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Bezos, antitrust, and the power of media patronage

Bradley Tusk reflects on the enduring power of print—and the complicated politics of media ownership.

Bezos, antitrust, and the power of media patronage
[Photo: Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images; Hayden Walker, AbsolutVision, Yang Xia, Rishabh Sharma/Unsplash]
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The modest, single-digit billionaire has to watch their wealth. Sure, $4 or $5 billion sounds like a lot, but the almighty dollar is fickle. A Gulfstream G550 is nice, but it’s a depreciating asset. Ditto the superyacht docked in Portofino. And one never knows when Elizabeth Warren might come knocking, wealth tax in hand. A proper Caymanian tax adviser doesn’t come cheap.

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But what if you’re worth eleven figures? According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, there are at least 61 people in the United States who’ve attained that distinction—putting the world at their fingertips and a target on their back. Unfortunately, acquiring a sports team can only buy so much goodwill in these populist times, especially if the team stinks. For the mega-billionaire seeking durable reputational protection, nothing beats a good old-fashioned newspaper.

Jeff Bezos, not surprisingly, understood this early. Buying the Washington Post for a mere $250 million in 2013 was a masterstroke. For what now constitutes around .1% of his net worth, Bezos purchased 1) the grudging respect of veteran journalists who appreciate his deep-pocketed but hands-off management style; 2) honorary statesman status in Washington; and 3) the ability to help shape political narratives around his friends and enemies.

The world’s wealthiest man hasn’t dirtied his hands by weaponizing the Post, as far as we know. But it does operate as a shield. While the left is harshly critical of Bezos, the paper’s anti-Trump orientation makes him something of a political bedfellow. It’s harder to hate the enemy of your enemy. Owning the Post has provided more oblique benefits, too. When evidence of his marital infidelity was leaked to the Trump-aligned National Enquirer, Bezos claimed that he had been hacked by the Saudi government in retaliation for the Post’s coverage of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Whether or not it was true, it was a good story. The tabloid scandal was replaced by geopolitical intrigue.

Ironically, it’s the same digital entrepreneurs that benefited from the decline of print, such as Larry Page or Jack Dorsey, who are now well-positioned (and would be well-advised) to play the role of hero. Owning a media property, after all, creates a halo effect. When Salesforce founder Marc Benioff rescued Time magazine, he didn’t just buy an American institution—he threw a lifeline (complete with benefits) to thousands of people who help shape public opinion. The same goes for Laurene Powell Jobs and The Atlantic. As with other forms of philanthropy, media patronage tends to be a win-win proposition.

For the billionaire who already has everything else, it’s a rare opportunity to buy respectability—and, potentially, influence. Will Bezos owning the Washington Post insulate Amazon from the Federal Trade Commission? Probably not. But as the Biden administration (assuming Biden wins) weighs which tech giants to target, it’s hard to imagine nobody takes the link between Amazon and the Post into account. That’s why, if Mark Zuckerberg were truly ruthless (and by all accounts, he is), he would buy every mainstream media outlet he can get his hands on. Any acquisition would be seen for what it is, a naked political play for protection, but it could still hold real value, so long as he treated his new toys with respect. (A cautionary tale here is Sheldon Adelson, who sought to fully weaponize the Las Vegas Review-Journal and ruined its reputation in the process.)

Imagine if Zuckerberg owned, say, the Dallas Morning News, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Detroit Free Press, the Denver Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Does that get mentioned in the West Wing meeting where Attorney General Sally Yates is debating the antitrust case against Facebook? What if Zuckerberg bought CNN from AT&T? That would presumably cost more than a struggling big city newspaper, but as Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes demonstrated, a television network is a potent weapon. Zuckerberg’s clever courting of the Trump White House already helped push Google into the pole position for antitrust prosecution. Those tactics may not work in a Biden administration, but with a president who came of age in an era where print newspapers dominated and with a White House staff that tends to be older and more conventional, anyone who owns a slate of media outlets will hold a lot of sway.

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Maybe newspapers are too 20th century for the modern tech billionaire. But the world hasn’t gone fully digital yet. With the Silicon Valley elite facing more criticism than ever, the more armor you have, the better. There’s an old saying, attributed (like everything not attributed to Winston Churchill) to Mark Twain: “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” As Jeff Bezos proved, it’s a lot easier to write a check.


Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist, and political strategist.