People have been coming up to me lately with concern in their eyes. They all want to know what my thoughts are about the purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos. The answer is not so simple. On the one hand, I probably ought to make a full confession-I don't care for Jeff Bezos. I'm sure he has many nice qualities (I liked, for example, the fact that he coughed up a million dollars or so to support gay marriage in his home state of Washington, although a million dollars to him is probably the equivalent of a cup of coffee to the rest of us), but overall, what I know about his business practices suggest a general lack of compassion toward employees and certainly (oh, let's be generous) a laissez faire attitude toward old fashion bricks and mortar booksellers like myself. Even though his wife is a novelist, he doesn't seem to care that his take-no-prisoners, pay no sales tax and sell-below-cost techniques have devastated many of the ma-and-pa shops across the country. He calls his approach "customer-centric," although most of his customers presumably live in communities with main streets that are being slowly boarded up because of his tactics.
That said, I am not against change per se, and it may well be that the Washington Post, a great newspaper by anyone's lights, could stand a make-over if it's going to prosper in this brave new century we are entering. I don't know. I have no fondness for Rupert Murdoch either, and he seems to have enabled the Wall Street Journal and other papers to do all right. Murdoch, of course, comes from a newspaper background, and Bezos does not. To his credit, Bezos has said that he will leave editorial policy in the hands of the editors, but there is no physical or legal firewall between the owner of a newspaper and his employees, and I really have to wonder how it would sit with him if a Post reporter ever dared to write an uncomplimentary story about Amazon. I mean, think about it: if you owned a company, and one of your workers started mouthing off, how long would he/she last? And then, you have to ask, what happens to freedom of the press?
What Jeff Bezos buys with his money is his business, of course, and at the moment what he seems to want to buy with the Post is influence, or at least a seat at the table. Nothing wrong with that, according to the Supreme Court. Also, not much we can do, even it it was wrong.
What I can say emphatically about this deal is, it makes me nervous. Jeff Bezos is doing just fine with his empire; he could easily keep on evolving until, someday in the not too distant future Amazon morphs into "we-will-sell-you-everything.com." The truth is he didn't need to buy the Washington Post, even if it was cheap; there are plenty of other business opportunities. And the Washington Post is not a diaper company or a toy company or farming implements firm. It's a newspaper, and a newspaper is different. A newspaper's mission is to tell us the truth. Maybe I'm just being hopelessly nostalgic, but I wish someone else had come forward, someone smart, decent, understanding. Someone you could trust. Bill Moyers maybe. Or Mr. Rogers, if he weren't dead. That's the sort of guy I'd pick. For now, about all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and wait for the newspaper to land on our doorstep. God only knows what it'll look like.