Opinion

Jack Shafer

Jeff Bezos is an owner who knows how to deliver

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2013 23:21 UTC

As the American newspaper business began its red-ink slide in the late 2000s, I fully expected a billionaire to rescue the financially struggling Washington Post. But I never thought its savior would be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper today for $250 million.

I put my money on Michael R. Bloomberg’s money, in a July 2012 column titled “How Bloomberg can still run Washington” because he seemed like such a logical buyer. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg already owned a media empire comprised of a news service, a cable channel, a weekly magazine, and more. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg had toyed in semi-public with the idea of buying either the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times. Unlike the 49-year-old Bezos, who has been building spaceships and an eternal clock with his mad money, the aging (71 years old) Bloomberg seemed to need one last great gesture in his career before called to paradise. He wasn’t ever going to be president, a campaign he had gamed out. As for running the World Bank, a job Bloomberg was reportedly shopped to fill, well, that would be a step down from Emperor of New York City.

My matchmaking ploy failed. Washington Post Co. CEO Donald E. Graham, whose family owns a controlling interest in the company that owns the paper, humorously rebuffed my proposal in a tart email. Bloomberg didn’t knock on my door offering to pay me a finder’s fee. My idea was completely forgotten — even by me! — until today.

How could I have missed Bezos as a candidate for ownership?

Bezos has the means. He is worth $25.2 billion to Michael Bloomberg’s $27 billion. Buying and operating the money-losing Post – its newspaper division lost $49.3 million in the first six months of this year — wouldn’t scare him. To paraphrase Charles Foster Kane, Bezos could absorb $100 million a year losses for 250 years before going broke. Bezos’s politics aren’t that different from Graham’s. To cherry-pick a conceit from my summer 2012 column, Graham and Bloomberg are “beyondists,” David Brooks’s clever term for people whose politics appear to be centrist but strive to occupy a political space beyond left and right. Bezos’s non-doctrinaire, fluid politics make him a kind of West Coast beyondist, and as such an acceptable owner for Graham, who has resisted political labeling throughout his career. Although the libertarian movement claims Bezos as one of its own and he runs his company as free of government influence as he can, the political donations made by the Amazon PAC mark Bezos as a very practical beyondist: He contributes to both parties almost equally.

In acquiring the Washington Post, Bezos enters a business that is not radically different from the ones he already owns. Reporters and editors like to think their literary arts are central to newspapering. But it’s better to think of a newspaper as a coordination problem that manufacturing and distribution solves daily: Copy, art, and advertising is beamed from newsroom to printing plant, bundled newspapers flow from the plant to trucks, are transferred to carriers, and are delivered to your front door. Nobody knows more about deadline deliveries and distribution than Bezos’s Amazon, which has spoiled several nations with its reliable service. I can’t imagine what plans Bezos has for the print edition of the paper — if I did, I’d be worth $25.2 billion — but I’m confident that he will maximize the value of the existing Post delivery system in novel ways. It would not surprise me to see him use the Post network of trucks and carriers to enter the local delivery business as a pilot project. Obviously, he’s learned a lot from same-day delivery he could share with the paper.

Nate Silver and a general theory of media exodus

Jack Shafer
Jul 22, 2013 21:44 UTC

The defection of statistics-wrangler Nate Silver from the status peaks of the New York Times for the flatlands of ESPN and ABC News puts a dent in the newspaper’s self-esteem and the orthodox view that for journalists, a Times position equals career success.

Instead of second-guessing Silver’s decision to leave the Valhalla of journalism, media writers are playing his move as a blow to the paper. Like LeBron James bolting Cleveland for Miami, writes Marc Tracy of the New Republic. “It’s a huge loss for the New York Times,” assesses USA Today’s Rem Rieder. ESPN and ABC “stole” Silver, as Politico‘s Mike Allen puts it, and in his new perch he’ll be allowed to expand beyond his FiveThirtyEight political stats-and-predictions blog to explore whole new realms of data journalism, including sports, education, economics, weather and Oscars predictions. “No way to sugarcoat this one: It’s a huge blow for the Times,” offers Forbes‘s Jeff Bercovici. “He’s outgrown the New York Times,” states Business Insider’s Walter Hickey.

Adding blood and broken bones to the psychic wounding others inflicted upon the Times was Adweek‘s headline, “Nate Silver Dumps New York Times for ESPN.”

From Tom Paine to Glenn Greenwald, we need partisan journalism

Jack Shafer
Jul 16, 2013 22:33 UTC

I would sooner engage you in a week-long debate over which taxonomical subdivision the duck-billed platypus belongs to than spend a moment arguing whether Glenn Greenwald is a journalist or not, or whether an activist can be a journalist, or whether a journalist can be an activist, or how suspicious we should be of partisans in the newsroom.

It’s not that those arguments aren’t worthy of time — just not mine. I’d rather judge a work of journalism directly than run the author’s mental drippings through a gas chromatograph to detect whether his molecules hang left or right or cling to the center. In other words, I care less about where a journalist is coming from than to where his journalism takes me.

