The big media story this week is not the purchase of The Washington Post by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
For as long as there have been newspapers, rich people have bought them as toys and tools.
So, while it is significant that Bezos bought the Post for $250 million, this is not exactly a definitional development on the media landscape.
Bezos is not even the only rich guy to buy a major metropolitan daily paper in the past week. It was announced on Saturday that Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry has purchased another of the twenty-five largest dailies in the United States, The Boston Globe, for $70 million.
While it cannot be said for certain regarding Bezos and Henry, the best bet is that these very wealthy men will run their papers as side projects—Bezos a little less hands-on, Henry a little more hands-on—in the tradition of another wealthy newspaper purchaser, Warren Buffett. The fact that these guys don’t need big profits from newspapers that no longer post big profits actually provides a measure of insulation that financially struggling metro dailies owned by publicly traded companies lack. And while Bezos, Henry and Buffett have political pedigrees, none has the take-no-prisoners edge that has made the prospect of purchases of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune by the brothers Koch so unsettling to so many of the free-press faithful.
If new owners maintain old papers pretty much as they have been, that’s not dramatic news. Indeed, the only real “news” may be that newspapers, which cannot survive as publicly traded entities where stockholders demand big payouts, might have a future as the vanity projects of rich people. Or even better, as nonprofit entities, cooperatives and public trusts.
So if the sale of the Post is not as dramatic a development as might initially seem to be the case, what is?
The big deal in media this week has to do with the relationship of broadcast and cable news networks to the two major political parties. And it matters—more—because it gets to question that is at the heart of all of our discussions about the future of print, broadcast and digital media: Will we have a sufficient journalism, and a sufficiently independent journalism, to sustain democracy?
Ever since the Democratic and Republican parties took over the nation’s presidential debates in 1987, with the creation of a corporate-funded “Commission on Presidential Debates” run by the former chairs of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, the dialogue in presidential election years has been the ultimate insiders’ game.
Debate rules have for a quarter-century been dictated by parties and campaigns, not by the television networks that present them—and certainly not by nonpartisan good-government groups such as the League of Women Voters, which used to organize debates before the parties elbowed them aside. The change has resulted in a degeneration of the discourse that has tended to reinforce the status quo rather than extend America’s experiment with democracy.
Parallel to the commission’s management of fall debates featuring the presidential and vice presidential nominees of the major parties—it’s been more than two decades since billionaire Ross Perot bought his way onto the stage in a way that no independent or third-party candidate has since been able to do—there’s been an equally ugly phenomenon: the “partnering” of major parties with networks to organize debates between candidates seeking presidential nominations.
The partnering deals have been just as ugly as the corruption of the election process by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
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That ugliness went public this week when Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus threatened a broadcast network, NBC, and a cable network, CNN, over planned projects on Hillary Clinton.
That Clinton, a former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state who started her public career as a Watergate prosecutor and played a significant role in struggles for women’s rights and children’s rights, is a worthy subject for examination should be beyond question journalistically and academically. But it is not beyond question politically.
Because Clinton might seek the Democratic presidential nod in 2016, Priebus says NBC must cancel plans for a four-hour mini-series and CNN must dump its plan for a documentary. Presuming that the projects would be positive in their portrayals of Clinton, despite the fact that she’s been a frequently controversial figure, Priebus accused each network of engaging in a “thinly-veiled attempt at putting a thumb on the scales of the 2016 presidential election.”
Priebus has a long history of complaining about media coverage of his party and its candidates. Besides, both the CNN and NBC projects are likely to air before Clinton decides on whether to run. If anything, the most likely candidates to be harmed are prospective Democratic primary challengers to Clinton.
So the chairman’s letter would have been stashed in the “whiner” file, except for one component: the threat.
“If you have not agreed to pull this programming prior to the start of the RNC’s summer meeting on August 14,” wrote Priebus, “I will seek a binding vote of the RNC stating that the committee will neither partner with you in 2016 primary debates nor sanction primary debates which you sponsor.”
The reactions from the networks were uninspired. NBC News declined to comment, CNN offered a vapid “we would encourage the members of the Republican National Committee to reserve judgment until they know more.”
The networks should have told Priebus “Good riddance!”
Partnerships between the networks and the major political parties are a far greater concern than the ownership of newspapers by new generations of rich people. By cutting deals with the parties to host “exclusive” primary debates, and by accepting the parameters established by the two major parties for fall debates, the networks defer to the political establishment in the worst of ways.
It’s time for the networks, wealthy and powerful entities that they are, to declare independence from the major parties. If they want to partner with the League of Women Voters, which remains honorably committed to fairness and openness, that’s great. If they want to work with groups such as Common Cause, or state-based good government organizations and, yes, newspapers, that’s terrific.
But the network partnerships with the parties reinforce the worst status quo instincts—in our media and our politics. Americans should be interested in who owns newspapers, but they should be indignant about an arrangement that has television news operations negotiating with, partnering with and being threatened by political parties.