Trump’s Amazon-Post vendetta reflects his corrupting sense of victimization

Previously pubished at WGBHNews.org.

If you care to read one more example of President Trump’s fundamentally corrupt way of looking at the world, I recommend Jon Lee Anderson’s profile of the former ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, which appears in the current New Yorker. Anderson begins with a shocking anecdote — or, rather, an anecdote that would be shocking if we had not long since gone numb. Feeley was sitting outside the Oval Office in June 2017, waiting for a meeting with Trump. He heard the president drop an F-bomb in the midst of a tirade, then was led in. Vice President Mike Pence and future chief of staff John Kelly were with the president. Anderson continues:

As he took a seat, Trump asked, “So tell me — what do we get from Panama? What’s in it for us?” Feeley presented a litany of benefits: help with counter-narcotics work and migration control, commercial efforts linked to the Panama Canal, a close relationship with the current President, Juan Carlos Varela. When he finished, Trump chuckled and said, “Who knew?” He then turned the conversation to the Trump International Hotel and Tower, in Panama City. “How about the hotel?” he said. “We still have the tallest building on the skyline down there?”

I offer this to illuminate a different story — one that was nearly overlooked last weekend amid an unusually weird and disturbing outburst of Trumpian mishegas. Last Friday, The Washington Post reported that Trump had been pressuring Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the postal rates paid by the retail giant Amazon to deliver its packages. According to the Post’s Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey, Brennan has pushed back repeatedly, even showing the president slides to demonstrate that the Postal Service’s arrangement with Amazon and several other companies is a plus for the money-losing agency.

But Trump would not be appeased, and the reason seems obvious: The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. And Trump — motivated, as always, by his personal need to assert dominance over anyone he perceives as an enemy — wants to punish the Post for its tough coverage of his campaign and his presidency. As an unnamed “Republican close to the White House” recently told Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair: “Trump doesn’t like The New York Times, but he reveres it because it’s his hometown paper. The Washington Post, he has zero respect for.” Sherman reported that the people around Trump have been plotting other actions against Bezos as well — such as canceling a contract for Amazon to supply cloud computing services to the Pentagon and mobilizing Republican state attorneys general to investigate Amazon’s business practices.

All of this is, needless to say, deeply transgressive. If a Democratic president acted like this, the Republican majority in Congress would be calling for hearings, and whispers of impeachment would be in the air. And if this were an isolated instance, it would be a major news story for many days, if not weeks. But because Trump lurches from one outrage to another, often over the span of a few hours, the latest eruption in his ongoing war against the Post has been all but drowned out.

Take, for instance, Trump’s latest obsession: demanding information on the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia. His improper interference in an investigation of himself (you could call it obstruction of justice, in the lay sense if not necessarily the legal sense) has already resulted in the outing a confidential informant, possibly at some risk to his life, and to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s twisting himself into a pretzel to avoid resigning and thus to keep special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation on track. “It’s an incredible historical moment,” Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School, told Charlie Savage of The New York Times. She added that Trump’s latest action was “the culmination of a lot of moments in which he has chipped away at prosecutorial independence, but this is a direct assault.”

Or consider a Washington Post column by Max Boot, a leading anti-Trump conservative, who attempted on Monday to document the political norms Trump had violated in just the previous week. It’s a breathtaking list, ranging from Trump’s lifting of sanctions against the Chinese cellphone firm ZTE right after China provided a $500 million loan for a Trump business venture in Indonesia to a Times report that the Trump campaign was offered help by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“Trump’s assault on democratic norms is all the more dangerous because the response is so tepid,” Boot wrote. “Republicans approve of, or pretend not to notice, his flagrant misconduct, while Democrats are inured to it. The sheer number of outrages makes it hard to give each one the attention it deserves.”

Perhaps the best way of looking at all of these incidents was expressed by Adam Serwer in The Atlantic. Rather than multiple Trump scandals, Serwer wrote, there is really just one mega-scandal: “the corruption of the American government by the president and his associates, who are using their official power for personal and financial gain rather than for the welfare of the American people, and their attempts to shield that corruption from political consequences, public scrutiny, or legal accountability.”

