Unfit to Print
Suddenly, all self-respecting billionaires need to own at least one newspaper.
What’s the hottest trend among men who have it all?
Buying islands and Picassos is out. Buying newspapers is in. We’re not talking about subscriptions here. All self-respecting billionaires should own at least one newspaper, preferably a big one.
Within a single week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos agreed to spend $250 million to buy The Washington Post from the Graham family and Red Sox owner John W. Henry declared his intention to acquire The Boston Globe from The New York Times Co. for $70 million.
Earlier this summer, BH Media, the newspaper division of billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway outfit, said it was snapping up The Press of Atlantic City for an undisclosed sum. BH Media already owned dozens of newspapers, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Omaha World-Herald.
Meanwhile, the arch-conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are still believed to be angling for the Los Angeles Times over the loud objections of the newspaper’s own staff. If that doesn’t pan out, maybe the less conservative billionaire Eli Broad — a supporter of both stem cell research and charter schools — will.
What are these moguls after? How did newspapers become status symbols in the Internet age?
It can’t be profit margins or market growth. The Washington Post says its operating revenue plunged 44 percent over the past six years. And its print circulation contracted by 7 percent during the first half of this year alone.
Will Bezos, who says he only reads the digital editions of newspapers, use the Post to benefit Amazon? He denies it.
“The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners,” Bezos said on the day his media splurge went public. “We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads.”
Sticking with the status quo under new ownership probably beats what would happen if the Koch brothers bought the Post and handed editorial control over to the John Birch Society. But it’s hard to buy the notion that the major media is totally smitten with a search for the truth.
The major mainstream media are card-carrying members of the Brotherhood of Secrecy. Like most TV, cable, and radio networks, big U.S. newspapers generally belong to a small array of companies whose profits depend heavily on advertisers and the stock market. These aren’t institutions noted for heartfelt concern over fairness or truth. And fairness and truth aren’t usually the keys to how billionaires make their fortunes either.
Sure, there are plenty of brave independent journalists who manage to do their work in spite of the corporate menace. But neither the government nor Wall Street has to worry much about the mainstream press joining their crusade.
Warren Buffett appears to belong to a special breed of newspaper-buying billionaire. In 1977, long before his ongoing newspaper-purchasing spree, he acquired The Buffalo News. Even before that, he bought the Omaha Sun, a weekly newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting under his wing. Prior to the Bezos buyout, Buffett was the largest investor in The Washington Post Co.
But in general, it’s hard to deny that the mainstream press is owned and run by the rich, largely for their own comfort.
Coverage can suffer as a result of the marriage of media and wealth. Take Social Security: News coverage and commentary both start from the corporate premise that benefits must be cut, while advocates who stress the importance of closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy are mostly left out of the conversation.
Shortly before whistleblower Edward Snowden divulged that the National Security Agency is spying on everyone’s phone calls and emails, the media discovered that it’s facing unprecedented scrutiny.
This creates a dilemma: How loyal should the media remain to a security apparatus that snoops on them too? Unfortunately, the answer is probably plenty loyal. Even without a billionaire owner at the helm, money usually trumps principle. It’s just too expensive to get entangled in the truth.