New money buys old newspaper empire

The world of corporate media was shaken up Aug. 5 to learn that Jeff Bezos, the main owner of Amazon.com, whose wealth is valued at $25 billion, dipped into his personal cash box to buy the prestigious Washington Post for $250 million.

The purchase is further evidence of the rise of the dot.com billionaires and of an increased concentration of wealth on the West Coast. It also reflects the decline of print journalism compared with broadcast and Internet media. There is no indication, however, of a shift in the class bias of the media bosses or the role of the media — print, broadcast and Internet — as a tool of ideological domination by the capitalist ruling class.

The Post’s sale is one of a series of purchases by new owners of old flagship newspapers, often for a much smaller price than they were considered worth before the 2008 crash. But even today’s prices put these pro­paganda machines beyond the budget of all but the ­super rich.

As an example of this drop in value, the New York Times Co. had bought the New England Media Group, which includes the Boston Globe, for $1.1 billion in 1993. On Aug. 5, the Times announced it was selling it for “only” $70 million to hedge-fund investor John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, whose personal wealth is estimated at $1.5 billion.

In April 2012, a group of business people, among them New Jersey insurance executive George Norcross III, bought the company that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. It cost them $55 million, though six years earlier investors had paid $515 million for the papers.

Washington Post’s decline

To give an idea of the Washington Post’s decline, which is similar to the decline in all print journalism, its highest-ever daily circulation was 832,332 in 1993. Last March it was 474,767. (Alliance for Audited Media) It once had more than 1,000 people working in its newsroom. In 2012, this had dropped to fewer than 640. Most important to its owners, its revenue had dropped 44 percent over the past six years, and it was losing tens of millions of dollars each quarter.

For the last 80 years, the Graham family had owned the Washington Post. Under Katherine Graham, the Post became an entrenched part of Washington’s capitalist political establishment. With the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, the Post was considered an authoritative reflection of ruling-class thought.

Of these four, the Sulzberger-owned New York Times is now the last of the family-owned newspapers.

The Post was prestigious and had a large group of working reporters, resulting in lots of news being gathered and printed, but it didn’t make the newspaper’s editorial policy any closer to the needs of the mass of the people. On international events, the Post was even closer to the Pentagon and the militarists than the New York Times. It was a cheerleader for the 2003 war against Iraq and the later assault on Libya, for example.

Puff pieces about Donald Graham, who agreed to sell to Bezos, praise him for his youthful hands-on experience. But what did he do to make up for having inherited his fortune and stewardship of the newspaper? He volunteered for the Army and did a tour of duty in Vietnam from 1967-1968, when most youths here were turning against the war. Then he spent January 1969 to June 1970 as a patrol cop in the District of Columbia. Though not in the infantry, he was part of an occupation force, abroad in Vietnam and at home in what has long been a largely Black city.

He was assistant general manager of the Post during the 1975 pressmen’s strike, tasked with getting the paper out each day without the unions. A 1985 profile on Graham in Esquire magazine written by a prep school buddy said that while working to break the strike, Graham “just glowed — it was like combat duty and he was a commander in battle.” His mother, publisher Katherine Graham, wrote in her memoirs that “I knew then that he was more than ready to take over as publisher.”

‘Eccentric’ Bezos, traditional capitalist

Puff pieces on Bezos allow that he is somewhat “eccentric,” a space enthusiast who spent millions of his own money to fish a couple of rockets from the bottom of the ocean. While Bezos may be ready to take big risks with a small part of his own enormous wealth for projects that are important to him, no one should forget that he received that wealth the same way all capitalists do: He exploited workers and took the surplus value they created as his own property. That’s the same way the Graham family did earlier in the history of U.S. capitalism.

Bezos’ eccentricity doesn’t extend to giving workers a say in how he spends the money. None of Amazon’s 90,000 workers in the U.S. are union members. In Germany, the 9,000 Amazon workers held three one-day strikes this spring trying to win higher pay and union recognition. Amazon was also cited for abusing and underpaying its mostly immigrant workforce in its German warehouses.

Amazon’s German company provides 14 percent of its total revenue worldwide. Neither Bezos nor the rest of Amazon’s management is “eccentric” enough to raise workers’ wages or give them more say — without a fight.

There is speculation that with Bezos owning the Post, there will be more of an effort to deliver news by ways other than newsprint. E-readers are the obvious first choice, and Bezos has deep enough pockets that a few trials and errors can occur before the final result.

Whatever the delivery method, however, it is likely that the content will be the same as before, equally toxic to the workers and oppressed peoples worldwide. n