That strikes me as a good way of thinking about Trump’s assault on the media in general and The Washington Post in particular. He has no respect for the First Amendment or for the role of a free press in a democratic society. It’s all about his needs and wants, and nothing else matters.

Sexual harassment and The Boston Globe

In case you missed it, Emily Rooney, Adam Reilly, and I discussed on “Greater Boston” Tuesday an accusation that Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory sexually harassed Hilary Sargent, a former top editor at the Globe’s free Boston.com website. On Monday, Sargent tweeted out a copy of an inappropriate text she said McGrory had sent her. You can watch our discussion and read Emily’s synopsis by clicking here.

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No, the Digital First approach to newspaper ownership is not defensible

Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”

Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.

1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.

But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.

2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.

3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.

In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.

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Trump’s attacks on the ‘Fake Washington Post’ show how he’s different from Nixon

Illustration (cc) 2012 by AK Rockefeller.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little less than two years ago, as Donald Trump was moving ever closer to wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos made a rather remarkable promise. “I have a lot of very sensitive and vulnerable body parts,” he said in a public conversation with the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron. “If need be, they can all go through the wringer rather than do the wrong thing.”

At the time, Trump was attacking the Post and Amazon, the retail behemoth that Bezos had founded, by threatening to launch an antitrust investigation and end Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks. So Bezos’ promise carried with it a very specific meaning, especially for those steeped in Watergate lore. When Post reporter Carl Bernstein asked one of Richard Nixon’s thugs, John Mitchell, to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell famously responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” And here was Bezos, all those years later, pledging to stand tall in the face of threats from the powerful — as tall as Katharine Graham had in the 1970s. It was a promise that is now being put to the test.

President Trump, of course, has attacked the “fake news” media relentlessly. Last week, he turned his attention, as he sometimes does, to the Post.

In a subsequent tweet, Trump claimed that Bezos should be required to register the Post as a “lobbyist” for Amazon. He also referred to the paper as the “Fake Washington Post.” For those of us who are connoisseurs of such things, that’s a major improvement over his previous derogatory nickname, the “Amazon Washington Post,” though still not quite a match for the truly inspired “Failing New York Times.”

Of course, it’s easy to mock Trump. But his attacks on the Post go beyond buffoonery — they potentially represent real trouble. Imagine what would happen if the Trump administration launched an investigation into Amazon with the intent of harming the Post. The supine Republican Congress wouldn’t do anything but vaguely express concern. The Fox News-led right-wing media would bray for the Post’s demise.

And yet Trump isn’t Nixon. I don’t mean Trump isn’t as bad as Nixon; give him time, and he could prove to be worse. I mean that, stylistically, they are very different people with diametrically opposite ways of looking at the world. Nixon, for all his faults, fundamentally understood the legitimacy of the institutions he was seeking to undermine. He acted in secret, and the actions he considered taking against the Post — hitting the paper with a criminal complaint in order to undermine its public stock offering, challenging the licenses of the TV stations it held — would have hurt the Post in real, measurable ways.

By contrast, it’s hard to know how seriously to take Trump’s threats, based as they are on falsehoods so blatant that they can only be called lies. Amazon is not costing the post office money; it’s actually a boon. The Post is not a lobbyist for Amazon; Bezos has allowed the paper to operate independently, keeping his distance from both the news operation and the editorial pages. Trump is right about Amazon’s harming brick-and-mortar retailers, but it has paid state and local taxes just like any other company for some years now.

Also in contrast to Nixon’s skullduggery, Trump voices his threats in public. And that’s the key to what is really going on. Trump understands that in the current media environment, he doesn’t have to harm the business prospects of his enemies in the press (although Gabriel Sherman, writing in Vanity Fair, reports that he might try to go after the Post). He merely has to delegitimize them in the eyes of the 35 to 40 percent of the public that continues to support him. The Post, the Times, and other news organizations are benefiting from the “Trump effect,” as anti-Trump audiences are rewarding them not just with clicks but with paid subscriptions. Trump doesn’t care as long as he is able to convince his followers that he and his sycophants at Fox News and Breibart are the source of all the reality that they need.

