Now this is interesting. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, bought the Washington Post for $250 million after the newspaper went up for sale in what was described as a “highly secret” process. (That’s right. An organization dedicated to discovering and reporting the truth just conducted a highly secret transaction. Make of that what you will.)
Which Jeff Bezos bought the capital’s town newspaper – the antitax crusader or the business innovator?
Between Bezos’ libertarian politics and his extraordinary gifts in business, this could be a bad thing or a good thing. But either way, it will be something worth watching.
Bezos is described by people close to him as a “libertarian,” a description he’s never rejected. And while he’s put up small sums of money for a few friendly Democratic politicians, Bezos spent considerably more – something in the $100,000 range – to defeat a millionaires’ tax in his home state of Washington. And he spent $2.5 million to defend Washington’s gay-marriage law.
Personal liberties plus a crusade against taxes? Sounds libertarian, all right. Bezos was also said to have exulted for years in the loophole which allowed Amazon to avoid paying sales tax on its billions of dollars in transactions.
Bezos appears to be a “digital libertarian,” a breed of thinker which is widely seen among tech billionaires. The most notable feature of their ideology is the disharmony between their political beliefs and the source of their wealth. A libertarian, after all, is someone who believes in minimizing or ending government so that free-market entrepreneurs can reshape society in their image. But the “digital libertarians” wouldn’t be billionaires at all if not for government.
Bezos is a case in point. His wealth originally came from two sources: Internet technology, and people who buy books. And where did those assets come from?
- The Internet was funded by the government – specifically, the Defense Department.
- Most of the millions of readers who were Amazon’s original customers learned to read in public schools, at government expense.
What paid for Mr. Bezos’ wealthgiving resources? Taxes. Then Bezos used the money he earned from tax-funded resources to campaign against taxation. That seems a little ungrateful, doesn’t it?
But Bezos has also used his money for very worthy things, including the Blue Origin space project. He also reportedly donated a large amount of money to Danny Hillis’ “Clock of the Long Now” project, a profound and reflective effort.
Which gets us to the next point: It’s not that Digital Libertarians are cynical. In fact, they can be idealistic and even naïve - so much so that they don’t see the contradiction between their politics and the foundations of their corporate success.
The Best CEO in America?
And yet Bezos the CEO has been nothing short of brilliant, in both his business choices and in his design ideas. The latter lean more toward the intangible worlds of data structure than did Steve Jobs’ more concrete creations, but they’re no less imaginative.
Warren Buffett reportedly called Bezos “the best CEO in the country,” and he’s probably right. In a corporate world which manages to the next quarterly report, Bezos has adamantly refused to think short-term. He has invested large sums of money and allowed Amazon’s new products to develop over a period of years.
And Bezos has usually been right, even when nobody thought he would be right: The Kindle was considered a joke when Amazon began to develop it, and it has – for better or worse – transformed publishing. Amazon itself was a long-shot proposition when it was created, and it has transformed retail book selling.
His business insights have all the breadth, depth, and vision which seem to be absent from his political insights.
Working the Ref
In many ways, Amazon decimated retail book stores. That’s one reason why booksellers were so upset that President Obama gave a major jobs speech in an Amazon warehouse last week. Unions and workers’ rights groups were upset, too, since Amazon is a harsh employer whose warehouse employees work in overheated, unpleasant workplaces.
That left some people wondering why the President would alienate several constituencies by giving his speech in such a controversial location. Now, with Bezos’ purchase of the President’s company-town newspaper, that gesture appears a lot less mysterious than it did last week.
Did the President know about this deal? Was he working the new referee? Right now we can only speculate. Perhaps the Washington Post will do some digging and find out.
The Editorial Page
Bezos is not the first billionaire to buy a newspaper. It’s happened often enough that a protocol has developed around the process.
This is right around the time when the billionaire announces that he or she “will not interfere with editorial policy in any way.” In most cases that announcement is promptly followed by editorial interference.
But, if and when that happens at the Post, it may not be nearly as bad as some people fear. Libertarian or not, Bezos has an original mind. By contrast, the Post’s editorial positions have leaned heavily toward very un-original recycling of dull Beltway opinion, on everything from Social Security to national security.
The Bezos Post may not be on the side of the angels, but it may be less plagued by the devils of cliché. At least we can hope so.
No Crystal Ball
On the business side, it will be very interesting to see what Bezos does with the Post. The newspaper industry’s deep financial troubles affect everyone who writes for a living. They also affect everyone who depends on good journalism to understand what’s happening in the world around them.
If Bezos can apply his business skills to creating a new business model for newspapers – and if that business model includes preserving and expanding the role of real investigative journalism – he’ll have performed a great service.
He’ll also have done a very libertarian thing, in the best sense. Politics is like the purest vision of a free market: It can only function well if everyone has access to all the available information. We need good journalism in order to have a political system that works.
Jeff Bezos could help make that happen, by turning the Post into a working model for the journalism of the future. On the other hand, he could also turn it into a banal grab-bag of eyeball-grab Internet fluff, or a soapbox for hypocritical anti-tax notions.There are no crystal balls around here, and no NSA wiretaps of the Bezos home to tell us what he’s planning.
Jeff Bezos isn’t likely to become the Post‘s Perry White. He’ll probably stick to being the publisher. He could become an important one. The best kind of publisher any editor could want is the kind who backs his team when the pressure’s on — from the government, from powerful business interests, from anyone who doesn’t want the truth to be told.
Jeff Bezos has the wealth and the resources to stand up against that kind of power, if he chooses to do so. And if he chooses to keep his home base in Seattle, he’s less likely to be seduced by the group psychology which has led so many publishers to echo the ill-conceived bipartisan errancies of the Beltway crowd.
Which Jeff Bezos will publish the Washington Post: the anti-tax libertarian or the iconoclastic business thinker? We don’t know. But either way, the plot thickens.