Is Jeff Bezos up for the fight against Trump 2.0? America needs him to be

Trump has made no secret of his contempt for the former Amazon CEO. The Washington Post was there when it was needed with Nixon, which begs the question: is Bezos up for another round?

June 14, 2024
Image: Associated Press / Alamy
Image: Associated Press / Alamy

Is there a more romantic newspaper than the Washington Post? Think Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the crusading duo bringing down a US president with the growling encouragement of cigar-chomping editor Jason Robards.

Or think of Tom Hanks playing the same editor (Ben Bradlee) in another Hollywood movie celebrating the paper’s fight for the truth, backed to the hilt by the publisher Meryl Streep—playing Katharine Graham, who stood firm as her newspaper went for Richard Nixon and defiantly revealed hidden truths about the Vietnam War in the teeth of furious attempts to gag it.

Stories like that do not fade away: if anything, their aura grows over the half a century since the Post seemed to dominate the world of newspapers, doing exactly what journalists were put on the planet to do—and not just in the burnished version that Hollywood subsequently served up. If there was a journalistic version of Mount Rushmore, Woodward and Bernstein would be the first faces to be carved in stone.

“Democracy dies in darkness” was the catchy slogan of the paper in more recent years—and it once again hit editorial heights under the pugnacious editorship of Marty Baron; himself celebrated in celluloid by Liev Schreiber in the 2015 film Spotlight, which told of his campaign to unmask widespread sex abuse within the Catholic Church in the diocese of Boston.

By the time the film was released, the Post had a new owner, with the Graham family unable to support the paper through the financial convulsions besetting virtually all news organisations as the graceful old world of print was trampled underfoot by the urgent stampede of digital.

The old world news publishers may have had a certain glamour, but they could not compete in cash terms with the cold-eyed, data-driven zeal of the modern day tech bros. They were the new masters of the universe, sweeping all before them.

But some of them occasionally worried about their social purpose beyond accumulating Rockefeller and Medici-style riches. And so it came to pass that Jeff Bezos, the eye-wateringly wealthy owner of Amazon, bought the Washington Post for $250m in 2013. Pocket money.

He had big ambitions, and—together with Baron—virtually doubled the journalistic headcount to more than a thousand editors and reporters. And there were six more Pulitzer Prizes under Sally Buzbee, the editor until recently.

The losses mounted—but everyone assumed that a commercial genius like Bezos would have anticipated what the tech crowd liked to call “reach before revenue”. After all, it was the business model of Amazon, which made no profit at all for its first nine years. Besides, it was pocket money, right?

Wrong. With the Post’s annual losses reaching $77m last year, Bezos called for the cavalry, which arrived in the form of new CEO Sir William Lewis, the buccaneering former editor of the (very British) Daily Telegraph, and a former Murdoch lieutenant. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot. For a start Lewis has consistently declined to address claims that he behaved less than ethically while serving as Murdoch’s “clean-up” man after the phone hacking which has cost his former boss £1bn and counting.

Secondly, he appears—in the eyes of some of his new colleagues—to have crossed a line in voicing some displeasure at Buzzbee for running a story about these alleged skeletons; shortly before effectively removing her and replacing her with an old chum from the Telegraph.

Finally, he tried to bargain with a highly-respected media reporter, David Folkenflik from National Public Radio, in order to dissuade him from going near the alleged skeletons. And then damned him as an “activist, not a reporter” when he wrote about it. This smacked of Murdoch, not Katharine Graham.

Result: a certain amount of turmoil within the Washington Post and a gleeful determination among other US journalists to go hunting for further skeletons.

Why does this matter? Well, cast your mind back to Trump’s first presidency when he declared war on many US institutions, perhaps especially on what Sarah Palin called the “lamestream media”. They were fake news, liars, the enemies of the people. Trump captured the House and Senate as well as the Supreme Court. Some of the media—think Murdoch’s Fox News—saw themselves as cheerleaders. Would the remnants of the American press buckle?

The New Yorker’s David Remnick remembered this period with a shudder: “Trump may have devoted more mental energy to his degradation of the press—through lawsuits, threats, and hundreds of tweets—than to any other issue. He called reporters ‘corrupt’ ‘scum’ and ‘some of the worst human beings you’ll ever meet.’ And those words riled up his base, so much so that at his rallies reporters were often berated and menaced.” 

But a handful of media organisations didn’t buckle. Among the most important was the Post, which kept a catalogue of the president’s false or misleading claims: 30,573 over four years. And to his credit, Bezos held firm even when Amazon lost out on an enormous $10bn government cloud computing contract—and blamed Trump’s hatred of the Post for the decision.

Trump made no secret of his contempt for Bezos and the Post, once denouncing him in menacing terms. “The Post is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos, who controls Amazon… he’s using that as a tool for political power against me and against other people. And I’ll tell you what: we can’t let him get away with it.”

Now imagine Trump’s second term, if that’s where we get to in November. Actually we don’t have to imagine as it’s already set out in stark detail. “At the core of the plan,” this paper reported this week, “is the gutting of checks and balances that would give Trump unprecedented, concentrated executive authority over federal agencies.”

This is causing considerable alarm: “Project 2025 is more than an idea,” said California representative Jared Huffman, “it’s a dystopian plot that’s already in motion to dismantle our democratic institutions, abolish checks and balances, chip away at church-state separation, and impose a far-right agenda that infringes on basic liberties and violates public will.”

Is the Washington Post match-fit for this possible second coming? Former FT editor Lionel Barber and I asked that of Ben Smith, editor of Semafor and former New York Times media columnist. 

He questioned whether Bezos—now with a new partner and bedazzled by Hollywood—still had the same attachment to the Post’s core mission. “He’s in a circle of West Coast billionaires who are kind of Trump-curious, Trump-friendly these days… I don’t know. Is this guy up for another round? These are questions between him and Will Lewis.”

So, on one level this is a human interest story about a clash of journalistic cultures and a misstep or two by a CEO who would be well-advised to address any alleged skeletons, if only to clear the air.

But on another level, it couldn’t be more serious. The Post was there when it was needed with Nixon: it needs to be there for Trump 2, if that’s what we’re about to get.

We shouldn’t have to ask this question, but here we are: is Bezos up for another round?