We Already Know What Kind of Newspaper Owner Jeff Bezos Will Be

Remember when Amazon pulled the plug on Wikileaks?

There’s already a great flood of commentary wondering whether Jeff Bezos, the new owner of the Washington Post, will be a good king or a bad king.

The tech crowd is predictably enthusiastic. Henry Blodget is excited about the “cool synergies.” Granted, he’s the beneficiary of a Bezos investment, as the billionaire-worshippers in the comment threads at Hacker News would also like to be one day.

Just as predictably, much of the commentary from traditional journalistic quarters, is of the hem-hawing, wait-and-see sort. That’s the only prudent response, and not just because no one really knows what Bezos will do with the Post.

Everyone writing about the Post deal must be aware that Bezos could be signing their paychecks in the not-too-distant future, if not as a newspaper properieter then as a seller and publisher of books. He is quickly becoming one guy you definitely don’t want to piss off in the media business.

James Fallows has a characteristically level-headed take. Fallows is hopeful, while pointing out that Bezos’s initial investment is insufficient to sustain a serious, world-class news operation.

Alec MacGillis at The New Republic is thus far one of the few writers willing to come out and state the obvious: That Bezos buying the Post is bad news.

I agree with MacGillis’s conclusion and his rationale, but I have another, more specific reason for pessimism, which I’ll explain in a moment.

First I want to make clear what I am not about to argue:

I do not think Bezos will be marching into the Post newsroom with a new style guide and a list of stories for the reporters to cover. That is never (well, rarely) an owner’s role.

He will however be the person who decides what to do when one of those rare investigative pieces comes along that truly threatens the interests of powerful people.

That is what has me worried.

Bezos is saying the right things, as he is obliged to for the moment, and I suppose Post reporters should be grateful that he extended the courtesy. In a letter to Post employees published yesterday, Bezos said he hopes to channel the Graham family’s courage to let journalists “follow the story, no matter the cost.” He went on:

“While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.”

Now, I don’t swallow the Graham family mythology in its entirety. Before and after Watergate, the Post has comforted the comfortable on a daily basis. Its proximity to power is one of the reasons Post editors got Iraq wrong.

Nevertheless, the paper’s mythology is rooted in historical fact. At a time when it truly mattered, Katharine Graham permitted the paper to publish a series of stories that, instead of bringing down a monstrous presidency, could have easily destroyed her family business. She had taken the same risk earlier by following The New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Jeff Bezos was recently confronted with a similar decision.

He did not demonstrate independence, or courage, or a commitment to the principles of free speech and democracy.

He caved, and quickly.

The piece of the Bezos empire that warrants the most scrutiny now is not so much the Amazon.com sales machine, with its dubious labor practices, or even the company’s increasingly monopolistic publishing arm, but Amazon Web Services and its enormous hosting business.

Through Amazon, Bezos controls a signifcant share of the physical infrastructure of the internet. In that capacity, he has long been a player in the news business. He can pull the plug on any website hosted on Amazon’s servers at any time.

This power has been tested. We have already seen how Bezos handled a big, dangerous, earth-moving story that frightened and flustered the Washington, D.C. establishment:

He did his part to bury it.

The story begins long, long ago in 2010—so we definitely can’t expect anyone to remember it today. Wikileaks had published thousands of U.S. State Department cables.

Senator Joe Lieberman called on Amazon to boot Wikileaks from its servers because it hosted “classified material” (never mind that pols like Lieberman leak classified information all the time to suit their purposes).

Amazon complied, though it had no legal obligation to do so.

Even though Amazon has stopped providing the web-hosting services to WikiLeaks, Lieberman suggested that his problem with the company was not fully resolved.

“I will be asking Amazon about the extent of its relationship with Wikileaks and what it and other web service providers will do in the future to ensure that their services are not used to distribute stolen, classified information,” Lieberman said.

This act of censorship was purely in the interests of expediency. It was a favor by Bezos to a powerful politician, carried out in full public view and without apology.

