Who says The Washington Post isn’t religious? Some of its reporters found a new god this week, Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, who bought the ailing newspaper for $250 million, which apparently represents only 1 percent of his wealth.
Bezos seems fully committed to the liberal social agenda, judging by his $2.5 million backing of last November’s Washington state referendum on same-sex marriage, an amount that probably made the difference in a 52 percent to 48 percent gay win. That cost was 1 percent of what Bezos paid for the Post, and now he can buy 52-48 wins in hundreds of referenda. Wealthy Christian conservatives who keep buying ads rather than financing publications should be so wise.
The deep pockets of Bezos rendered the Post newsroom optimistic, according to a senior editor who spoke to The Guardian anonymously: “We hope he is civic-minded and will give us the resources to perform our democratic role.” Translation: We want to propagandize and be well-paid for it. With The New York Times staggering, the Post is well-placed to become the go-to place for young reporters eager to perform their democratic role, much as Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune once was.
Greeley didn’t pay the most, but his newspaper was the new new thing in the mid-19th century, and writers from America’s vibrant Margaret Fuller to Germany’s dour Karl Marx filled the Tribune’s pages. Recently departed Amazon exec Dave Cotter said about his former employer, “Other companies pay more,” but “you go to Amazon because there’s something big going on.” Bezos deserves credit for fostering that sense at Amazon, and over time he can probably do the same at the Post.
But here’s the greater danger: Horace Greeley 160 years ago didn’t have technology that others were without. Many people could save and buy a printing press. Now, publications seeking to survive have developed apps that allow readers to gain their news via Apple’s iPad, Amazon’s Kindle, and other devices that will become even more important over the next decade. Censors for those devices have occasionally kicked out content they didn’t like, but so far have not run roughshod over free speech. What if they do?
Media that are simply transmitters aren’t likely to become dictatorial within a free market system, because their profits depend on putting out all kinds of things. But content distributors that become content providers face greater temptations to tilt the playing field, and would-be dictators always try to control central means of communication. Bezos via Amazon owns a key transmission line and now a key content provider: We need to watch carefully.
None of this is to say that we should be writing dystopian novels that add just a few decades to 1984. We are still living in a golden age of diverse journalism where worldviews of all kinds can gain a hearing faster than ever before. But let’s not forget the value of low-tech pen and paper: A time may come when we need such lowly means to communicate truth, if high-tech media become only an echo chamber.