Journalism’s Billionaire Problem Is Now an Emergency

American politics has become a chessboard bereft of all pieces but kings, who've arrogated to themselves all the abilities of bishops and rooks.

SFist logo

Last Thursday, DNAInfo unceremoniously pulled the plug on its various sites, including New York-centric Gothamist and the Bay Area’s own SFist. It was so sudden that some employees discovered it by refreshing the home page and seeing a bullshit-spattered message from CEO Joe Ricketts (net worth $2.1 billion) about how hard it is to run a news platform in the digital age. They even lowered the portcullis on the site’s archives, a spiteful move clearly meant to stymie newly former employees from updating their portfolios to find future work (although that only lasted a day).

Sudden it was, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. It followed a unionization push the week before. Ricketts, who comes from a Trump-supporting conservative family that includes the Republican governor of Nebraska, found the idea of workers mobilizing to be such an affront to his I’m-the-boss-here-you-insignificant-little-shits sensibilities that he shut that whole thing down the way Republicans think a woman’s uterus can do to the sperm of a “legitimate rapist.” It’s pure retaliation, as open a violation of the National Labor Relations Act as you can get.

We live in a country where labor gets squeezed, and where real wage gains after 85 months of job growth remain negligible. When American Airlines gave its employees raises earlier this year, Wall Street whined about investors having to content themselves with “leftovers.”

But DNAInfo wasn’t a publicly traded company. So what was Ricketts’ real motivation? To strike back at 115 still-underpaid journalists who wanted a little more job security and negotiating leverage? It’s much more than that. Journalism is increasingly becoming the province of billionaires. There’s really no denying it now: The billionaire class has flexed its muscles enough times in the world of media that they essentially own it the way they own Congress. Which is to say, they’ve bought enough of it outright to give the remainder pause before saying or writing anything that might displease a plutocrat who could destroy their career. Joe Ricketts didn’t need the money, and Gothamist‘s politics were not his politics. In other words, a conservative billionaire may have bought a liberal outlet specifically to shut it down the instant it showed a little spine.

The transformation of the news into a toy of the billionaire class has been happening for years, only now, it’s escalating. The public can sometimes respond positively, as when ultra-affluent people rescue venerable, ailing media properties and save them from doom. Nor are they always wrong to do so. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million in 2013, and the Post has far surpassed The New York Times as an able critic of the Trump Administration, for instance. At other times, owing to the respect that flows to the financially successful, these billionaires seen as wise, neutral actors too powerful to be beholden to any corrupting ideology (ahem, Mike Bloomberg). When they speak up from time to time to remind us that they’re still here and they have opinions, the reportage is breathless, as if we were getting free advice from Yoda.

Sometimes, the billionaires lurk half in the shadows. Take Foster Friess, the guy who said that contraception “in his day” was gals putting aspirin between their knees. (Friess is the Santorum-supporting daddy who funds Tucker Carlson’s odious Daily Caller.) Or look at father-and-daughter Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who bankrolled Breitbart until four days ago. We can bang loudly when they do awful stuff, but we — “we” as in other journalists, but also “we” as in “we the people” — can’t stop them.

They hold almost all the power. When Peter Thiel (net worth $2.6 billion) funded Hulk Hogan‘s lawsuit against Gawker, under the fake-wrestler’s legal name, Terry Bollea, it wasn’t because Thiel was brought to tears knowing that the publication of a sex tape had brought emotional distress to a dignified sportsman who once opened a restaurant in the Mall of America called Pastamania. Thiel did it because he had been a closeted gay man until Gawker had outed him, and he saw the opportunity to strike back. (That Gawker’s publisher, Nick Denton, is also gay added another layer to the intrigue.)

In many U.S. states, funding a third-party lawsuit in which you have no real standing is a crime known as champerty — or, if you secure no financial gains for yourself, it’s known as maintenance. California doesn’t criminalize those activities, so unsavory commercial litigation is perfectly legal here, as it is in Florida, where Bollea v. Gawker played out. But it’s reprehensible.

Thiel presented his case as an act of public moral hygiene, cleansing society of a distasteful highbrow tabloid. Unquestionably, Gawker did some ugly shit — but lost in the conservative jubilation and the discussions over the ethics of outing or of Gawker‘s habit of relentlessly saying mean-spirited things about a cancer-stricken writer was the fact that journalism took a serious blow. Holding people to account is journalism’s primary task, and with one fewer entity around to do it, liars and hucksters benefit. Valleywag went down with Gawker Media, and what was Valleywag if not a roguish vehicle for pointing out Silicon Valley’s many foibles, its perpetuation of the status quo under the guise of disruption, and its gaseous self-congratulation? SFist took up some of Valleywag‘s mantle, hammering Uber and hounding Juicero again and again, and now it’s gone, too. Luckily, we still have Silicon Valley, but increasingly, everything is a contest between billionaires.

It’s terrifying how much we’ve grown accustomed to this reality. I’m glad the Times and other outlets have reported huge subscription gains since last November, but Google and Facebook still control 60 to 70 percent of online advertising. While print media could see a boutique resurgence à la vinyl as a subsection of the millennial cohort discovers it’s hip to pay for information, it’s unlikely to wrest control back from the tech giants. They’ll continue to lumber around the political media ecosystem like clumsy brontosauruses, stomping all over our electoral system almost by accident.

(Where that dinosaur analogy fails, of course, is who exactly is doomed to extinction. Even Teen Vogue, whose finger could not be more on the pulse of the youth of today, put its print issue to bed for the last time this week.)

Faced with a billionaire president marshaling dark forces against the media as the enemies of the people, you can sense momentum building for the idea that, in order to save the idea of truth itself, we must turn to billionaires of our own — like climate crusader Tom Steyer (net worth $1.61 billion) or Pierre Omidyar (net worth $10.1 billion), the founder of Ebay who founded The Intercept. Not to knock the rabble-rousing Intercept‘s editorial integrity, but that’s when things become existential in the barest terms. Nihilism is the sickness of American politics. We feel like nothing matters and that ordinary people lack any power to change that — especially after the losing side won two of the last five presidential elections. Putting everything in the hands of billionaires, even if one side consists of relatively enlightened, benevolent billionaires, is still profoundly anti-democratic.

Consequently, American politics has become a chessboard bereft of all pieces but kings, who’ve arrogated to themselves all the abilities of bishops and rooks. And power is an inherently conservative institution. It wants to maintain the status quo at all costs. If journalism is meant to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, then the existence of a left-of-center, mildly-hands-off overlord means the conflicts of interest are real.

The question isn’t whether Jeff Bezos would personally intervene to stop the Washington Post from running an exposé on Amazon’s dystopian workplace culture like The New York Times ran two years ago. It’s about whether writers would pitch it, editors would assign it, or higher-level editors would let it run. Jeff Bezos has become the world’s richest person. He’s worth $93 billion, which means he could buy the Washington Post 75 times over and still be worth more than Mark Zuckerberg (net worth $74 billion). 

When Mark Zuckerberg quits dicking around and realizes, as Mike Bloomberg eventually did, that he’ll never become president, how long until he decides it might be fun and savvy to buy The Times instead? And if he’s really serious about not becoming a media mogul, how long before a truly evil billionaire threatens to buy the Newspaper of Record after it crosses him, with the explicit intention of shutting it down? Then we’ll be begging Zuck to save us. But from what?

View Comments