It was, in effect, like sending pink slips to Woodward and Bernstein in the middle of their Watergate reporting because someone at the White House called to complain.

I’ll grant that the analogy would be more strictly accurate if Bezos were cast as a paper supplier who abruptly cancled the Post‘s supply of newsprint. (Of course, the reality is much worse than either analogy given the extent of media consolidation today. More on that later, too.) Nor does Julian Assange deserve the comparison to Woodstein.

Yet I see room for debate around the actions and intentions of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. I don’t see a positive way to spin what Amazon did to Wikileaks.

The details of Bezos’s involvement in that episode is unclear. Those details ought to be revisited and further revealed.

It is clear that Bezos did not have any body parts put through a wringer. He was not forced to give sworn testimony at Congressional hearings regarding Amazon’s business relationship with Wikileaks. There was no F.B.I. raid of his home or office. There was, by contemporary accounts, merely some “questioning” by staff members for a lone U.S. Senator.

Mercy! Mercy!

Bezos, a notorious micromanager who reputedly “makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies,” was and remains chairman and CEO of Amazon. It was entirely his choice whether or not to sever Amazon’s relationship with Wikileaks at a critical time.

From a free speech perspective, he made the wrong choice.

Now Bezos says he’s ready to channel Katharine Graham.

Ryan Calo, a lecturer at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society, said that under U.S. law, Amazon would likely have been shielded from any possible prosecution by the government over the WikiLeaks document dump.

“It would set a dangerous precedent were companies like Amazon to take down things merely because the senator or another government entity started to ask question about them,” Calo said.

I wonder if Bezos and Donald Graham discussed this incident as they strolled around the Sun Valley resort together. Somehow I doubt it.

Graham told Reuters: “I named a price and Jeff agreed to pay it.”

Katharine Weymouth, the Graham family heir who will remain at the Post as publisher, told a reporter for the paper that Bezos was
“everything we were looking for [in a buyer] — a business leader with a track record of entrepreneurship who believes in our values and cares about journalism, and someone who was willing to pay a fair price to our shareholders.”

Let’s parse that quote: “Business”… “entrepreneurship”… “values”… “jouralism”… “price”… “shareholders.”

That’s four words about money and two about principle.

I’ll venture that this deal was not primarily about preserving the Fourth Estate. It was about the Graham family bailing out of a business they no longer know how to run.

The era of regional American newspaper dynasties wasn’t perfect, but it’s likely better than the transnational monopolies to come.

There is no precedent for what Bezos seems to be building.

Bill Gates has some large media properties, and his foundation influences some news coverage through the grants it bestows, but when it comes to the day-to-day information that reaches the broad public, Gates is on the sidelines.

The Google guys are powerful, with their online advertising presence and their search-and-discovery tools, but they haven’t seriously ventured into publishing and newsgathering, at least not yet. Anyway, they seem to lose interest in new projects quickly, whereas media-moguldom requires sustained commitment and focus.

The nearest model for Bezos’s ambitions may be Rupert Murdoch, who put a finger in every pie—print, broadcast, digital, book publishing, cable and satellite—in every country willing to open the door for him.

Murdoch is 82 years old. His empire is falling apart. Bezos is only 49 years old. He’s just getting started.

There’s another important difference between the two men, beyond the generational and the political.

During Murdoch’s heyday it was impossible for one company to consolidate production, distribution, editorial and advertising functions across all forms of media and across national borders. The internet makes that if not easy then, for the first time, possible.

I have no idea whether Bezos has the wherewithal to expand at such a scale. I also have no idea what he has in mind for the Post and its newsroom.

But I do wonder, what has he learned about free speech that he did not understand in 2010?

Who’s going to tell him when he’s doing it wrong?

Update Aug. 8

Don’t miss The Jeff Bezos-Washington Post Conflict-of-Interest Crayon, available on GitHub.