The Washington Post is in a death spiral again.
The last one, with its wave after wave of crippling layoffs and buyouts by the skinflint Graham family, ended in 2013 when Amazon bazillionaire Jeff Bezos took the Post off their hands for a paltry $250 million and promised to take good care of it.
The Post went on a hiring spree and seemed poised for a great future. It became a bigger, happier version of itself, with better technology.
But now, Bezos has installed his own lickspittle publisher, editor, and editorial editor, none of whom seem to have any vision of where to take the place. (Read all about that here, in the Columbia Journalism Review.) His tech chief quit.
The Post has become completely overshadowed by the New York Times. It’s not even a crucial second read for those who want to understand Washington anymore.
Where the Times is now a $6 billion behemoth rolling in subscription money and making big plans, the Post of late is best known for its misogynistic enforcement of uptight social media rules, plummeting circulation, and now layoffs.
And Bezos appears to have tired of it and its inconsequential drain on his finances. There’s loose talk he might even sell.
One can certainly imagine an even worse owner. If Bezos were to sell the Post to a billionaire with an ax to grind or a cannibalizing hedge fund, that would be a national and journalistic tragedy — as well as a complete betrayal of the assurances Bezos made to Don Graham in 2013.
The far better solution is for him to turn the Post into a non-profit, give it an endowment, and get out of the way.
That’s because only new ownership, with a powerful sense of public service, could take advantage of the huge opportunity to become the world leader in U.S. political and government news presented by the abysmal failure of the industry-leading New York Times to adjust to the asymmetry of the current political climate.
The Times – like almost every other major corporate newsroom — has a huge vulnerability: It’s willing to be gamed by the right.
And the Post is uniquely in a position to exploit that. All it needs to do is live up to its world-famous brand, which thanks to Watergate is bold truth-telling that holds the leaders of the world accountable.
The Times Lies
New York Times political reporting has become a farce, as highly-credentialed reporters tie themselves into nonsensical verbal knots trying to maintain the fiction that what the Republican Party is doing is normal – because acknowledging that it is not would be tantamount to “taking sides.” (Read all about that here, in the Nation.)
But news organizations can no longer describe the political situation accurately if they obfuscate the radical, racist, nativist, non-reality-based, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party that actually long pre-exists Trump.
(Leaders also can’t inspire their newsrooms to boldly speak truth to power if they’re constantly telling them to censor themselves.)
The public is yearning for a news organization that is willing to recognize that times have changed — that truth and democracy are now under siege by a major political party and that age-old both-sides tropes no longer serve.
And the Times is more and more vulnerable every day.
Readers have not forgotten how the paper’s false equivalences got Trump elected. They remember the Times’s endless Trump diner interviews, and how it both-sided impeachment. They’ve seen it pass off Republican operatives as “regular” voters and cover up for Trump’s incompetence and incoherence.
They’re sick of being gaslighted about the GOP.
And there’s more every week. Right now, Times readers see its reporters treating the Republican-engineered debt-ceiling “standoff” as a genuine political dispute rather than performative GOP hostage-taking, and it infuriates them.
They see headlines like “DeSantis Takes On the Education Establishment, and Builds His Brand” above a sycophantic story about the Florida governor’s aggressive, state-sponsored campaign of bigotry, and it makes them want to cancel their subscriptions. Believe me, they are dying for an alternative news source.
No One Buys What They’re Selling
And here’s an incredible irony: By trying to normalize the abnormal and equate the unequal, news organizations like the Times are absolutely “taking sides”: They’re occupying a radical, extremist political position that almost no one else happens to share.
How extreme a position are these news organizations taking? Well, way more people think Trump won the election in 2020 than think both parties have a point.
Way more people want to close every coal plant in America than think there are moderates on both sides.
It’s crazy talk.
The Post, sadly, is just as bad these days, a poor imitation of the Times. But it wouldn’t have to be, with a bolder leadership team that didn’t mind offending rich and powerful interests like those of its current owner.
All the Post needs to do is start holding both parties to the same standard.
The entire world of political journalism needs this kind of reset. That’s what I’ve been preaching for several years now here at Press Watch.