In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, at a time when it looked like Trump was going to lose, Bezos spoke out against Trump for suggesting he wouldn’t respect the results of the election unless he won. “One of the things that makes this country so amazing is that we are allowed to criticize and scrutinize our elected leaders,” Bezos said. “There are other countries where if you criticize the elected leader you might go to jail. Or worse, you may just disappear.”

In fact, Trump is making his enemies in the media disappear — not to all of us, and certainly not to the majority who are appalled by his presidency. But he is making the mainstream media disappear to his followers and replacing them with himself as the ultimate arbiter of reality. The Fake Washington Post and the Failing New York Times aren’t going anywhere. For the Trump minority, though, they have ceased to exist.

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What the new owner of the Los Angeles Times can learn from Jeff Bezos

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron (left) and Jeff Bezos in 2016. Photo from a Post video.

Last week a years-long ownership crisis at the Los Angeles Times may have come to an end. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and entrepreneur, purchased the Times from tronc for a reported $500 million.

Drawing on the lessons I write about in my new book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I e-talked with Dave Beard about what lessons Soon-Shiong could learn from Jeff Bezos’ vision for The Washington Post, and why other billionaire owners both good (John Henry of The Boston Globe) and bad (Sam Zell, who ran the former Tribune newspapers into the ground) have had a rougher go of it.

Our conversation is now up at Poynter.org, and I hope you’ll take a look.

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Globe editor McGrory talks numbers at First Amendment gathering

Because I get memos, this blog is perhaps more dedicated to the words and thoughts of Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory than is strictly necessary. But he does lead New England’s largest news organization, and we all care about the fate of the Globe at a time of economic uncertainty. So I thought I’d pass along a bit of what McGrory had to say at last week’s New England First Amendment Institute.

First, some numbers. McGrory said the newsroom currently employs about 225 full-time journalists, down considerably from its heyday of about 540 at the turn of the century. Last spring, when I was wrapping up reporting for “The Return of the Moguls,” my not-yet-published book on Globe owner John Henry, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos and other wealthy newspaper publishers, the number I heard was 240. Counting bodies is more difficult than you might imagine. I don’t think there has been any significant change since last spring — just different ways of measuring the size of the staff.

McGrory also said that classified-ad revenue has dropped from $180 million a year when the newspaper business was at its peak to about $10 million today. Again, nothing that will surprise people who watch the newspaper business, but a reminder of why newspapers are not what they used to be.

On a more positive note, the Globe has signed up 92,000 digital-only subscribers, continuing its momentum from the spring, when it was around 80,000. Despite the Globe’s progress, McGrory acknowledged that it no longer has the largest number of digital-only subscribers among regional dailies. That distinction now belongs to the Los Angeles Times. But of course the LA area is far larger than Greater Boston, and digital subscriptions to the LA Times are much cheaper than they are to the Globe, which charges $30 a month.

McGrory attributed this rise to the Trump effect, which has driven paid subscriptions to The New York Times over the 2 million mark and another 1 million at The Washington Post. Though the Globe has focused mainly on local and regional news in response to the changing economics of journalism, it maintains a robust Washington bureau. In fact, McGrory said the bureau is actually adding a person, bringing it to six.

Finally, and perhaps of the greatest significance, he said that 87 people have different jobs in the Globe newsroom since the staff-led reinvention that went into effect earlier this year. The two ideas behind the reinvention: (1) to report the news online throughout the day and move away from the habits formed by the daily cycle of the print edition; and (2) to focus on being a “paper of interest” rather than a “paper of record” that dutifully cranks out stories that few people read.

Nothing about the Globe’s ongoing print problems, but McGrory had addressed that just a few days earlier in a memo to the staff. McGrory essentially described the problem as having eased. That comports with what I’ve heard, though there are still plenty of complaints from longtime customers about missed papers, early editions without scores from the previous night’s game, missing sections and the like.

Despite the difficulties facing daily papers, McGrory told the NEFAI crowd, “We have more readers of Boston Globe journalism than we have ever had in the history of the Globe,” an assertion that takes into account the paper’s print and digital readers, Boston.com and Stat, a health- and life-sciences vertical that’s part of Boston Globe Media.

As John Henry ponders the huge expenses he has no doubt incurred from the print fiasco, I hope he’ll keep in mind that people will not pay for a diminishing product. It could be disastrous if he offsets those expenses with another big cut in the newsroom. The upward momentum in digital subscriptions is the key to the Globe’s future. But that momentum will stall quickly if people start to believe that they’re not getting their money’s worth.

