For Jeff Bezos, ownership of The Washington Post has come with a number of unintended consequences. Since he purchased the paper in 2013, it has been dubbed the “Amazon Washington Post” by the president, a moniker that may have cost Bezos’s main hustle a $10 billion cloud computing contract with the Pentagon. Bezos’s phone, moreover, was allegedly hacked by the Saudi government—possibly as part of the country’s plot to murder Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. If Bezos purchased the Post to increase his influence in the capital amidst growing anxiety about Big Tech’s influence, as many believe he did, then the results have been mixed at best. Ownership of the paper has invited scrutiny from both critics in the media and Bezos’s enemies, even as it has deepened important ties to Washington, D.C.
But for the Post itself, Bezos’s ownership has been a blessing. Sputtering and unprofitable under its previous owners, the Post has expanded dramatically over the last six years, hiring hundreds of journalists, opening new bureaus, and staying cash positive—no small feat in the midst of what can only be described as a media apocalypse. Led by editor Marty Baron, the paper’s coverage of the president has been widely praised—its recent investigation of the Afghanistan Papers may very well garner it a Pulitzer later this year. And while the paper’s chief rival, The New York Times, receives an enormous level of scrutiny—particularly for its often maddening editorial page—the Post has largely steered clear of unwanted attention.
That appears to be changing. Last week, the paper was widely criticized for suspending—and then reinstating—reporter Felicia Sonmez for tweets about rape allegations against Kobe Bryant. On Monday, it was hit twice. First, The Daily Beast reported that Baron had threatened to fire star reporter Wesley Lowery over tweets criticizing a Times story for neglecting to highlight the racism of the Tea Party movement. Shortly thereafter, HuffPost published a bombshell story citing several staffers who alleged the paper “doesn’t value women and men in the same way.” Taken together, these controversies marked the first period of sustained criticism of the paper under Bezos and Baron. And it’s likely to be only the beginning.
The Sonmez incident and its aftermath point to serious problems in the Post’s newsroom. Baron personally chastised both Sonmez and Lowery, over tweets that he believed damaged the Post’s reputation. In 2017, the paper updated its social media policy to include vague language warning that posting anything that “adversely affects the Post’s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers, or partners” could result in suspension or termination. As Vanity Fair’s Caleb Ecarma wrote this week, this highlights a “generational divide when it comes to social media,” with older managers policing the work of younger staffers.
But it also points to a larger problem faced by many legacy media institutions. Baron, trying to protect the appearance of objectivity, is punishing his staffers for expressing informed perspectives on crucial issues like sexual assault and racism. The issue is not that Sonmez and Lowery were wrong—Kobe Bryant was credibly accused of rape; the Tea Party was a reaction to the election of America’s first black president—but that their tweets led to blowback from the right. Instead of encouraging his reporters to tackle controversial issues head-on, Baron bowed to bad-faith campaigns spurred on by sites like Breitbart that, in Sonmez’s case, led to death threats. Instead of offering to keep her safe—as HuffPost reported the paper has done for male reporters who have received threats—the Post blamed the victim.
This is an industrywide issue, of course: Nonwhite, nonmale employees are generally paid less and treated worse. The Post’s leadership is largely male. “There are women when you get down four layers, great women,” one female staffer told HuffPost. “You have the top leadership, all men. You just wonder how that’s impacting things. I think that whether they realize it or not, that sends a message.” Lowery responded to The Daily Beast’s story by tweeting, “Should go without saying: reporters of color shouldn’t have their jobs threatened for speaking out about mainstream media failures to properly cover and contextualize issues of race. What’s the point of bringing diverse experiences and voices into a room only to muzzle them?” In response, the Post reverted to a defensive crouch, arguing that its reporters mustn’t tweet about controversial subjects that might affect the institution’s “reputation.”
Until the last week, the Post had largely escaped this kind of attention, even though, like the Times, it appears to have a preference for white Ivy League reporters who remain blissfully free of opinions, political or otherwise. Bringing any other perspective—and the unwanted attention that warrants on social media from right-wing trolls—is seen as a disservice to the institution’s core mission.
But it’s not just the Post’s treatment of its younger, nonwhite, nonmale staffers that is deserving of criticism and scrutiny. Under Bezos, the Post has trumpeted the fact that its online readership has exploded and, at times, surpassed that of the Times. But it has juiced its traffic by running what is, in essence, a clickbait farm. “Others try to cram the fluff into special inserts, or hide it deep on the website, in an effort to avoid having it darken the halo of the Pulitzer entries,” writes Hamilton Nolan in Columbia Journalism Review. “But the Post does something more deft—it seamlessly integrates the fluff into its overall presentation, thereby getting all the traffic benefits of clickbait without losing that Pulitzer glory.” It is difficult to imagine the response if the Times routinely published stories with grabby headlines like: “Officials said he died in a fall. Then his wife admitted to poisoning his water with eye drops.”
Its editorial page is arguably more embarrassing than that of the Times, which certainly has its problems but also does not employ Marc Thiessen and Hugh Hewitt, two of the most depraved Trump enablers in the country, who both write like Pravda interns. Editorial pages have struggled to display a diversity of opinion, given the radicalization of the GOP, but the Post has done the worst thing a paper can do, which is not to bother struggling at all. Thiessen and Hewitt are given space to repeatedly defend the president’s baseless arguments (most recently that impeachment is a hoax and a witch hunt). These columns have undoubtedly done more to damage the reputation of the paper than any tweet about Kobe Bryant or the Tea Party could.
Bezos’s influence is perhaps the thorniest question facing the paper. Despite what Trump has suggested, there is no evidence that he is influencing its editorial direction—it has, in fact, done admirable work on Amazon. But the Post was not purchased because Bezos believes in civic engagement—it was purchased as part of a concerted effort to grow his company’s influence in the capital. The day before Sonmez was suspended, Bezos hosted a lavish party attended by Washington’s upper crust, including Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. It turns out that even having the richest person in the world as an owner doesn’t solve all of the problems facing legacy media—and it leads to new problems, too.