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Jeff Bezos' Murky Politics: A Primer

When Rupert Murdoch bought Dow Jones & Co., including The Wall Street Journal, for $5 billion six years ago, there was no need to wonder what his politics were. By contrast, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who just purchased The Washington Post (though not other properties owned by the soon-to-be-renamed The Washington Post Co.) for 1/20th Murdoch’s price, seems something of a political cipher. He pledged $2.5 million (or 1/100 of The Washington Post) to defend Washington state’s law legalizing same-sex marriage. He’s got the tech company. He lives in Seattle. He donates small sums (by his standards) predominantly to Democrats. And that’s … about it. “Hasn’t ever been politically active,” reads RealClearPolitics’ CEO profile. “Does he even vote?”

In a letter to Post staffers Monday, Bezos said, “The values of the Post do not need changing.” He said other right things, about the commitment to the local readers and so forth. He said he does not plan to run the paper “day-to-day.”

Bezos has also announced there will be no layoffs from the Post’s staff of 2,000. If I were a Post employee who does not believe Bezos when he claims he will not meddle, I would probably be most scared if I were one of the editorial staffers who have fostered a distinctly conservative editorial page whose columnists include Obama administration “critic-in-chief” Charles Krauthammer; Bush administration staffers Michael Gerson and Marc Thiessen; false-balance-peddling hawk Fred Hiatt (also the page’s editor); former New Republic editor Charles Lane, who consistently (and I speak only for myself) takes vintage “even the liberal New Republic” contrarianism about three steps too far; racial profiling enthusiasts Richard Cohen and Kathleen Parker; and serial climate-change-denialist George F. Will. Them I imagine Bezos not jibing with.

Although perhaps I’m wrong? Maybe the actions of his corporation speak louder than his own donations and lack of words. It is great that Amazon dropped out of the American Legislative Exchange Council in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing and ALEC’s support of the sort of “Stand Your Ground” laws that helped exonerate his killer, but it is fair to ask why the Internet giant was a member of the group that favors “federalism and conservative public policy solutions” beforehand. Amazon is not particularly friendly to labor, something German unions have made a bigger stink over than American ones; even so, its roughly 90,000 employees are not unionized, The Nation reported last year. Bezos opposed a special Washington state tax on the wealthy, and his company continues to try to avoid efforts to make it pay state sales taxes, and came around to an Internet sales tax only when it realized that this would actually redound to its benefit.

Bezos, in other words, is a businessman, and can probably be presumed to have most of the attendant corporate interests.

Politics, however, is not the reason why this sale feels distressing. This will sound silly, but the soul of The Washington Post is not in its politics coverage, even though that is what it is most famous for both in journalistic circles and in popular culture (All The President’s Men was not about the Style section). It’s a fundamentally local paper, the Post, indeliby tied to D.C. and its suburbs; it covers the federal government extensively, but that is only because a newspaper in a steel town would cover the factory extensively. “We are not a national newspaper,” Donald Graham, who belonged to the third generation of his family to own and run the paper before his family sold that paper to Jeff Bezos, told The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin in 2000. “We are a local newspaper for a place that happens to be the capital of the United States.” Given that, it makes one a mite queasy when the multibillionaire from across the continent chirps, “I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-today. I am happily living in ‘the other Washington’ where I have a day job that I love.” 

In the end, though, the combination of Bezos’ business interests and his lack of prior political commitments (he is no George Soros or Sheldon Adelson) probably militate against him doing too much. If he turns the Post into a far-left or far-right newspaper (or, more likely, an annoyingly libertarian-ish one), he risks alienating Amazon consumers who will not bother with the distinction between that company and its CEO. We may not fully know Bezos’ politics, but it may not make all that much of a difference, anyway.

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