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Talking with Bob Schieffer about the future of news

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Recently I had the opportunity to record a podcast about my Shorenstein paper on the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos with CBS News legend Bob Schieffer and Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Our conversation was posted on Thursday.

Schieffer and I met last spring at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I was a Joan Shorenstein Fellow and he was the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow. Schieffer was a friendly, gregarious presence, and my fellow fellows and I enjoyed his company immensely.

My Shorenstein paper is part of a book project with a working title of The Return of the Moguls, which will be about the Post under Bezos, the Boston Globe under Red Sox principal owner John Henry, and the Orange County Register under entrepreneur Aaron Kushner, to be published by ForeEdge in 2017.

Schieffer and Schwartz’s podcast, “About the News,” offers regular updates about various media topics. It’s available at iTunes.

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Trump throws the Washington Post off the bus

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron (left) interviews Post owner Jeff Bezos at a recent event.
Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron (left) interviews Post owner Jeff Bezos at a recent event.

Donald Trump, who earlier today suggested that President Obama might somehow be linked to the Orlando shooting, has revoked the credentials of Washington Post reporters because of a headline stating that Trump had suggested Obama might somehow be linked to the Orlando shooting. Trump:

Post executive editor Marty Baron:

Donald Trump’s decision to revoke The Washington Post’s press credentials is nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press. When coverage doesn’t correspond to what the candidate wants it to be, then a news organization is banished. The Post will continue to cover Donald Trump as it has all along — honorably, honestly, accurately, energetically, and unflinchingly. We’re proud of our coverage, and we’re going to keep at it.

It was just a few weeks ago that Trump launched a Nixonesque attack on the Post and its owner, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos.

A few random thoughts.

• Shouldn’t we be suspicious of any news organization that hasn’t had its credentials revoked by the Trump campaign?

• This won’t hurt the Post a bit. Access is hugely overrated.

• I’m sorry that this is the first time I’ve written about Trump’s banishment of journalists. Previously he’s gone after Politico, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast. Yes, the Washington Post is one of our great newspapers. But Trump’s attacks on other news organizations are no less despicable.

• I’d like to see every news organization covering Trump burn their credentials and refuse to report on his events until open access is guaranteed for all.

How Jeff Bezos is transforming the Washington Post

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I’m excited to let you see what I worked on during the spring semester at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy: a paper on the reinvention of the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos titled “The Bezos Effect.” It’s long, but I also wrote a summary version for my friends at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

My time as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School was incredibly rewarding. An expanded version of my paper will appear in my book-in-progress, which has a working title of The Return of the Moguls and which will be published by ForeEdge, the trade imprint of University Press of New England, in 2017.

Millionaires, billionaires, and the future of newspapers

tumblr_static_policycast_logoHard to believe, but my time as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School will be ending soon. Recently I recorded an HKS PolicyCast podcast under the expert guidance of host Matt Cadwallader. We talked about my research regarding wealthy newspaper owners and whether the innovations they’ve introduced may show the way for others. I hope you’ll give it a listen.

As I’ve written before, I’m working on a book that will largely be about three such owners—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post in 2013; Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who announced he would purchase the Boston Globe just three days before Bezos made his move; and greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner, whose time as publisher of the Orange County Register ended in 2015, but whose print-centric approach made him perhaps the most closely watched newspaper owner of 2012-’13.

Bezos and the Post will be the subject of the paper I’m writing for Shorenstein, so—in case any of you folks at the Globe were wondering—I’ve suspended my reporting on the Globe for the time being. I’ll be back.

Talking about Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post

Joan Shorenstein Fellows (from left): Joanna Jolly of the BBC; me; Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University; and Marilyn Thompson of Politico.
Joan Shorenstein Fellows (from left): Joanna Jolly of the BBC; me; Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University; and Marilyn Thompson of Politico.

On Tuesday the Joan Shorenstein Fellows at Harvard’s Kennedy School spoke about our research projects; the audio is now online and here’s what you’ll find. More specifically, I talked about Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post and what (if any) lessons that holds for the newspaper business.