Bezos Isn’t Buying a Newspaper, He’s Buying Into DC
The Washington Post deserves some credit for its own reporting on its sale to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, after 80 years in the hands of the heirs of Eugene Meyer. Note well these paragraphs toward the end of Paul Farhi’s story:
Perhaps the single biggest item on Amazon’s legislative agenda is a bill that would empower all states to collect sales tax from online retailers.
Amazon is required to collect sales taxes only in states where it maintains a physical presence, such as a warehouse. But Amazon now is supporting the bill, which has passed the Senate and is pending in the House. State sales taxes no longer pose a real threat to Amazon; with an emphasis on same-day shipping, the company is building distribution warehouses across the country and would have to pay the tax anyway. Last month, the company announced it would hire 5,000 employees at these warehouses, an ambitious growth strategy that is hurting profits in the short run.
(Guess what the sales tax Amazon favors would do to its competition—especially the independent used-book sellers who can’t compete with Amazon in scale, but can undercut its prices? Meanwhile, here’s what you need to know about jobs at those Amazon warehouses.)
It’s worth considering whether tech billionaires like Jeff Bezos and New Republic owner Chris Hughes are buying journalistic institutions or political ones. No tech billionaire was interesting in buying the Boston Globe, after all. (Which may be to the good for that paper, even if the pittance for which the Globe was sold was humiliating to the New York Times Company, which got back less than 10 percent of the $1.1 billion it had paid for the Globe in 1993.) The Tribune papers, including the Los Angeles Times, are also for sale, and while there’s been a lot of media angst about the interest the Republican-leaning Koch brothers have shown in the property, the Washington Post and New Republic seem to have had an easier time finding buyers. What might you get with those properties that the Los Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune doesn’t give you?
There’s more than just lobbying power at stake, of course—there’s also the DC prestige that comes with owning one of the city’s media institutions. Billionaires don’t have much trouble circulating amidst elected officials even without owning the Washington Post, but that ownership changes the relationship, making it easier on the one hand—not simply about one side asking the other for money, but each being involved in the great affairs of the nation—but also, on the other, giving the billionaire more leverage than he’d otherwise have over pols who can always pit one rich man’s interests (and money) against another’s. The Post is still uniquely valuable as an aggregator of military-industrial interests, well represented both in advertisements and on the op-ed page. The Post‘s owner is potentially in position to deploy not only his own lobbying muscle, but that of the other interests that speak through the Post.
It’s not as if the Post‘s previous owners haven’t had angles of their own, of course, and Bezos says he’s keeping the paper’s management and doesn’t have much of a plan to change the content, though he’s alluded to a need for experimentation. The New Republic has been pretty good under Hughes, in terms of the quality of its writing if not the design of the magazine, which is too visually cluttered for my tastes. (It’s a magazine designed for people who want to look, not read, and that doesn’t seem to me to be the market the New Republic should be going for.) So what the Bezos purchase means for the Post‘s coverage and editorial positioning is hard to say, and perhaps the paper’s quality will improve. The op-ed page could hardly get any more neoconservative—not even if the paper had been sold to a consortium led by Bill Kristol—so in some senses Bezos can only better. And maybe he really does care about quality journalism for its own sake. In which case, Bezos would just so happen to have acquired an invaluable means of influencing policymakers as well.