In August 2013, billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos agreed to buy The Washington Post for $250 million. Last month, Bezos boasted of his paper’s having surpassed The New York Times in number of online viewers. The Post’s goal, he says, is to become “the new paper of record.”
Bezos is far from being the first zillionaire to attempt to control the press (¡Hola, Señor Hearst!), and he won’t be the last. But controlling media is not an appropriate ambition for a businessman to have in a democratic society. That one of the nation’s largest papers will have to think twice before reporting on the practices of one of its largest public companies (or, presumably, about that company’s competitors, or about e-commerce in general, or about any bee that may wander into the Bezos bonnet) is absurd. (The crickets that could be heard emanating from the Post in the wake of the New York Times exposé of Amazon’s office culture are highly suggestive of such a chilling effect.)
2015 saw an increase in meddling, unprincipled rich men’s attempts to buy influence through journalism. Last week, the largest paper in Nevada, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was acquired by an unnamed owner who was later confirmed to be the family of billionaire Sheldon Adelson — and it appears he may have been using the paper’s reporters for his own purposes even before the ink was dry. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is paying roughly $266 million for the South China Morning Post, thereby controlling the world’s principal source of English-language coverage of China, once owned by that other politically-inclined media magnate, Rupert Murdoch. There is talk that the highly opinionated billionaire Eli Broad may buy the ailing Los Angeles Times.
But Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have to buy a newspaper in order to control media read by hundreds of millions of people; when he and his wife welcomed a new baby daughter, Max, into their family last month, the billionaire wrote the baby a letter, complete with bullet points, pledging to give, at some point, nearly all of his $45 billion worth of Facebook stock to his own new philanthrocapitalist LLC. Last week, Zuckerberg announced his personal approval of Muslims on Facebook and his desire to “build a better world for all people.” #yay. I mean, doubtless, that is a skosh better than announcing his personal opposition to Muslims, as the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination has been busy doing.
Facebook is already free to control, with zero transparency, exactly what news articles, videos, and other media appear on each and every one of the 1.55 billion individual timelines comprising its social media empire. Zuckerberg is not the leader of anything but a company, and it’s shocking that more journalists aren’t freaking out about this and other, similar power grabs under the Orwellian banner of “philanthrocapitalism.”
You know what is good for all people? Paying, as the rest of us democratically-inclined citizens are happy to do, a fair share of your personal wealth into all the people’s public coffers, where it can be spent by their fairly elected representatives on the common good, rather than keeping it locked up in untaxable stocks and mystery foundations, to be spent where you personally will decide what is good for them.
Media should never be permitted to become a mere megaphone for the exclusive use of the rich to impose their views on the rest of us. With any luck, this is the year our profession wakes up to this dangerous state of affairs and takes steps to protect the interests of a free and independent press.
Maria Bustillos is a critic and writer in Los Angeles.