Bezos and the Washington Post

Update below

Jeff Bezos, multi-billionaire (25B) founder and owner of Amazon.com has purchased the Washington Post for $25 million.  The two questions that rise are: What he will do? and Why did he do it?  The What is of most concern to the reporters and staff and to those who read the paper as their first source of news.  If the What he does has to do with technology and marketing — making the gathered news and opinion available to more, and finding a way to pay for that– everyone is happy.  His record of putting shareholder value behind customer satisfaction at Amazon promises well; his record of technological innovation is of course what most are hoping will be the turn-around magic.  If the What has to do with change of reach (localize the paper, turn attention further away from international concerns) or change of editorial policy the happiness will not be far reaching.

As to the Why, it’s anybody’s guess, and there are plenty.  I’d go along with sheer curiosity, the challenge of bringing old-media into  a new-media business model.  I’d discount, though not dismiss,  a strategic Washington D.C. power play or ideology-driven purchase such as Rupert Murdoch has shown.   Which isn’t to say ideology won’t begin to leak into the decisions he makes.  The itch will be one difficult not to scratch.  Jeff Bezos, as most,  has business interests and values which under-gird those interests, some of which, as we can see from his donations and actions in recent years, suggesting a profile of  libertarian leanings.

Bezos … does not seem to be a conservative in the Rupert Murdoch mold, at least when it comes to social issues. His biggest foray into politics came in 2012, when he and his wife, MacKenzie, donated $2.5 million to the Seattle-based pro-gay-marriage group Washington United for Marriage.

The contribution is widely believed to be the largest donation to a same-sex marriage advocacy group in American history, and it was made to fund what ended up being a successful referendum drive to legalize gay marriage in Bezos’ home state. It was a donation that significantly raised his political profile, and it far outweighed any previous political donation he’s made.

But the largest outlays Bezos made in support of other issues reveal the other side of his political persona, the one that may prove to be more consequential in the long run. Bezos has a very strong libertarian streak, which feeds some views that may not sit well with many in the Post newsroom.

For instance, in 2010 he donated $100,000 to oppose a state measure that would have raised taxes on the wealthy; and in 2004 he gave $100,000 to support a charter schools proposal, according to the Seattle Times.

International Business Times

IBT incorrectly characterizes the Post as ‘liberal, ” which if it ever was has not been — especially in matters of defense and national security– for a decade.  It’s editorial page strongly supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Other pointers to Bezos’ values surfaced in a confrontation at the Amazon shareholder meeting in May of 2012.  As The Nation reported:

Amazon has received intense and well-deserved criticism for working conditions in its warehouses, where temperatures can reportedly rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The people working inside them are underpaid, overworked, subject to firing without cause and deprived of employee benefits. Amazon gets away with this because it uses a variety of legal tricks, like demanding that its employees call themselves “independent contractors.”

Amazon has also taken heat for its membership in ALEC—the American Legislative Executive Council—a corporate-funded group that backs right-wing politicians. ALEC also drafts and promotes laws like those that effectively disenfranchised large numbers of minority voters, the “Stand Your Ground” legislation that has resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin and a number of other people, and the anti-union laws brought to national attention by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

 

Until recently Amazon/Bezos refused to collect sales tax for items sold on the web site — sending several states to the courts.  Recently, however, the company has supported such a tax.   

One fierce critic of Amazon and Bezos is Dennis Johnson, co-founder and publisher of Melville House.  He will see nothing good in this acquisition.   And more on Bezos politics, here.

I agree with one of the commentators on this morning’s KQED Forum, the Bezos may not know himself how his purchase will play out.  He may well have bought it for pocket change out of entrepreneurial challenge.  Once he moves into ownership he may find hands on management irresistible .  He may well find uses for it he has not considered.  As he told the Washington Post employees in an e-mail — much about this is going to be an experiment. Experiments like these have unknown results.

There will be many watching not only the editorial pages but the editorial choices for the newspaper going forward: what is being covered, with what biases, for what audience?  The first major fire or hire will be an indicator, as will be the time frame in which it happens. Standing by.

Update

More on Bezos, Amazon and high power lobbying: [might be subscription protected.  SF Chronicle, Jonathan D. Salant, 8/8/13]

Amazon.com, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, is purchasing the Washington Post, ranks among the biggest spenders among high-technology companies seeking to influence the work of the federal government.

Former U.S. Sens. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, and John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, are among those working for the Seattle company, which spent $1.7 million on lobbying from January through June, ninth highest among high-tech companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington research group that tracks lobbying.

The company weighed in on issues with Congress, the Commerce Department and the Federal Trade Commission on matters such as Internet sales taxes and privacy, patent laws, cybersecurity and online wine sales, Senate filings show.

…”There are certainly competing loyalties,” said [Bob] Steele, director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “If he handles it very well, it’s possible to manage those competing loyalties, but it’s also possible for competing loyalties to turn into conflicts of interest that could erode the integrity of his journalistic obligations.”

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.