12:10 p.m. August 29, 2013

Jeff Bezos: Not The Apolitical Media Savior You're Looking For

If all of life can be accurately described by cheap Star Wars analogies (granted, a big "if"), then it is fair to say the recent events shaking the news business evoke that sense of dread one feels toward the end of Return of the Jedi.

In this remastered version of the classic tale, the most famous Darth Vaders of American politics, Charles and David Koch, dropped their bid for the Tribune Company after finally being lightsabered into submission by protestors collectively shrieking a Luke Skywalker-esque "no!" But while so many are breathing a sigh of relief in apparent victory, a chuckling emperor with a tattered Washington Post under his arm is slithering out of the shadows to flambé Luke with a blast of blue lightning. And this time around, there's no wheezing, one-armed Vader who suddenly sees the error of his ways and limps over to save the day.

Jeff Bezos, of course, isn't usually described in such Palpatinian terms. But like senatorial etiquette hiding the pathologies of the boor who ran the Death Star, a gauzy public image obscures the ideology of the Amazon CEO who now owns the capital's most influential newspaper. That image also obscures how Bezos's special position as a hybrid businessman/newspaperman may allow him to use his new broadsheet as a unique political weapon - one that could pack as much of a punch as the green laser that obliterated Alderaan.

As loyal - and, likely, fearful - soldiers of the Empire, many reporters and commentators in the D.C. punditburo have studiously avoided this part of the Post acquisition story. Instead, many (though certainly not all) have greeted Bezos's purchase with the intense fawning of aspiring imperial courtiers. Revealingly, they have coupled generic "he's a swell guy!" platitudes with something far more propagandistic: an attempt to cast the new Dear Leader as anything but political.

For instance, the New Republic's Marc Tracy says Bezos exhibits a "lack of prior political commitments" and any political leanings he may have "may not make all that much of a difference." Likewise, National Journal's Ron Brownstein lauds Bezos for arriving in D.C. "without a rigidly defined cosmology" and for being someone who supposedly "doesn't prioritize ideology." And none other than Bob Woodward - the avatar of the Post's brand of Very Serious Journalism™ - was trotted out to declare: "This isn't Rupert Murdoch buying the Wall Street Journal - this is someone who believes in the values the Post has been prominent in practicing, so I don't see any downside."

In a political arena that respects "staying on message" more than anything, such talking points have, not surprisingly, been repeated ad nauseum. Some of it, no doubt, is wishful thinking by those honestly hoping the newspaper industry gets a billionaire bailout. But much of it is almost certainly an obsequious Jedi mind trick. Conjured by those aiming to ingratiate themselves with the new emperor, this particular trick would have us believe that Bezos is a benevolent statesman, and not the nefarious political ideologue we may be looking for. It urges us to therefore move along, move along - without even considering the possibility that the dark side of the political force might be strong with this one.

In terms of sheer audacity and effectiveness, this is Obi Wan-Kenobi-level stuff. Indeed, even Washington-based watchdog groups like the Center for Responsive Politics now claim - in non-Onion fashion - that Bezos "is not a man known for using his money to make political points," despite the fact that he and his company most certainly are, especially on economic issues.

Amazon, for example, was financial backer of the American Legislative Exchange Council - the most powerful conservative economic forces operating in America's state legislatures.

Under Bezos's rule, the company has lobbied aggressively in Washington, D.C. and in state legislatures to preserve online retailers' immunity from the sales taxes that brick-and-mortar outlets must pay. It has also lobbied to slash the U.S. corporate tax rate, even though, in practice, it is already one of the lowest in the industrialized world. Meanwhile, Bezos personally helped finance the successful opposition to a Washington State ballot initiative that would have raised income taxes on his fellow rich folk to raise money for public education.

Just as it isn't shocking for a miserly billionaire to oppose paying more taxes, it isn't particularly shocking that Bezos worked against more resources for public schools. It isn't shocking because he's also one of the biggest sponsors of the ideological crusade to privatize public education, replace proven pedagogic techniques with unproven technology and crush teachers unions.

That education activism additionally dovetails with Bezos's anti-union politics. Back in 2000, the New York Times noted that his company aimed to depict organized labor as a "greedy, for-profit business." In These Times reported that as part of that effort, company executives tried to force "customer service representatives to send an anti-union message to customers who inquire about (union) organizing campaigns." Today, Amazon remains union free - and is now trying to export its anti-union culture to other countries.

The standard misdirect in the face of such evidence of hard-core political ideology is to claim that, as one Post staffer said, Bezos is at least "a First Amendment absolutist." But - quite famously - he is the opposite. Yes, Bezos is the CEO of the company that within 24 hours of a single U.S. senator's demand opted to join the effort to try to effectively censor Wikileaks. And Bezos and Amazon were handsomely remunerated by the National Security State for their troubles in 2013. That year, in a deal so smelly the Government Accountability Office has cried foul, the Central Intelligence Agency awarded Amazon a $600 million cloud computing contract.

