials. But not until this year has the paper so grossly abandoned the practice of separating news from opinion in its news stories.

And that is something that, for all his distractions and grandeur, the Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, must now correct — that or he needs to accept personally the decline and opprobrium that is coming the Post’s way.

Under normal circumstances the owner of a media company is best advised to steer clear of editorial matters, but that won’t work at the Post any longer. It’s become obvious that, with the election of Donald Trump, none of the editors at the paper can be trusted to uphold even the most basic of journalistic standards.

This has been true since Trump first announced his candidacy, but it has escalated gruesomely since his election. Witness, for instance, what is perhaps the shoddiest piece of feature writing since Rolling Stone published its blatantly false story about a campus rape at the University of Virginia. » Read More

Maines is president of The Media Institute. The opinions expressed are his alone and not those of The Media Institute, its board, advisory councils, or contributors.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on Nov. 29, 2016.

The WAPO/Koch Brothers/Keystone XL Pipeline Affair

The recent Washington Post story linking the Koch brothers to the Keystone XL Pipeline, via their leaseholds on acreage in the Alberta, Canada, tar sands, is interesting because of what was said in the piece, and because of what its critics have said about it.  But mostly it’s interesting because it’s the kind of flap whose resolution will be an early indication of the kind of editorial product Jeff Bezos wants to own.

In a nutshell, the Post piece, co-authored by reporters Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin, ID’d the Koch brothers as “the biggest lease holders in Canada’s tar sands,” and then suggested that this fact would “inflame the already contentious debate about the Keystone XL Pipeline.”  The authors admit that their article was based on a report produced by a leftwing organization called the International Forum on Globalization, and that it was IFG’s executive director who provided the material on which the WAPO article was based.

Curiously, the co-authors also go on to say in the piece that they don’t really know how many acres of land the Kochs own in Canada, or what they are doing there, and that in fact “the link between Koch and Keystone XL is indirect at best.”

Given that all of this is revealed in the first five paragraphs of the article, one could wonder why the piece was written in the first place, not to mention why it then goes on for another 29.  One answer to that question was provided by lawyer John Hinderaker, who published on PowerLine a devastating rebuttal of the Post piece, complete with evidence that the Kochs are not the largest leaseholders in the tar sands, that they have no interest in the Keystone Pipeline, and that in fact construction of the pipeline would actually hurt their financial interests.  Hinderaker also says this:

Why would the Washington Post embarrass itself by republishing a thoroughly discredited attempt to link the Koch brothers to the Keystone Pipeline?  Because that is a Democratic Party talking point, and the Post is a Democratic Party newspaper.

Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jack Kelly picks up on this theme, and concludes with the suggestion that “If Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post’s new owner, wants to run a newspaper rather than a Democrat propaganda sheet, he has some housecleaning to do.”

In the face of this kind of criticism, reporter Mufson replied with one of the strangest nonsequiturs in memory:

The PowerLine article, and its tone, is strong evidence that issues surrounding the Koch brothers political and business interests will stir and inflame public debate in this election year.  That’s why we wrote the piece.  (Emphases added)

As Jonah Goldberg subsequently wrote, “By this logic any unfair attack posing as reporting is worthwhile when people try to correct the record.  Why not just … accuse the Kochs of killing JFK or hiding the Malaysian airplane?”

Beyond the facts in dispute there is also the unseemly matter, as Hinderaker describes it, of Judith Eilperin’s (undisclosed) marriage to a man who writes on climate policy for the decidedly partisan Center for American Progress, something that prompts Hinderaker to also wonder if there was any coordination between Eilperin and CAP, or between her and any Democratic congressmen or staff.

Many people are closely watching the Post these days for any sign of a change in the editorial stance in the paper since Bezos acquired it, and there are those who believe they may have spotted something in the decision of the paper to start publishing the libertarian-leaning Volokh Conspiracy blog (which itself questioned the Mufson/Eilperin piece), and in the paper’s decision to pass on the editorial ambitions of Ezra Klein.

But both of those matters concerned opinion writing rather than news reporting, whereas the Mufson/Eilperin article was published as news.

As mentioned here, it would be a surprise if Bezos bought the Post in order to push any kind of political or ideological agenda, but as a businessman he is known to believe in giving customers what they want.  And if that’s the case the article in question must give him pause.

Put it this way:  When the Post was just a print newspaper, distributed mostly in the greater D.C. area with its large majority of registered Democrats, it made business sense to publish a paper that leaned liberal and Democratic.  But in the digital age the paper has the challenge of appealing to people throughout the country, including Republicans and conservatives, few of whom would be attracted by news stories like that of Mufson and Eilperin.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Reflections on the Sale of the Washington Post

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.