I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day. I am happily living in “the other Washington” where I have a day job that I love.
It is, admittedly, an odd connection to draw. But when Jeff Bezos, founder of the online retail colossus Amazon, said he wouldn’t leave Seattle to take up residency in the hometown of the legendary newspaper he had just bought, I thought of the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” That’s when the ark, whose immense power had been so fiercely sought for the entire movie, is trundled on a forklift into a warehouse, fittingly enough, in Washington. And the camera pulls back to reveal the vastness of the cavernous space where it’ll be kept and, apparently, abandoned—its might untapped and unrecognized.
Of course, The Post isn’t being abandoned. Although Bezos probably won’t stick to his initial pronouncements about leaving its management intact—transformational business tycoons usually have their own ideas about leadership—for now it’s a safe bet that the Post will remain an energetic, gutsy and fully engaged news organization.
But to me, as somebody who grew up in Washington and who broke into the news business in the Post’s shadow during Watergate, the very idea that the paper’s proprietor wouldn’t be thrilled to take the throne that comes with the title is more telling and more poignant than any other element of the story.
In a way, the Bezos case offers the mirror image of the flap over the possible purchase by the billionaire Koch brothers of media heavyweight Tribune Co. There, the brothers’ ideological ambitions were thought to be driving their interest, with their supposed wish to see a stronger libertarian cast to news coverage drawing them to an investment that had meager financial appeal.
There, whether people were cheered or appalled by the possible Koch takeover, they agreed that the acquisition mattered—not so much because it might infuse money or managerial smarts into an ailing company, but because it could have an impact on the public sphere, on policy talk, on civic discourse. With news proprietorship comes a seat at the grownups’ table. That’s the deal.
Bezos may not want to sit at the table, but that seems unlikely in view of the extraordinary impact his company is having on global retail—the adoring takeout in the current issue of Fast Company magazine is an eye-opener in laying out the breadth of Amazon’s revolutionary impact on the way goods are sold worldwide.
Indeed, there’s nothing in his past to suggest that Bezos would shy away from wielding influence. The more disquieting possibility is that he doesn’t think being an absentee owner of The Washington Post would mean he’s giving up any.
Now, to be sure, the universe of Georgetown townhouse dinners and salon gatherings of cabinet officials, party hacks, media blow-dries, Capitol Hill staff members, and legislative back-benchers isn’t for everyone. Jeff Bezos may not aspire to preside as Katherine Graham did, or follow the example of her late husband at the 1960 Democratic convention, conveying messages between his friend Lyndon Johnson and the nominee Jack Kennedy. A billionaire tech mogul might well prefer remaining in blue jeans, muscling his company beyond its $61 billion in sales—up fourfold in the past five years–and gazing out over the blue Pacific.
But I can’t help but think that Bezos’ absence reflects a marginalization of the legacy news business, a recognition of the limits of its influence.
And that’s a marginalization that, in my view, his own purchase is likely to accelerate. It’s fine to applaud Bezos’s entry into the news business, and to welcome the technological and market-based sophistication that he’ll apply to the intractable issues of revenue collapse that the industry is grappling with.
But what will that sophistication mean? Isn’t it likely to mean an ever more targeted valuation, appraisal and separation of the specialized informational streams that once were consolidated into a great daily broadsheet like The Washington Post? Isn’t that the logic of Internet market-making—of which Amazon is a master—to price and sell intelligence with surgical precision, and to sell the identities and addresses of those who buy it with equivalently nano specificity?
And once that’s done, hasn’t the ancestral power of the legacy newspaper been destroyed—the ability to constitute a community around vast commonalities of interest and concern?
So maybe Jeff Bezos knew something we could only suspect. He is keeping out of Washington not because he eschews power, but because by the time he’s done making The Post into an Internet-worthy commercial success, it won’t be wielding any.