This transactional relationship between the government and Amazon spotlights Bezos's unique position in the mediascape - and why his purchase of the Post isn't just a run-of-the-mill example of yet another narcissistic Citizen Kane buying a media plaything for shits and giggles (though it might end up being that, too). Bezos, after all, is not just motivated by personal political philosophy - as both the owner of the Post and the head of a multinational corporation, he also has other government-related business interests and a larger corporate portfolio to think about when deploying an asset like a newspaper. In that sense, there is no meaningful political distinction between Bezos the allegedly apolitical individual and Amazon the politically active company. As the largest online retailer in the world, the company is, by definition, a political interest of its CEO, which makes it likely to become a political interest of its CEO's other corporate holdings.

To really understand why straddling both the retail and media worlds is so important to this story, consider the differences between a typical Citizen Kane and Bezos, the hybrid businessman/newspaperman.

Unlike the former whose business is primarily media, the Amazon CEO's bottom line is not primarily relying on the financial success of his media holdings. Unlike a pure media mogul who is governed and constrained by his commercial need to attract as wide an audience as possible, Bezos's primary business is Amazon, meaning he doesn't need the Washington Post to be commercially successful at all (and because he bought the Post with personal funds, he doesn't have to answer to the quarterly earnings demands shareholders). Unlike the pure media mogul, that makes him more free to use his media holdings as a purely political instrument for his other business, regardless of what that may mean for the media entity's singular financial success. And here's the thing: even if the media entity loses money, the hybrid businessman/newspaperman can squeeze a net gain out of it by using it to buttress his other company's profit-generating political agenda.

To be sure, the fundamental scam of the hybrid businessman/newspaperman - and the abuses that often accompany him - aren't entirely new. Real estate mogul Sam Zell's tenure atop the Tribune Company was marked by allegations that he tried to use that conglomerate's Chicago broadsheet to extract real estate concessions from the Illinois state government. Likewise, investor Douglas Manchester has already used his newly purchased San Diego Union-Tribune to push for public policies that could benefit his development company.

But, then, those guys are just the local powerbrokers - the corrupt Jabba the Hutts running their little wretched hives of scum and villany. With Bezos simultaneously owning the world's largest online retailer and the biggest paper in the capital of the world's largest economy, the scam can now operate at the truly hegemonic level. That's because, as a spokesman for the Sunlight Foundation told Businessweek, Bezos's company has "a huge number of issues before the federal government and now he has bought the hometown paper for covering those politicians."

So, for example, if the Post uses its agenda-setting news coverage to tilt the Beltway's public policy debate toward Amazon's anti-tax position, its education technologies and its government contracts, that's a net gain for Bezos whether or not the Post is generating more newsstand sales. Similarly, if the Post news dispatches are undermining OSHA-related legislation that might better regulate Amazon's toxic warehouses or if its opinion pages are successfully torpedoing a NRLB nominee who could strengthen a nascent union drive within the company's midst, that's a net gain for Bezos whether or not the Post has higher circulation. And when some Amazon critic in Congress not-so-coincidentally finds himself in the proverbial garbage pit with a wall of negative Post stories closing in on him, that's a net gain for Bezos no matter if the Post's ad sales are higher. In short, there are endless ways the newspaper can be leveraged as part of Amazon's political arsenal - and, as Fortune's Allan Sloan says, Bezos is "almost certain to begin imposing his standards and beliefs on The Post."

The beauty for Bezos is that to impose that ideology, he doesn't have to be explicit. Journalists at the Post know full well who runs this Death Star. Same thing for journalists across the country who either dream of one day working at the Post or fear that Bezos might also buy their paper at some point in the future. That knowledge can - and often does - create an environment of self censorship among those who don't want to be the next reporter force-choked out of a job.

To see how that dynamic operates on a day-to-day basis, just look at New York City under the municipal rule of media mogul Michael Bloomberg. Every reporter in that city knows they might one day need a job from - or find themselves an employee of - Bloomberg's media corporation. Bloomberg has preyed on the attendant fears by periodically threatening to buy the Financial Times and/or New York Times. The result: despite being fairly unpopular among voters, Bloomberg has been treated to unusually gentle press coverage from reporters who don't necessarily want to give a future potential boss a reason to pass on their resume or lay them off.

As evidenced by all the propagandistic coverage of the Post purchase, it's the same chilling effect now playing out for Bezos. That drama may be hard to see, but it is all right there in plain sight. In the words of an early Amazon employee, Bezos's goal is "to conquer the world." Just because the Post offices don't resemble a fully operational intergalactic battle station and just because Bezos doesn't look like Palpatine doesn't mean the ambitions aren't political - or imperial.