Why Did Jeff Bezos Want The Washington Post?

It's an odd choice. Pretty much everyone agrees that the business model for newspapers has died. With the advent of the internet, newspapers could no longer get the revenue from direct and classified ads it once commanded to finance the news division. Online subscriptions to keep up with the digital age proved too easy to get around, leaving newspaper management flailing to figure out how to stay afloat.

Enter Jeff Bezos. The man estimated to be worth $25.2 billion from capitalizing on the internet's promise of delivering goods faster, less expensively and with greater choices ponied up less than one percent of his wealth to purchase The Washington Post, a venue that delivers the news late, inefficiently and with a great deal of expense.

The question is why? There is an element of prestige to owning the paper of record in the heart of the federal government. There aren't a whole lot of people Bezos' age who don't acknowledge the critical role WaPo played during the Watergate scandal. If you're a news junkie like me, maybe that's enough of an enticement.

And if you're a maverick like Jeff Bezos, maybe there's an attraction to the idea that you could be the one to turn around an institution heading towards extinction.

Or maybe, just maybe, Jeff Bezos wants to get into the dialog-framing and influence business and he sees WaPo as the vehicle to promote his own personal agenda:

(A)s Bezos’ wealth has growth, so has his ability to impact politics. While his spending on shaping society has been relatively modest compared to, say, Walmart heirs the Waltons, or New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, he has poured a sizeable amount of money into promoting his views.

What are those views? Like so many tech billionaires, Bezos has been attracted to right-libertarian politics—meaning socially liberal, but in favor of business and privatization. “He's a libertarian,” Nick Hanauer, a colleague who was an early Amazon investor, told the Seattle Times.

There's a certain element of small-l libertarianism that I think most liberals can get behind: the social aspects of gay marriage, abortion, drug legalization. And Bezos has put his money behind things like marriage equality. But it's hard to believe that Bezos is interested in spending that much money to promote gay marriage. And in point of fact, Bezos has been quietly spreading his money around for a much different focus:

Now Bezos has turned his eye to the latest cause célèbre for the capitalist class: school privatization.

The 2011 financial disclosures for the Bezos Family Foundation reveal a $15,000 donation to New York City-based Education Reform Now, a group founded primarily by finance industry titans that advocates for charter schools. There are also significant contributions directly to various charter schools, school privatization groups in Oregon and Washington State, and hundreds of thousands of dollars logged in support of Teach For America, which in recent years has made advocacy for charter schools and high-stakes testing a core part of its mission.

In light of these facts, the question is how Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post will impact the paper’s reporting. What will happen to the great commentary and analysis by Valerie Strauss, one of the media’s top education privatization critics? Will the editorial board argue in favor of higher taxes for higher incomes? What happens when the man profiting from his company being a major CIA contractor has to oversee of staff of reporters charged with breaking stories on CIA secrets?

Or could the culture that Bezos cultivates at WaPo get even more pro-tax dodging? How many politicians will be highlighted for the bravery in WaPo for calling for corporate tax cuts? Bezos would hardly be the first uber-wealthy person looking to push politicians and agendas for his interests.

It's all a guessing game right now, of course, but the question of why someone at the forefront of capitalizing an internet industry would value the dying vestige of different age is one to ponder.


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