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Q: What kind of checks and balances are in place when a billionaire like Jeff Bezos owns a news outlet like the Washington Post?

Credit: medium.com

A:

Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is one of many billionaires beguiled by the news industry. He joins Rupert Murdoch, who controls Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, Michael Bloomberg, who founded his eponymous news agency, Laurene Powell Jobs, who bought a majority stake in the magazine, The Atlantic, and Sheldon Adelson who controls the Las Vegas Review-Journal– to name just a few. These billionaire business barons can invest in almost any company, but they are often attracted to high prestige news outlets for the instant respectability and influence they offer.

Some, including Bezos, also say they believe in the mission of the free press and think they can turn financially strapped news outlets into profitable businesses. “I would say it’s a combination of ego and a genuine belief that they can do good,” said Northeastern University Professor Dan Kennedy in the BBC News article, “Why do billionaires want to own the news?” “They tend to believe that what these news organizations have lacked is their financial acumen, and if only they were the owners they would start to do well again.” 

Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013 for $250 million in cash, and by all measures, has revived its fortunes and turned it into a national newspaper that often rivals the New York Times.

As you allude to in your question, the overarching concern when billionaires buy a news outlet is that they will try to influence editorial decisions rather than business ones. 

Journalists at the Washington Post say that’s not the case with Bezos, thanks to the newsroom’s long history of editorial independence and strong leadership by Executive Editor Marty Baron.

Baron says that Bezos instructed him to cover Amazon the way he would any other company or chief executive. Baron responded, “Good because that’s what I’m planning to do,” adding that he has never heard from Bezos about a single story about Amazon.

True to his word, reporters at The Washington Post have published many stories that could be considered critical of Amazon, including one in the last week about the 20,000 Amazon employees testing positive for the coronavirus. (In an excellent example of transparency, the reporter mentions high in the story that Amazon‘s CEO Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.)

Allegations that Bezos “bought The Washington Post as a toy or that he had ordered a team of 20 reporters at the Post to dig into Trump” are not supported by any evidence. 

And most media watchdogs agree that his stewardship has ensured the longevity of the Washington Post. Even legendary Post reporter Bob Woodward praised Bezos, calling him good news for the newspaper in Dan Kennedy’s report, The Bezos Effect. “I think he has a long-range view, staying in for 15 or 20 years and making sure The Washington Post is one of the surviving news sources in the country,” Woodward said. 

But billionaire media moguls are not always benevolent or benign. While some news outlets erect a firewall between their wealthy owner and the newsroom, it’s voluntary, and in reality, there are no real checks and balances when it comes to these tycoons. 

Case in point, Michael Bloomberg banned his news agency from writing any stories about his campaign to become the Democratic nominee for president earlier this year. Bloomberg reporters were outraged, calling the decision “staggering during one of the defining elections of our time.”

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson took control of the Las Vegas Review-Journal back in 2015 through a holding company, reportedly overpaying for Nevada’s largest newspaper. He quickly installed a new publisher and editor aligned with his business and political interests. Five years later, some media critics accuse Adelson “weaponizing the Las Vegas Review-Journal and ruining its reputation in the process.” 

Over at News Corps, the 89-year-old Rupert Murdoch still exerts influence over his conservative media empire though day-to day operations have shifted to his older and politically aligned son, Lachlan. The younger Murdoch, James, cut all ties to the family business this summer, citing “disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company’s news outlets.”

According to the Financial Times, James is now “set to invest $1 billion from the proceeds of the sale of his stake in the family business into a new portfolio of media companies that could include a liberal-leaning news outlet.”

It remains to be seen whether James will emulate his father’s management style or leave editorial decisions to the newsroom.