(That’s what I practiced, with my White House Watch column at the Post from 2004 to 2009, where I pulled no punches about the Bush White House – and then the Obama White House — to the great delight of readers, but not my editors.)
The Post I crave would proudly take on the role of guardian of the people. It would be alarmed on their behalf about lies and corruption and authoritarianism and nativism. It would not simply be non-partisan, it would be anti-partisan – in that partisanship makes people ignore truths that don’t serve their party’s interests.
It wouldn’t pretend to know the answers, but it would stop pretending it doesn’t know what the problems are – like climate change, wealth inequality, racial injustice, the rise of disinformation, autocracy, and ethnic nationalism.
Is that so radical? It shouldn’t be.
This Post could become the leader in Washington news in an instant – and in a way that has increasingly seemed impossible as the Times, through acquisition and expansion, makes itself seem unrivaled.
Small Changes Fail
The Post and the Times both made small positive moves about a year ago, launching “democracy” teams, which I initially hoped would unstintingly enlighten readers about the threats to democracy from Trump and the Republican Party.
But it turns out those teams were pretty lame, as well as outnumbered and outgunned. Sally Buzbee, the rudderless leader of the Post newsroom, couldn’t even bring herself to say whether threats to democracy are coming more from Republicans than Democrats.
What I want is a newsroom leader who will tell their political reporters in no uncertain terms that they have failed in their core mission of creating an informed electorate and that it’s time to change things up.
I want a newsroom full of journalists who recognize that there is urgent need for dramatic, powerful action from Washington, and are ready to report the hell out of who has good ideas and who’s blocking them.
I want a newsroom full of journalists who are experts in their fields – like, say, economics — but still humble enough to treat honestly expressed alternate views with the respect they deserve.
Big Change Is Coming
The view that political reporting as it is currently practiced is broken and in desperate need of change is widely shared these days.
Editors who used to sincerely believe that press neutrality leads to a more informed electorate can’t possibly make that argument with a straight face anymore.
Even Len Downie — who as Washington Post editor was so intent on not being seen as partisan that he disenfranchised himself — recently concluded that what editors historically called “objectivity” is actually preventing truthful reporting, rather than encouraging it.
Downie wrote that he is now convinced “that truth-seeking news media must move beyond whatever ‘objectivity’ once meant to produce more trustworthy news.” He concluded: “This appears to be the beginning of another generational shift in American journalism.”
New York Times editor Joe Kahn actually told Downie that “when the evidence is there, we should not default to some mealy-mouthed, so-called neutral language that some people see this as a falsehood, while others do not.”
So why isn’t this happening in practice? (More positively: How is this wonderful opportunity still available to the Post when it’s so obviously the way to go?)
Part of the answer is inertia, with a little embarrassment and fear thrown in for good measure. Changing course is never easy for a massive institution, and here it would require at least a tacit recognition of error, which could lead to mockery.
There’s the aversion to being the skunk at the swanky, corrupt Washington cocktail party.
And there is one practical downside: A news organization refusing to cater to liars anymore might stop getting as many of its calls returned by them. But this might not be a bad thing. And honestly, I think this is something they would work around.
Would advertisers abandon a news organization like the Post if it stopped both-sidesing? I suppose some might.
But I think at the end of the day it comes down to the owners. As in: The owners wouldn’t like it.
That’s why the alternative Post that I crave — that could put the Times to shame – cannot exist as long as Bezos calls the shots. It would go directly against his gargantuan and far-flung business interests, not to mention his personal politics.
So let’s hope Bezos is in fact losing interest. Let’s hope his leadership team can make way for people with boldness and vision. And let’s hope the Washington Post can regain its mantle as a scourge of people who abuse their power.
Some disclosure: I have a long history with the Post. I worked at washingtonpost.com from 1997 to 2003, three of those years as the No. 2 editor, struggling to build it into the best news website in the world. Then, from 2004 to 2009, I was on contract with the Post, writing a daily online-only column about the White House, which was hugely popular almost everywhere but in the newsroom. Both times I clashed with the people signing my paychecks, and both times I was fired. But I grew up reading the Post, and I still have enormous affection for the place. That’s where the tough love comes from.