Is This What the End Of Freedom Of the Press Looks Like?

Anyone who has been through an intro to journalism class or a politics lecture will know the idea of the Fourth Estate. This is the notion that the press “plays a central role in the management and maintenance of a representative democracy.”

A thriving democracy filled with informed citizens ready for spirited debates cannot survive without the freedom of the press. The idea is built into our constitution. However, it seems less likely to thrive as the decades go on, and billionaires and corporations buy newspapers and media outlets.

Some may argue that the recent purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos will save this dying publication with Bezos' innovative business strategies and financial resources. Others are looking at the journalistic implications of this purchase, and what it will mean for the future of journalism in Washington and around the nation.

In a letter posted August 5 by Bezos to the employees of The Post, he emphasized the paper’s continued commitment to the public and the integrity of journalism:

“The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes.” 

Somehow this seems like it could become a little difficult if a reporter decided to pursue a story on, let’s say, internet sales tax or copyright/intellectual property, or even, I don’t know, fair labor practices. 

This week on Democracy Now!, Robert McChesney, Jeff Cohen, and Dennis Johnson spoke with Amy Goodman about the journalistic impact of Bezos' purchase and why might have done it. 

Jeff Cohen, founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and founder of FAIR, pointed out that Bezos’ politics are of course important “when you’re the singular owner of paper as influential as the Washington Post.” And as Cohen laid out, Bezos appears to be socially liberal (considering his donation to a same-sex marriage referendum in Washington) and conservative on economic and labor policies (as shown in his donation to defeat an income tax on the wealthy in Washington state). So what will this mean for stories covering topics of this nature?

We've all heard the rhetoric that journalism is dying, print is dying, and it needs to be saved. Robert McChesney, author of Digital Disconnect, argued that media is being “saved” by commercial enterprises and it’s a matter of what kind of billionaires from what kind of monopoly franchises you’re going to get.

“We actually need real journalism," said McChesney on the show. "We need journalism that tells us about war plans, that tells us about the NSA long before it becomes too late or too deep into the game. And we’re not getting that now … the current system is incredibly corrupt."

Considering that Bezos bought The Post for $250 million — less than 1% of his net worth — newspapers are cheap for these moguls. But why are they buying them?

McChesney reasoned that newspapers have more political power than commercial value. Even successful papers like the Post "won’t make them money in the short term on that exact investment, but it gives them great political power to advance their political agenda, which in the case of someone like Jeff Bezos could give him a great deal of money down the road,” he said. It’s a matter of dominating the discussion and framing the issues.

That is when we lose our Fourth Estate. “When the news media, the Fourth Estate, a pillar of our constitutional system becomes a plaything for billionaires and there’s no accountability, our governing system can’t work as effectively except as a plaything for the rich,” McChesney continued.

Whether or not Bezos has any editorial input in his new newspaper, his ownership could still affect what topics the editorial team chooses to critically investigate. As any journalist knows, good paying journalism jobs are hard to come by and if a “don’t upset the boss” work culture mentality develops in this case, it could prove to be very detrimental to our thriving democracy and culture of spirited debate.