The uproar within Washington, D.C. inner circles from what came to many as a total surprise, the sale of the Washington Post, brings with it important questions about the newspaper’s direction going forward.
Of course, it all hangs on the new owner, Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame. Debates over Bezos’ motives have been burning up the Internet the past few days, some worried that he wants to push his personal political agenda (a libertarian-ish anti-labor, anti-public schools one, some say), and others that he just cynically wants to make money.
Either of those motives would spell doom for one of the few remaining newspaper giants in the land. If it became a tool for a political agenda, it would accelerate its diminishing public influence. If Bezos’ intent, on the other hand, is to turn it into a profit center, then accomplishing that would have to be achieved at the expense of core journalistic values, in favor of flashy bells and whistles designed to drive readers to his Internet retail behemoth.
It is hard to imagine that he has no such agendas, that he just wants to preside over the slow but accelerating demise of the paper, downsizing to mitigate the slide.
On the other hand, we could see something really surprising. That could involve a revival of a powerful media institution standing against the dismal political cesspool that Washington, D.C. has become, the subject of journalist Mark Leibovich’s new and troubling book, “This Town. Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital.”
Any chance of that? Or, will Bezos jump in feet first, following Amazon’s already enormous lobbying effort in D.C., to relish that cesspool?
“This Town” is 371-page incrimination documenting the self-serving, career-first “insider club” that political Washington has become. It contains no table of contents and no index, because Leibovich deliberately thumbed his nose at anyone wanting to limit their attention to seeing if and where their names might pop up.
He wants this D.C. “insider club” to have to swallow his work whole, to take it all in and reflect on what they’ve been turned into.
A statistic related to the subject speaks volumes, an Atlantic magazine fact cited by Fareed Zacharia on his “GPS” CNN show last weekend. It cites that in 1974, the number of politicians who stayed on after leaving Congress to become lobbyists was three percent, compared to today, when number is 42 percent from the House and 50 percent from the Senate.
This trend has created “a ruling elite” replete with “corruption and dysfunction where money trumps power,” Zacharia opined. In his book, Leibovich talks about “the self-righeteous and condemning posture of The Club,” even as “getting inside, to that place, into The Club, is a consuming pursuit in D.C.” He describes “The Club” as “the ‘inner’ ring where decisions are made.”
“The divide between haves and have-nots” in D.C., he writes, “is between people who are ‘inside’ and not.”
For D.C. strivers, bent on their self-advancement to and retention of “insider” status to the exclusion of anything else, “press is immediate gratification. It’s where most politicians truly live, the realm of how others see and judge them, the hour-to-hour score sheet of their massively external definition,” Leibovich wrote.
So, the pressure on the media takes the form of being wooed and coddled by “insiders” with the promise of achieving and maintaining “insider” status as well.
In part, that explains why all the “talking heads” on the daily all-news cable networks and Sunday “blab shows” can bring wildly divergent viewpoints, but remain collegial toward one another. They’re all members of “The Club.”
Lip service to achieve a desired public perception substitutes for genuinely serving the public interest as the lines between elected politicians, lobbyists and the media are blurred in this self-contained matrix of “insiders.”
Departing Post chief Donald Graham has loved being a D.C. “insider” for many years, coaxed, among much else, to throw his newspaper’s support behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Will Bezos be any different? That’s the real question.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at email@example.com.