It has been almost five years since Amazon founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos closed his purchase of the Washington Post for $250 million, and still we don’t know for certain why he bought it. President Donald Trump has been no help getting to the bottom of it, recently polluting the topic with his assertion—backed with zero evidence—that Bezos acquired the paper to “lobby” for Amazon.
Bezos himself has taken a few shots at explaining his motivation. Two years ago, when Post Executive Editor Martin Baron pitched the question directly at the world’s wealthiest man in a public conversation, Bezos swung the civic-responsibility bat, connecting cleanly. Citing what would later become the paper’s dopey motto, “democracy dies in darkness,” Bezos continued, “Certain institutions have a very important role in making sure there is light, and I think the Washington Post has a seat, an important seat to do that, because we happen to be located here in the capital city of the United States of America.”
His slender responses might qualify as an answer, except who can believe that Bezos believes it? His professed affinity for illumination rarely extends to his businesses, as David Streitfeld and Christine Haughney of the New York Times noted when he bought the Post. Bezos, they wrote, “has never seemed much of a fan of journalism or journalists.” Preferring the shadows to the bright lights, he gives interviews when he needs to promote some new Amazon product or other investment, and then remains rigidly on message. Even the company’s quarterly earnings calls with journalists and analysts “are festivals of vagueness,” the Times reporters continued. Amazon’s practice of stiff-arming journalists caused one former Amazon employee to tell the paper, “Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment.’” When the New York Times covered Trump’s denunciations of Amazon, Bezos and the Post this month, it asked Amazon for a comment and a chance to interview Bezos, getting the usual nothing from the company. In practice, Bezos aligns himself with 19th-century financier J.P. Morgan, who once said to a pesky reporter. “I owe the public nothing.”
Bezos isn’t the first tycoon to buy a newspaper at midcareer, only the richest. Again and again, the wealthy devote slivers of their fortunes to newspapers. Richard Mellon Scaife, an heir to the famous banking fortune, bought the Tribune-Review and turned it into Pittsburgh's conservative broadsheet at the beginning of the 1970s. Texas banker Joe L. Allbritton bought the Washington Star in 1974, convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon spent a billion on the Washington Times starting in 1982, and developer Mortimer Zuckerman acquired the New York Daily News in 1993. More recently, Denver investor Philip Anschutz purchased the San Francisco Examiner (eventually starting free dailies in Washington and Baltimore) (2004), commodities ace John Henry picked up the Boston Globe (2013), casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal (2015). Biotech entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, who totes a big philanthropic portfolio, will soon complete his purchase of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune. The stated aim of his ownership is to bind the Southern California community together. Michael Bloomberg has never bought a newspaper with his billions, primarily because the one he wants—the New York Times—hasn’t been for sale. Instead, he spent millions building a virtual newspaper and editorial page online. (See Dan Kennedy's new book, The Return of the Moguls, for more on the Bezos and Henry newspaper ventures.)
What do these bigshots hope to extract from their purchases? It goes without saying that buying a newspaper conveys new status. The egos of some newspaper owners overflow with psychic income. Like MLB and NFL franchise-holders, they become immediate players in their regions. Their phone calls to politicians not only get returned, but politicians also place calls to them, seeking approval, favors and endorsements. If they rescue a paper from folding, they’re embraced as civic heroes. Invitations to speak before groups and appear on television materialize as their opinion rises in value overnight. The competition composes profiles on them as they become boldface celebrities—Mort Zuckerman used the prestige of his Daily News ownership to join the TV commentariat and write a column. The rewards of ownership are so great, it’s a wonder that every multimillionaire doesn’t buy a publication. A newspaper can be a great toy.
Some newspaper owners become overt about their aims, infusing their papers with their own politics (Moon, Anschutz, Adelson). Others tread more softly (Scaife, Allbritton, Henry, Soon-Shiong). Up until now, Bezos has followed the second path, diluting speculation about what he expects owning the paper will bring him by mouthing civics class clichés about the Washington Post being an “important institution” worth preserving. “It’s pretty important who we elect as president, all those things, and we need to examine those people, try to understand them better,” he has said, adding that he’s intrigued by the business challenge a newspaper presents.
By retaining both the editor and the editorial page editor he inherited, Bezos has maintained the basic course plotted by the Post’s previous owners, the Graham family. He’s also kept his nose out of news coverage, which has delighted journalists because if there is one thing they can’t stand, it’s an owner who thinks the paper literally belongs to him. “I can’t say more emphatically he’s never suggested a story to anybody here, he’s never critiqued a story, he’s never suppressed a story,” Baron said recently. The main thing Bezos has brought to the Post is more: More resources, more reporters, more stories, more pages, more scoops and far more technical finesse in its digital editions. The only truly nutty thing he’s proposed, Adam Lashinsky reported in Fortune, was a Post game called “Disemvoweling“ that would permit readers to remove vowels from stories and others to restore them.
