In politics, they call this optics: Yesterday the publisher of The Washington Post stood in the massive hall where printing presses used to churn out a daily newspaper to announce that it was being sold to a tech billionaire with a reputation for killing print.
For a mere $250 million, Jeff Bezos is buying the Post from the Graham family, which has controlled the paper for more than 80 years, and the news is serving as a vehicle for discussing The Future of many things: journalism, print, meritocracy, online sales taxes, The Gilded Age 2.0. And, of course, the possibility that the Post’s standard for balanced, unbiased reportage may be in peril.
The question, specifically, is whether Bezos, reportedly something of a lower-case “l” libertarian, will or won’t influence the paper’s coverage of issues that pertain to his primary business, like online sales tax and Big Data, or allow his own politics to create bias. It’s a reasonable question, but it’s not by any stretch unique to this situation—or to this moment in history.
If the Internet has made it possible for everyone and anyone to express an opinion, informed or otherwise, it might seem that, for billionaires whose riches came from the Internet, newspapers and other print periodicals are the ultimate blogs. There’s Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, who bought The New Republic, and now Bezos with the Post, and defenders of Good Journalism are worried that these entrepreneurs will get in the way of the arbiters of the news. And the concern is somewhat well founded. The Post, for example, was the first American newspaper to publish information about the NSA’s data mining that was leaked by Edward Snowden—a moment that echoed one of the paper’s biggest scoops, Watergate, which came via another famous whistleblower. Amazon provides cloud storage for the government; will the financial interests of Bezos’s far larger, more profitable venture influence the paper’s coverage of such events in the future?
If you listen to Bezos, the answer is no; he’s promised to not interfere with news reporting or editorial matters at the Post. “I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day,” he wrote in a letter to staff. “I am happily living in “the other Washington” where I have a day job that I love.” But even if bias is occasionally apparent at the Post, it wouldn’t be the first time. The history of news media is one of bias and plurality—of voices, of opinions, of publications.
Gutenberg’s press spawned a proliferation that, by the 1730s, culminated in London with the publication of 31 different papers out of Fleet Street. These dailies, weeklies and tri-weeklies weren’t exactly known for being scrupulous, but over time, journalistic norms were developed, and as the competition narrowed somewhat, each slant found its audience—and echoes of that can still be found in England’s more partisan modern press.
The benefit of a plurality of opinionated voices—like Fleet Street and, to a lesser extent, American print media once had, like the Internet now provides—is the very real advantage of both debate and checks and balances against the status quo. Which is ultimately why Bezos’s bigger soap box, should he choose to use the Post as such, isn’t that big of a concern in the context of the larger media landscape. If the paper skips out on the next national security leak for cowardly, capitalistic reasons, there will do doubt be another Glenn Greenwald out there who will be more than happy to run with the story.
That’s not to say that the Internet has made a “legacy” print publication like the Post obsolete. Greenwald may be a journalist born of the blogosphere, but he had the backing of The Guardian, one of Fleet Street’s long-standing publications, to support his reporting on the Snowden leaks. Ezra Klein, one of the paper’s young stars—who is primarily known for his web-based Wonkblog—comes from a similar background. Furthermore, the luxury of time that print affords journalists can bring about in-depth reporting like the Post’s extensive examination of the booming (and increasingly outsourced) intelligence-industrial complex from 2010. Surely, investigative work like that will still have a place in the Post’s storied newsroom, regardless of what tech innovations its new owner brings to bear.
Announcing the sale of the Post in a room that once hung with the smell of ink and solvent is an image that could be read in many ways. Especially in light of Bezos’s role in the rise of e-books and the collapse of the brick-and-mortar bookseller, it could be interpreted as a death knell. But the obituary for print has been prematurely written for years now. It’s more interesting to think about the how breaking the news of the tech takeover in a hall where hulking offset presses used to sit is symbolic of print entering a different relationship status with the Internet—with its money, its startup culture mentality, its politics and limitless voices. It’s not a wholly good or bad union as it pertains to journalism and the business of newspapers (you might say it’s complicated), but it’s certainly bigger than one man’s politics and business concerns.