A rather ruthless billionaire has grabbed one of the world's great newspapers. But you don't have to be a high-tech plutocrat, the paper's previous regime has demonstrated, to help make our world more unequal.
Jeff Bezos, the bezillionaire Amazon CEO, has bought the Washington Post, America’s second-most prestigious daily newspaper. Bezos only had to pay $250 million, less than 1 percent of his over $27.8 billion personal fortune.
Has plutocracy, with this sale, simply overwhelmed the nation's “free press”? Some commentators fear the worst. Another grand old family of American journalism, their lament goes, has stepped away. Who can we now count on to protect the public interest?
Let’s cut this gauzy sentimentalizing. Yes, the Graham family that has owned the Post the past 80 years did perform a notable public service after the 1972 Watergate break-in. But the Grahams may have performed an even greater service — for plutocracy — three years later when they hired “replacement workers” to grab away the jobs of striking Post pressmen.
That move broke an unwritten rule that had held sway among “respectable” employers for the entire mid 20th century — and set a precedent that President Ronald Reagan would exploit, to the fullest, six years later. Reagan replaced striking air traffic controllers and busted their union, a two-step that would help shove the American labor movement on a three-decade-long slide.
This steep labor descent has left the modern American workplace virtually “union-free.” Less than 7 percent of America’s private-sector workers now carry union cards.
None of these union workers, at last count, labor in the vast Amazon warehouses, where employees exhausted after 12-hour shifts can wait unpaid, for nearly a half-hour, at security checkpoints meant to keep workers from “pilfering electronics or other pricey goods from the Amazon stock.”
Amazon has, to be sure, started making nice on some fronts. Last year, after a barrage of negative publicity, Jeff Bezos did have the company install air-conditioning in its brutally hot warehouse workplaces.
But Amazon’s basic, take-no-prisoners business model is still roaring along. The online retail giant “drives local stores out of business,” notes USAction’s Richard Kirsch, “while paying low wages to its non-union workers.”
That formula has made Bezos staggeringly rich and denied middle-class status to tens of thousands of American families. Workers at Amazon’s distribution center warehouses, CNN reports, take home about $24,300 a year, “less than $1,000 above the official federal poverty line for a family of four.”
No one knows what exactly Bezos has in store for the Washington Post, since his PR people declined to make him available for interviews after the announcement of last week’s sale. The talk around town has it that Bezos won’t “interfere” in the Post’s daily operations.
No surprise there. The Post editorial line already meshes quite smoothly with the Bezos worldview, liberal-ish on cultural issues, dependably conservative on anything — like the labor movement — that poses any serious potential threat to America’s deep pockets.
In other words, working families will find in the new Washington Post no more crusading zeal on their behalf than they found in the old Washington Post.
So what’s new, any crusty veteran newspaper reporter might ask. America’s most powerful newspaper publishers have always been, by and large, consistently partial to the privileged.
But we have had exceptions, publishers who remind us how great newspapers could — and should — be wielding their power. The most eloquent of these public-spirited publishers? That may well have been Joseph Pulitzer, the widely honored moving force behind the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In his 1907 retirement address, Pulitzer urged his successors to “always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”
Don’t expect any credo remotely similar to Pulitzer's admonition to appear on the Washington Post masthead anytime soon. In his home Washington State, Bezos has played the predatory plutocrat to the hilt.
Three years ago, for instance, the Amazon chief helped bankroll the defeat of a ballot initiative that would have cut taxes on Washington's small businesses and average families and modestly raised taxes on the state's rich — like himself.