The first time Jeff Bezos came to my attention was when he bought The Washington Post seven years ago. Looking back, this may have to do with a media man’s incestuous obsession with the media. Or it may have been because the company he founded, Amazon, was nowhere as ubiquitous or well-known when Bezos invested in the influential newspaper, as it is today.
My reaction to Bezos’ announcement 10 days ago that he would soon step down as CEO of Amazon was a world apart from what it was when it was announced that Bezos would buy the Washington Post from the Graham family. This storied family’s place in Washington society is exemplified by their Georgetown mansion: iconic as any place in that city can be, from the goings-on in that home as part of the history of the United States. If walls could speak, that mansion’s walls would have one of the most fascinating narratives ever.
Until Bezos rose to be the richest man of all time, there was much confusion about his origins and who he was. Because Bezos was born in New Mexico, some people mistakenly assumed he was Mexican: indeed, initial reports in some US media outlets said, with ill-concealed consternation laced with racist undertones, that the Graham family was selling their family silver to a Mexican businessman.
Hardly anyone knew then that Bezos is of Danish ancestry. Bezos is a Cuban name. Born Jeffrey Preston Jorgensen, he was given the name Bezos after Jeff’s mother married a Cuban immigrant, Miguel Bezos. The four-year-old boy was adopted by the stepfather and given his own Cuban family name. The Cuban connection, unknown in any great detail, added to the consternation about the impending sale of the Washington Post then. A Fidel Castro Trojan Horse sneaking into the most powerful segment of the US media? Washington’s grapevine is never wanting in excitement.
Now, as Bezos prepares to exit as CEO of Amazon, his flagship company and the newspaper he owns are on two wholly different trajectories with two entirely different stories to tell. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google and other technology companies, are the bogeymen today, the world over. They will remain whipping boys for a variety of interests from governments to liberals and conservatives alike, for the foreseeable future.
It is not surprising that Bezos announced his decision to quit not long after he was hauled over the coals at a congressional hearing on anti-trust laws and the business practices of Amazon and three other most prominent US Internet companies. Bezos knows that the hearing was only the start of more bad times to come.
The House of Representatives panel where he appeared, now has a Democratic-controlled complement in the Senate, headed by Amy Klobuchar, a fierce, no-nonsense new chairperson of the chamber’s anti-trust committee. Last week, Klobuchar introduced in the Senate a Bill which has the potential to make the likes of Bezos lose their sleep if the legislation moves forward. It won’t be anything like Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious ‘red scare’ inquisitions on Capitol Hill in the 1950s, but Bezos and other technology industry leaders may think otherwise.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post is thriving, both in its reputation as a pillar of the Fourth Estate and as a business. The newspaper is back in the black and it is financially sound once more. Contrary to the dark underbelly of the business model practiced by Amazon for two decades and its ruthless and predatory practices exposed during the House hearing, the story of The Washington Post under Bezos’ ownership presents an entirely different picture.
The newspaper lived up to the motto on its masthead — Democracy Dies in Darkness — during four Trump White House years. Its Associate Editor Bob Woodward’s most recent book, Rage, may not have converted many Trump voters, but the bestseller certainly slowed a presidential pushback against the newspaper, which consistently exposed the US President’s shenanigans.
Two months ago, the newspaper announced that it would add 150 journalists to its team this year. This is the biggest increase ever in the size of its newsroom. In the US, the print publishing industry has been dying a slow death. The Washington Post has been a rare exception. If there was ever a white knight on the US newspaper landscape in recent times, it is Bezos who rescued this ‘essential’ publication which the Graham family could not profitably sustain in their style as traditional newspaper owners.
When Donald Graham, son of the Washington Post’s publishing legend Katharine Graham, first offered the newspaper to Bezos, he laughed off the idea citing his lack of any experience in the media. Donald Graham’s understanding of the way forward for the struggling daily was that the newspaper needed not newspaper experience, but an Internet wizard. How right he was! In the last four years, digital subscriptions to the Washington Post have tripled to three million.
When Bezos visited India recently, no one with any clout in the government was willing to meet him. The ostensible, unstated reason was that the Washington Post was writing against the present dispensation in New Delhi. The point was missed by those who ostracised Bezos that his newspaper is not an Amazon group company. Bezos invested his personal money of $250 million to buy the Washington Post.
The richest man in history visited India to look for business for Amazon. Instead of welcoming him with open arms, whoever gave the boycott order probably did not know that Bezos has nothing to do with the Washington Post other than having rescued the newspaper from eventual death with his personal fortune.