Greenwald’s collaborations with source Edward Snowden, which resulted in Page One scoops in the Guardian about the National Security Agency, caused such a rip in the time-space-journalism continuum that the question soon went from whether Greenwald’s lefty style of journalism could be trusted to whether he belonged in a jail cell. Last month, New York Times business journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin called for the arrest of Greenwald (he later apologized) and Meet the Press host David Gregory asked with a straight face if he shouldn’t “be charged with a crime.” NBC’s Chuck Todd and the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus and Paul Farhi also asked if Greenwald hadn’t shape-shifted himself to some non-journalistic precinct with his work.

When death comes in installments

Jack Shafer
Jul 12, 2013 21:42 UTC

“Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments,” wrote New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling in the magazine’s March 28, 1953 issue. His piece deserves rereading every time a Hugo Chávez, a Margaret Thatcher, or now, a Nelson Mandela, drag their feet in their last approaches to their final reward.

The lengthy illness of a former or current world leader tends to agitate the hard-core news hounds. Their attitude: if you’re going, please go. As Liebling observed, only 10 percent of the obituary will contain any real news, anyway, the remainder is just a history lesson or clip job. The unexpected and sudden death of a world leader — preferably one in power — has greater appeal to the newshound, if only because there’s news in the surprise. Fifty years on, we still hunger for details about John Kennedy’s life and death, and Abraham Lincoln’s obituaries will never stop entertaining us.

World leaders do readers a disservice when they die on installment. Their obituaries, which newspapers pre-write and store in their pantries for that special day, can be refreshed a limited  number of times before they start to read like Wikipedia entries. When dying or aged leaders cheat death or push their way back into the news, they dilute their prepared obituaries. Liebling succinctly expressed this press corps’s lament in his Stalin complaint. Should they publish the meat of the full obit when the leader is close to death or should they hold back, publishing mini-obits in the form of news stories, columns and recollections? The leader who won’t die on a schedule forces journalism interruptus upon both the press and news consumers.

How to leak and not get caught

Jack Shafer
Jul 9, 2013 23:11 UTC

If U.S. prosecutors ever get their hands on Edward Snowden, they’ll play such a tympanic symphony on his skull he’ll wish his hands never touched a computer keyboard. Should U.S. prosecutors fail, U.S. diplomats will squeeze — as they did in Hong Kong — until he squirts from his hiding place and scurries away in search of a new sanctuary. But even if he finds asylum in a friendly nation, his reservation will last only as long as a sympathetic regime is calling the shots. Whether he ends up in Venezuela or some other country that enjoys needling the United States, he’ll forever be one election or one coup away from extradition.

Even then, he won’t be completely safe.

“Always check six, as we said when I used to be a flyer in the Air Force,” said NSA whistle-blower Thomas Drake recently. “Always make sure you know what’s behind you.”

Solitary whistle-blowers like Snowden, Drake and Daniel Ellsberg draw targets on their backs with their disclosures of official secrets, either by leaving a trail from the heist scene, being the most logical suspect, or because they admit their deed. Escaping prison time, such whistle-blowers have learned, depends on the luck of prosecutorial overreach (Drake) or self-destruction by the state, which derailed the prosecution of Pentagon Papers liberator Ellsberg.

In praise of tabloid TV

Jack Shafer
Jul 5, 2013 22:16 UTC

Allow me to defend cable TV’s extended live coverage of the George Zimmerman murder trial, even though I’ve not watched a second of it, nor have I tuned in to any of the nightly rehashes aired on CNN, HLN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Championing the Zimmerman telemania puts me at variance with the critics of tabloid TV, who want the cable news networks to focus their cameras instead on the Cairo uprising, President Barack Obama’s climate speech, the slaughter in Syria, voters’ rights, the NSA outrages, Wall Street, congressional hearings, and other examples of “meaningful” and “important” news. Directly disparaging CNN’s Zimmerman surplus at the expense of the Egyptian uprising is New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who asserts that the network’s new president, Jeff Zucker, “wants everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side.”

Rosen is right about what Zucker wants. But the call for more broadcast hours devoted to news “that matters” and fewer hours of TV trials — that, as many have accurately put it, are barely distinguishable from CSI episodes — might have been more persuasive in the days when the television audience had only the three broadcast network newscasts to choose from, when the only national newspaper was the business-oriented Wall Street Journal, when there was no real-time access to foreign newspapers and broadcasts, and when researchers were only fantasizing about something as ubiquitous as the Web. But today’s media menu gives the news audience more opportunities than ever before to find the news that others might describe as meaningful and important. It might have made sense three decades ago, when CNN was getting started, that its over-coverage of one story was blotting out other, more worthy stories. But that critique doesn’t apply to 2013. CNN, which used to be the only TV news meal at times of breaking international news like this, is only one of the entrees. Any number of sites have live-streamed the Egyptian protests on to the Web and sharply reported, photographed, and filmed accounts from Cairo are only a hashtag search away the reader’s eye. Go ahead and complain about CNN if you want to, but footnote your critique with easily accessible alternative sources.

