Washington Post public editor: Bezos has been hands-off. What if that changes?

Apart from the purely money-driven vampires looking to suck the last bits of revenue from journalism, there are mostly two kinds of rich people who buy newspapers and magazines. Those, like Rupert Murdoch, who buy them with the explicit intention of wielding them as political megaphones. And those who buy them for the reason of the cultural cachet they bring–a quasi-philanthropic investment in a civic institution, a slightly more benign way of building political good will. 

Thus far, the purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos has fallen into the latter category. The paper’s 2013 sale price of $250 million was pocket change for Bezos, which minimizes the danger that he’ll drop out after seeing the costs of journalism. And ownership of such an esteemed institution gave him an instant set of social benefits: the halo of being a good citizen, a new type of credibility in the national conversation, and an excuse to buy the biggest mansion in Washington, DC. He bought America’s second most influential newspaper in the way that someone else might buy a ticket to a charity dinner. It didn’t cost that much, it makes people think you’re nice, and it’s a reason to get out of the house. 

Bezos has given the paper the resources to be bigger and better, and, by most accounts, pretty much stayed out of the newsroom’s hair, besides appearing one day to present a bicycle to former editor Marty Baron. The Amazon boss has never been an overtly political man, except to the extent that he supports whatever helps him stay rich and take over the world with his robotic form of ultra-capitalism. But he is not inclined to spend his time on the phone haranguing Post editors about coverage decisions. When you are worth close to $200 billion, your time is too valuable for that. 

There is no guarantee, however, that that will always be true. No one as central to a nation’s fundamental political and economic issues–inequality, corporate power, the future of work–as Jeff Bezos can stay out of the mud of the public discourse forever. Every passing week now seems to bring a new Amazon story: antitrust controversies, censorship controversies, culture war controversies on the right and labor rights controversies on the left. Most recently, the union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama brought a deluge of media coverage, much of which (accurately) painted Bezos himself as a cartoon villain fighting against the rights of low-paid workers from atop a pile of money. 

The Post, naturally, covers all of these things. As a matter of fact, the Post’s Jay Greene was the first reporter to describe the anti-union propaganda that Amazon was posting inside of bathroom stalls in the Alabama warehouse, a tidbit which really makes Jeff Bezos look like a sociopath. This alone is enough to prove that there is still a healthy firewall between newsroom and owner. The question that the paper’s staff, and its readers, need to ponder, is: As media scrutiny of Amazon grows ever more intense and hostile, is there a point at which Bezos gets sick of it and decides to use the glimmering elite media outlet at his disposal to fight back? 

Discussing this question with nuance is not easy. The paper will always say that Bezos does not interfere. Bezos himself will always say that he does not interfere. Factions of the public on the right and the left will always hold that Bezos’s ownership inherently corrupts the paper’s coverage. (In fact, the Post’s journalism seems to be as free from the inherent corruption of capitalism as any journalism in America can be.) All of these positions will remain entrenched, even as the truth may shift over time. As the union drive neared its peak, Amazon’s official Twitter account suddenly started arguing with critics in a somewhat unhinged manner, which was reportedly prompted by Bezos’s insistence that the company be more “aggressive” against criticism. Every PR expert in the world knew that it was stupid, and the company eventually had to walk back some of its comments. But it goes to show that Bezos is, despite all appearances, not a robot. And he can snap.  

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The wealthy read their own press, and they don’t like things they own to work directly against their interests. These two facts mean that the editorial independence of the Post should never be taken for granted. I doubt there would ever be anything so gauche as a call from Bezos directly to the paper’s editor. But when both sides know that the economic fate of the paper and all of its employees is completely in one man’s hands, unmistakable signals can be sent, if Bezos chooses to send them. 

So how should the paper’s readers know when to be concerned? Well, if the Post ever stops publishing stories about Amazon making it difficult for its employees to urinate in peace, that will be a red flag. The Pee Standard of Editorial Integrity must be upheld.

 

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Hamilton Nolan is CJR's public editor for the Washington Post.

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