Bezos, Tina Brown and the Looting of the Washington Post
Recently two major media sales transactions involved properties associated with the Washington Post. The first was the sale of the Post itself to Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com; the other was the sale of Newsweek/Daily Beast to IBT Media. Until its sale in 2010 to high-fidelity magnate Sidney Harman, Newsweek was part of the Washington Post’s media empire. Tina Brown launched the Daily Beast, a center-right version of the Huffington Post, in October 2008, which merged with Newsweek two years later. In a bid to capitalize on the Internet revolution, the print edition of Newsweek was terminated in December 2012 and all efforts were directed toward making the website a success. No doubt its failure had more to do with the stale content that Tina Brown was proffering, something no amount of new media gold sequins could rescue.
On August 6th Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post pundit, made the case for his new boss on Chris Matthews’s “Hardball”.
“20 years from now, do you think we`re going to be dealing with physical newspapers delivered on your doorstep? Twenty years from now, I`m not sure we are. Right now, that`s what, 70 percent, maybe 80 percent of the Washington Post revenue, most print newspapers` revenue.
“So what I think Bezos does is not to slay or get rid of that legacy business. It generates the cash. It generates a lot of money and he`s not averse to cash.
“But the advantage of having somebody like Bezos owning the paper is number one, it`s going to be private. So, we`re not going to have Wall Street analysts, you know, anxious about next quarter`s figures. Number two, he`s got pockets deep enough for use to do the experimentation and the innovation that we need to do on the online side –“
One imagines that Bezos has lots of experimentation and innovation planned for the paper but not exclusively on the technical side. While not so nearly well known as a political player like Chris Hughes, the gay billionaire co-founder of Facebook who bought the New Republic and is now making plans to run for Congress in upstate NY, Bezos will no doubt use the editorial pages of the paper as a bully pulpit for his libertarian politics. As A.J. Liebling once said, “Freedom of the Press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
One of the hotly debated topics in the academy is whether the U.S. is “declining”, achieving more urgency with the growth of China as a major economic power. If this debate is not so easily decided given the challenge of weighing massive and often contradictory amounts of data, it might be more easily resolved on the ideological front. In the German Ideology, Karl Marx wrote: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” That being the case, when one puts the propagandist for the ruling class—Tina Brown—and Jeff Bezos, a prominent member of the ruling class, under the microscope, decline is certainly the first word that comes to mind.
Tina Brown, a British citizen, came to the U.S. in 1984 to edit Vanity Fair, fresh from her success editing The Tatler, a magazine started by Richard Steele in 1709. After taking it over in 1979, the 26 year old Brown told the N.Y. Times the secret of her success there: “People love to read about people who have money”. With such a credo, no wonder Newsweek went bust. Today it has an article titled “I had a bird-poop facial”, just the sort of thing an intellectually curious reader can sink his or her teeth into.
After taking over Vanity Fair, Brown rode the crest of the last big upsurge of the American economy when the wealthy one percent was more the objection of affection than hatred. If the U.S. did not have a royalty, like the kind that Brown twitted with a mixture of affection and disdain in her biography of Princess Di, at least it had people like Donald Trump. (If the reference to Trump as royalty seems far-fetched, just remember Prince Harry going to a costume ball in a Nazi uniform.)
Vanity Fair was and is the perfect reading material while sitting in a doctor or dentist’s waiting room. What better way to get your mind off some root-canal work than an article about Jennifer Anniston’s new romance? Landing the top post at Vanity Fair was a sign that you had made it in the publishing world. Not only was it lucrative, it was guaranteed to get you the best table at Elaine’s. This must have been the main appeal to Graydon Carter, who eventually replaced Brown. When he was at Spy magazine, Carter used to refer to Trump as a short-fingered vulgarian. Once he got the job at Vanity Fair, Carter crossed the red velvet rope into the vulgarian’s private club, from whence he has never emerged.
Nobody would have much trouble with Tina Brown running Vanity Fair since she and the magazine were made for each other. However, when publishing baron Si Newhouse decided to reassign her to run the New Yorker magazine in 1992, feathers were ruffled near and far.
Jamaica Kincaid, one of the few Black writers at the magazine, spoke for many other writers (even though she regarded them as “Old white men who went to Harvard or Yale mostly”) in an October 19, 1996 interview with the London Telegraph. When asked if she clashed with Brown, Kincaid said, “I didn’t mind that Tina Brown was a tyrant. I wouldn’t mind if she was a tyrant and smart, but she’s stupid.” For emphasis, she added, “I don’t like stupid people.” In the course of the interview, she also referred to her as “a bully” and “Joseph Stalin in high heels with blonde hair from England”.