In today’s media environment, the media critic who insists that the cable networks follow Egypt and drop Zimmerman is like the nudging dining companion who wants to order both his meal and yours, lest you embarrass him by mistakenly ordering the burger and fries. He finds the burger and fries déclassé and bad for you and would rather you add something more tofu-and-wheatgrassy to your media diet.

What an NSA charm offensive looks like

Jack Shafer
Jun 27, 2013 22:04 UTC

Banged and bruised in the press over the NSA secrets liberated by Edward Snowden and serialized in the Guardian and the Washington Post, the national security establishment resorted to a little media offense earlier this week with a series of conversations with major news outlets.

As media blitzes go, it was sedate and vague. The natsec establishment made its first landing in the Washington Posts June 25 print edition, where two unnamed senior intelligence officials speculated about the damage done to U.S. national security by the leaks (“U.S. is worried about security of documents Snowden has”). The Post reported:

“Already, several terrorist groups in various regions of the world have begun to change their method of communication based on disclosures of surveillance programs in the media, the official said. He would not elaborate on the communication modes.”

NSA and the Pandora’s box of surveillance

Jack Shafer
Jun 24, 2013 22:18 UTC

Let’s assume for a moment that National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander was telling the truth yesterday on ABC News’s This Week when he said that the NSA material leaked by Edward Snowden “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies.”

That would mean that the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and other friendly nations that depend on the NSA’s ability to suck electrons out of the ether, store them, sort them, and computer-analyze them for intelligence purposes, have suffered mightily. Unlike tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes or hurricanes — disasters that tend to inflict only temporary damage that can be repaired — Snowden’s leaks have visited upon the national security of the allies a blight that can’t be rolled back or ameliorated. It’s permanent. It’s everlasting. You know, it’s irreversible, as the general said.

According to Alexander, the Snowden breach ravages a program that has contributed to the “understanding and, in many cases, disruptions” of 50 terrorist plots, obviously implying that the unauthorized disclosures will hinder the future understandings and disruptions. While Snowden is the confessed thief of the data, he’s not the one who made the theft possible. Surely his superior, or his superior’s superior, or his superior’s superior’s superior, or somebody on the NSA organization chart designed a flawed system that was easily defeated by a junior contractor. Surely a large bag filled with heads will roll at the NSA for this grievous lapse, and Alexander will accept responsibility for his own shortcomings and step down from the NSA so the president can assign a more competent director.

Snowden versus the dragons

Jack Shafer
Jun 18, 2013 22:19 UTC

One measure of our culture’s disdain for whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden can be culled from the pages of a thesaurus. Beyond “source” and “leaker,” few neutral antonyms exist to describe people who divulge alleged wrongdoing by the government or other organizations to the press, while negative synonyms abound—spy, double-agent, rat, snitch, informer, fink, double-crosser, canary, stoolie, squealer, turncoat, betrayer, traitor and so on.

We bristle at the scent of whistle-blowers for atavistic reasons: They’ve violated the norms that bind the group together and must be scorned and punished, and their only allies are like-minded individuals who’ve deserted the pack—or joined opposing packs—and portions of the press, which occupies a floating niche somewhere between the individual and the group that allows it to thrive on such principled perfidy.

But even the press in aggregate is not a friend to whistle-blowers, as its recent treatment of Snowden attests, what with the deep dives into his teen years (including photos), his education and employment history, his reputation as a loner and a “brainiac,” his pants-down hijinks, his online scribblings, his dancer girlfriend, his predilection for (in his own words) “post-coital Krispy Kremes.” Squeezing every possible query at every known commercial database, journalists worldwide have aped the National Security Agency’s snooping skills to track down Snowden’s friends, associates, neighbors, schoolmates, relatives and colleagues to instapaint his portrait.

Edward Snowden and the selective targeting of leaks

Jack Shafer
Jun 11, 2013 22:47 UTC

Edward Snowden’s expansive disclosures to the Guardian and the Washington Post about various National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs have only two corollaries in contemporary history—the classified cache Bradley Manning allegedly released to WikiLeaks a few years ago and Daniel Ellsberg’s dissemination of the voluminous Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971.

Leakers like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg don’t merely risk being called narcissists, traitors or mental cases for having liberated state secrets for public scrutiny. They absolutely guarantee it. In the last two days, the New York Times’David Brooks, Politico’s Roger Simon, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen and others have vilified Snowden for revealing the government’s aggressive spying on its own citizens, calling him self-indulgent, a loser and a narcissist.

Yet even as the insults pile up and the amateur psychoanalysis intensifies, keep in mind that Snowden’s leak has more in common with the standard Washington leak than should make the likes of Brooks, Simon and Cohen comfortable. Without defending Snowden for breaking his vow to safeguard secrets, he’s only done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates. Keeping the policy leak separate from the heretic leak is crucial to understanding how these stories play out in the press.

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