Matt Welch says the press reaction to the Jeff Bezos purchase of the Washington Post reveals the contours of the thick bubble in which our media elite live. Excerpts:
For people who pride themselves on open-mindedness, elite journalists tolerate a shockingly narrow band of ideological opinion, particularly (though not only) from the people who sign their paychecks.
So you can support gay marriage, drug reform, and reduced defense spending, but do all that while also getting belatedly involved in Republican politics? You’re “staunchly conservative” and must be forcibly prevented from snatching newspapers from their rightful owners: corporatist, billionaire Democratic Party donors. You can play stand-up drums for abeloved ’60s dirt-rock band that sings songs about heroin and sadomasochism, just don’t attend any Tea Party rallies, or you’ll spook poor Jacob Weisberg.
There has been a lot of facile commentary about Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos agreeing to buy the legendary Washington Post newspaper for $250 million cash, but one of the most revealing reactions came from former Post reporter Alec MacGillis in The New Republic. In the midst of a Luddite rant about how Bezos has “devastated the publishing industry,” MacGillis snorts out a six-word advertisement for journalistic closed-mindedness: “His politics are not visibly objectionable.”
Try to move past the fact that The New Republic is now owned by a Facebook billionaire who used to run Barack Obama’s social media campaign, and instead focus on the underlying assertion here: Ideology and political activity outside the journalist-drawn boundaries must be objected to. Elite scribblers have been struggling with that imperative ever since yesterday afternoon’s bombshell announcement.
It is hard to express how strongly this sentiment exists within journalism if you’ve not seen it first-hand. The thing most outsiders don’t get about American journalists is that many of them — at least the ones who set newsroom agendas — don’t see themselves as mere professionals, but as a kind of secular priesthood. I mean, they conceive of their roles in quasi-sacred terms, determining what is pure and what is impure. Newsrooms, like seminaries, are populated with people who have a sense of mission and righteousness and a desire to make the world a better place by making it a purer place. This is responsible for the best in journalism, and the worst.
Media bias doesn’t just express itself directly, but insidiously; the media won’t just tell you what to believe, but (more importantly) sets the boundaries of what may be publicly discussed. This is one reason why the blogosphere has ravaged the authority and readership of newspapers. It’s a lot more interesting because readers don’t have to depend on the sensibilities of the media caste to decide what is acceptable opinion for the masses to consume.
Welch, writing for the libertarian magazine Reason, says that Bezos’s acquisition of the Post is important because it means ownership of a major American institution, a newspaper in the nation’s capital, passes to someone who is not of that Establishment world, and not beholden to its political agenda. Look:
But the changing of the Beltway guard is not just a story about technology. Post publishers have long been kingmakers, peacekeepers, and zealous guardians of the acceptable status quo. They helped draw the lines around what is “visibly objectionable” in American political life. Jeff Bezos won’t waltz into Washington with an eraser, but his example strongly suggests that power in the 21st century is rightly shifting away from those who dictate agendas, and toward those who get their agendas out of the way.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Bezos is leaving the current leadership of the Post in place, which makes sense in the short term. But think of the good he could do if he reinvented the newspaper along lines that made it more ideologically diverse, welcoming of creative thinking, and antagonistic to the Washington hierarchies and Establishment status quo of both the left and the right? It’s exciting to contemplate.