Despite increasing the magazine’s circulation (well, H.L. Mencken once said “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people“), there were rumors that the magazine was not making the profits that Newhouse coveted. So, in 1998 Brown went on to work for Harvey Weinstein, the very embodiment of short-fingered vulgarianism, in a new media venture centered on a magazine called Talk. You can get an idea for the magazine’s sensibility from the top guests at a party celebrating its launch: Madonna, Salman Rushdie, Demi Moore and George Plimpton. This would have inspired Dante to add a tenth circle in hell.
After Talk, Tina Brown went on to her next Hindenburg type disaster, the Daily Beast. As stated above, she derived the name from a fictional paper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a satire on the newspaper industry. One wonders whether she adopted this name in a rare moment of insight about her role in bourgeois media. Despite his Tory politics, Waugh was quite good at nailing the British aristocracy’s doddering character. In many ways, “Scoop” conveys what life at places like the Washington Post and Newsweek is all about.
The Daily Beast of Waugh’s novel is run by one Lord Copper, whose toadying foreign editor can never answer “yes” or “no” to his boss’s queries but only “Definitely, Lord Copper” and ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper”. Before Hitchens went off the deep right end, he wrote an introduction to a 2000 edition of “Scoop” with these observations that not only make one want to read the novel but mourn Hitchens’s defection to the world of Lord Copper:
“The manners and mores of the press, are the recurrent motif of the book and the chief reason for its enduring magic…this world of callousness and vulgarity and philistinism…Scoop endures because it is a novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps, as no other narrative has ever done save Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page.”
Probably the less said about Bezos, the better. While Brown is a celebrity-worshipping hack, Bezos is a slave-driving real-life version of the Simpson’s Mr. Burns.
While most readers and I use amazon.com, one would prefer to see it or something like it owned by society rather than private investors. In many ways, it hearkens back to “Looking Backward: 2000-1887”, Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialist novel, one in which the second millennium is already 13 years old. Bellamy is the anti-Luddite, predicating his more just and equitable world on the basis of advanced technology. When I read the book in high school, I did not become a socialist but it certainly opened my eyes to the possibility that people could democratically manage their affairs. When the hero of Bellamy’s novel asked his host from the future world how private ownership could be superseded, the answer suggested a certain Nostradamus capability from the author:
“When innumerable, unrelated, and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary.”
Of course, there’s that messy job of removing Bezos’s greedy talons from those warehouses…
While Bezos would be appalled by Bellamy’s socialist utopian vision, he is something of a futurist himself. In 2000, the year of Bellamy’s future world, Bezos launched a space travel company called Blue Origin. The initial goal would be to sell thrill rides on rocket ships to rich bastards like him and Richard Branson, who expressed interest in a partnership. But ultimately, the goal would be to create “space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people orbiting the Earth”, according to a report by Amy Martinez in the April 23, 2012 Seattle Times.
Perhaps that colonizing project reflects a certain anxiety on Bezos’s part about a working class grown resentful of one percent greed, particularly the warehouse workers who were shocked to discover that their boss preferred to keep ambulances outside their workplace to carry heat stroke victims to the hospital rather than install air conditioning. After doing a cost-benefit study, ambulances were the way to go. Such workers might one day decide to use pitchforks on the ruling class and a retreat to safe ground by its members has to be considered.
One must not begrudge any decision by the descendants of Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump to live like kings and queens in outer space just as long as workers are aimed with laser weaponry to bring down any rocket ships bent on counter-revolution.
But the best way to think about the parting of the ways between rulers and ruled is Leon Trotsky’s advice in “If America should go Communist”, a 1934 article that surely would have won Edward Bellamy’s approval even if I have problems with Trotsky’s nod to advertising. If he could have anticipated what someone watching a baseball game on television would have to put up with today, he would have reconsidered his remarks. But the rest of it makes perfect sense, especially the last sentence:
“The American soviets would not need to resort to the drastic measures that circumstances have often imposed upon the Russians. In the United States, through the science of publicity and advertising, you have means for winning the support of your middle class that were beyond the reach of the soviets of backward Russia with its vast majority of pauperized and illiterate peasants.
“As to the comparatively few opponents of the soviet revolution, one can trust to American inventive genius. It may well be that you will take your unconvinced millionaires and send them to some picturesque island, rent-free for life, where they can do as they please.”