Independent Media and Dependent Media

Bezos, The Washington Post, and billionaires buying the press

No one in their right mind claims to know how this is all going to go, but all agree that the landmark purchase of The Washington Post by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos ushers in a brave new world for the American press.

Billionaire John Henry just bought the Boston Globe for a song and will fold it into his sports empire. The billionaire Koch Brothers are eying the The Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, two other American icons. David Cay Johnston speculates that the prospect of billionaire Michael Bloomberg even buying the nation’s paper of record, The New York Times, arguably the world’s most important newspaper, is “much more likely.” What would have seemed like idle media chatter on Sunday now carries a ring of plausibility given that the unthinkable has now happened in the case of the Graham family’s sale to the tech titan. And when I say unthinkable, that is literally true as no one before had even really thought about the idea of a Post sale, to anyone, until after it was announced.

Nostalgia for the old days of big media is not the order of business here. After all, Gannett is big, and one could argue that that public company did more to denude the landscape of quality local journalism than anything before the arrival of the Internet, a case made forcefully in Richard McCord’s 1996 classic, The Chain Gang (available used from Amazon for a penny).

But as we try to get our bearings in this new landscape of devastated media companies scooped up by titans of the American economy, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

First, an obvious backdrop to these deals is the staggering concentration of wealth in American society, with the one-percent controlling fully a third of it. That lopsided economic pie chart has left the richest among them in control of staggering sums. In 1912, the Pujo Committee found that the interlocking network of J. P. Morgan interests controlled aggregate assets three times the assessed value of all real and personal property in New England. Well, Jeff Bezos isn’t that rich, quite, but he’s worth, himself, $25 billion. We’re used to hearing such sums, but I wonder if we fully appreciate their significance.

While the $250 million he paid for the Post is a lot of money, even, I’m sure, to him, the sheer size of his fortune—aided, to a significant degree by government tax and regulatory policy—makes the acquisition of an enterprise with such dubious business prospects something other than a nail-biter for him.

But the second thing to think about is the model. The new “billionaire savior” model, as Chittum aptly puts it, is not really a throwback to the early 20th century era of press barons, what Johnston and others call, “a new age of publishing titans.”

This is a different model. The new owners are precisely not publishing titans. They’re titans from other sectors of the economy, titans representing other interests. Bezos, technology. The Kochs, oil and gas. Henry, sports and, earlier, commodities. Bloomberg, finance.

The early press barons’ power was generated by their newspaper businesses. That was the source of their wealth—the press itself. Their primary interest was the media business.

Now, no one would argue that they were universally nice guys or even particularly public spirited. If someone were to argue that Jeff Bezos will be, all things considered, a more enlightened newspaper owner than, say, William Randolph Hearst, I might even agree. Bezos, in his letter to Post employees, certainly says the right things. One could argue the barons of old got as many breaks from the government as the nouveau billionaires do today. Again, probably true.

But that’s not the point.

The important thing is that newspaper companies were rich, obscenely so in some cases, in their own right. And from that wealth flowed what can only be called a real kind of independence. The phrase “independent media” is often thought of as “independent from government,” and that’s particularly true in Central and Eastern Europe. But in its preferred state, press owners are independent from anybody, including technology titans or oil barons. The old Dow Jones used to resist even taking out loans for fear of being, or even appearing to be, beholden to banks. But then, it could afford to.

How the old order used that power is another matter, but the fact is, they had it. And in the case of no small number of powerful newspaper companies—The Times, Dow Jones, Knight-Ridder, the Post itself—they often used it to great effect.

In the new model, on the other hand, the press is not powerful in its own right. The titans’ power flows from elsewhere. The press is, in an economic sense, incidental to their wealth. Journalism under this new model is enveloped by, and dependent upon, interests far larger and quite different from its own.

The press, as we know, can be powerful, as Bezos himself has learned over the years.

But, under this new model, can it be really called independent?

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.