The president’s assertion that Bezos grabbed the Post so he could use it to lobby for Amazon has no basis in reality. Besides, lobbying via the Post would backfire, tarnishing the paper’s reputation while failing to advance Amazon’s views. After all, whenever Bezos feels the itch to lobby, he scratches it with paid lobbyists. Last year, Amazon spent more on political persuasion in Washington than any other tech firm except Google.
Given the paper’s improvement, questioning Saint Bezos’ motives out loud might seem a tad ungrateful. Perhaps we should busy ourselves by throwing garlands at his feet for financing a good paper instead! But the question of ownership matters because it conveys power, hard and soft. Even if owners could place their newspapers into blind trusts, they would still deserve our scrutiny because choosing a proxy to run their enterprise would still give them some control. That ownership matters is not a fringe idea pinched from a Marxist. The Washington Post thinks so, too. It reminds readers almost daily of Bezos’ position in its news coverage and editorials: Since he took over in 2013, Post stories naming Bezos or one of his enterprises have included a parenthetical disclaimer stating some variation of “Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns the Washington Post” more than 2,000 times. This proper act of disclosure only sharpens our Bezos curiosity.
Bezos resembles an earlier Post savior, the insanely rich financier and former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Eugene Meyer, who nabbed the failing paper at a 1933 auction. Like Bezos, Meyer bettered the Post by bringing “more” to it, especially to the editorial pages, as a 1944 Fortune magazine feature explains. Meyer cared about news, but his real passion was dictating policy to Washington elites through its editorials in a newspaper that President Franklin D. Roosevelt read daily. The proximity to the important didn’t allow the paper to wield power so much as it did influence—a smart newspaper never tells people what to think but concentrates on telling them what to think about. Well before Meyer assumed control of the Post, British publisher Lord Northcliffe had expressed the paper’s unique power to Washington. “Of all the American newspapers I would prefer to own the Washington Post because it reaches the breakfast tables of the members of Congress,” he said.
In other respects, Bezos resembles the one-time savior of the Washington Star, Joe Allbritton, who bought the paper in 1974 and sold it four years later when the FCC prohibited ownership of both a paper and a TV station in the same market. Allbritton was drawn to the paper by his love of politics. Active in the Democratic Party in Texas, he had backed Ed Muskie in the 1972 campaign. But he also viewed the purchase as a business opportunity as well as a chance to save a worthy paper, believing that the capital should have at least two. Allbritton professed to be amazed that buying the Star made him a celebrity. “I’ve been involved in multimillion-dollar business deals and no one has ever noticed it,” he told the New York Times. Four years after he unloaded the Star, Allbritton was lusting again for a big-city daily, and almost won the New York Daily News. (For several weeks in 1982, a 36-year-old developer named Donald Trump was considered the front-runner in the battle for the Daily News.)
A Texas politician speculated in the pages of the Times on why Allbritton bought the paper. “There are three basic sources of power: money, politics and the press,” the anonymous source said. “Joe has the money; now, with the Star, he can get the other two.” It’s a great line, but does it apply to Bezos, whose wealth makes the Allbritton fortune look like a spare change? The world’s richest man doesn’t need a seat at the table when he already owns the table.
Best to think of Bezos’ Post acquisition as just another facet of the Washington identity the magnate has been constructing in recent years. In early 2017, he bought Washington’s largest residence, two large merged mansions that had previously housed the Textile Museum, presumably to regale the powerful and the plugged-in with cheese and wine. In recent years he’s knit himself tighter into the Washington establishment by attending the insider affairs hosted by the Gridiron Club and the Alfalfa Club, where captains of industry and politicians mingle socially. If he selects either Northern Virginia or the Maryland suburbs as the home for Amazon’s HQ2, his Washington profile will turn monumental. Recalling how official Washington tilted against Microsoft in the 1990s, attempting to use antitrust law to break it up, Bezos would be misguided to think that his time in the barrel might not one day arrive. Best to hedge against calamity by legitimately making friends and influencing people in government while you still can, right? So stop worrying about when Bezos might use the Post as his agent of influence. He already does.
“The duty of the paper is to the readers, not the owners,” Bezos said upon acquiring the Post. Well put. We should forever hold him to it.
Disclosure: Joe L. Allbritton’s son Robert owns Politico. Send your billions to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com and I’ll buy a newspaper. My email alerts subscribe to four newspapers, my Twitter to none. My RSS feed used that free Wall Street Journal sign-off for years.