The Post’s Fire Sale

by Michael Walsh
We need an end to the revolving door between the legacy media and politics.

It’s not often that the zeitgeist whups both of the newspapers the Right loves to hate — the Washington Post and the New York Times — upside the head with a righteous shillelagh simultaneously, but (as Mattie Ross says in True Grit) it did happen. In fact, it happened this week. Let’s start with the Times and its fawning portrait of the Post’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, which went online on Friday and appeared in print on Sunday. The lengthy — very lengthy — article begins:

On the eve of the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, this city’s annual media-politico-Hollywood love fest, Katharine Weymouth convened the sort of Washington power dinner for which her grandmother, Katharine Graham, the pioneering publisher of The Washington Post, was famous.

Around the dining room table in Ms. Weymouth’s airy Craftsman home sat a collection of Kay Graham’s intimates and descendants: Vernon Jordan, the Clinton consigliere; C. Boyden Gray, counsel to the first President Bush; [Graham’s] oldest son Donald, now chief executive of the company that owns The Post; and Lally Weymouth, Mrs. Graham’s daughter and Ms. Weymouth’s mother, a globe-trotting journalist and Manhattan socialite known for both her interviews with Middle East dictators and glitzy Fourth of July Hamptons parties.

At the head of the table sat Ms. Weymouth, a Harvard- and Stanford-educated lawyer, single mother of three and, at 47, a fourth-generation publisher of the Post. As her guests chatted, she gently intervened, steering the conversation, salon-style, toward the economy and presidential politics. When it was over, Mrs. Weymouth, not an easy one to please, showered her daughter with praise.

“It was a big moment,” said Molly Elkin, Ms. Weymouth’s best friend and one of the dinner party guests. “It was sort of like: ‘I’ve passed the baton, kid. You’ve learned well, you did a good job.’”

It was the kind of scene, rife with unspoken family drama, that captivates longtime Washingtonians, who have scrutinized and mythologized the Grahams for decades, much as the British do their royalty. Now, in an exceedingly difficult climate for newspapers, Ms. Weymouth is charged with saving the crown jewels. 

So Monday she sold the paper — gave it and a handful of other properties away, really — to Jeff Bezos for $250 million cash money. Not to Amazon, which Bezos founded in his garage and turned into a marketing and publishing powerhouse, but to Bezos himself, personally. I guess the One Percent really is the personification of all evil and inequality in this country — until it comes time for one of them to bail out a liberal institution. 

Anyway, talk about instantly disposable fishwrap. The liberal fantasy world, media division, that the Times and the Post both inhabit and limn: “media-politico-Hollywood love fest,” check; socialite, check; power dinner, check; airy Craftsman home, check; single mother of three, check; lawyer, check; Harvard and Stanford degrees, check; cameo appearances by Vernon Jordan and Lally Weymouth, check; obligatory reference to the Hamptons, check — has come crashing down. With the fire sale of the Boston Globe and some other media properties by the Times, the euthanizing of Newsweek, and now the sudden heave-ho given to the flagship enterprise of the Washington Post Co., the old order indeed passeth. 

One has to read in full the Times’s puff piece by Sheryl Gay Stolberg on one of the members of its exclusive club of family-money and bien-pensant progressivism — really rich folks, down for the struggle! — to get a sense of just how out of touch with reality these people are. They’re like the effete late–Roman Empire poets, impotent capons peeling grapes and arguing the nuances of internal rhyme as the big ugly Germans come crashing through the gates, barely bothering to look up as Alaric’s axe meets their heads:

Ms. Weymouth is many things: a working mother and enthusiastic cook; a fearless skier (“She has not met a slope she won’t take,” says Liz Spayd, a former managing editor of The Post); a fitness buff (“She can crunch till the cows come home,” said Pari Bradlee, a yoga instructor and daughter-in-law to Ben) and, for a while, one of the most sought-after dates in town. (After seeing a local architect, Ms. Weymouth has recently reunited with an old flame, Marty Moe, a former AOL executive.)

But neither should anyone miss the Postown account of the sale by Paul Fahri, which at least has the virtue of acknowledging the changes in store for the Weymouths and, by extension, the Sulzbergers of the New York Times, and the journalists they employ — or used to:

Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham and Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, his niece, broke the news of the sale to a packed meeting of employees at the company’s headquarters in downtown Washington on Monday. The mood was hushed; several veteran employees cried as Graham and Weymouth took turns reading statements and answering questions. “Everyone who was in that room knows how much Don and Katharine love the paper and how hard this must have been for them,” said David Ignatius, a veteran Post columnist who was visibly moved after the meeting.

But for much of the past decade, The Post has been unable to escape the financial turmoil that has engulfed newspapers and other “legacy” media organizations. The rise of the Internet and the epochal change from print to digital technology have created a massive wave of competition for traditional news companies, scattering readers and advertisers across a radically altered news and information landscape and triggering mergers, bankruptcies and consolidation among the owners of print and broadcasting properties . . .

The Washington Post Co.’s newspaper division, of which the Post newspaper is the most prominent part, has suffered a 44 percent decline in operating revenue over the past six years. Although The Post is one of the most popular news sources online, print circulation has dwindled, falling an additional 7 percent daily and on Sundays during the first half of this year.

Ultimately, the paper’s financial challenges prompted the company’s board to consider a sale, a step once regarded as unthinkable by insiders and the Graham family.

What’s really striking, though, are these passages, separated in the story but closely related in significance:

[Graham] added: “The Post could have survived under the company’s ownership and been profitable for the foreseeable future. But we wanted to do more than survive. I’m not saying this guarantees success, but it gives us a much greater chance of success.” . . .

Weymouth said the decision to sell The Post sprang from annual budget discussions she had with Graham late last year. “We talked about whether [The Washington Post Co.] was the right place to house The Post,” she said. “If journalism is the mission, given the pressures to cut costs and make profits, maybe [a publicly traded company] is not the best place for The Post.” . . .

The Post, founded in 1877, has been controlled since 1933 by the heirs of Eugene Meyer, a Wall Street financier and former Federal Reserve official [and father of Katharine Graham]. Meyer bought the paper for $825,000 at a bankruptcy auction during the depth of the Depression.

Translation: We had to sell the Post in order to save it; and the Washington Post Co. is no longer the right place for the Washington Post.

What kind of publisher Bezos will be remains to be seen; right now, he’s a West Coast kid with an old-media toy he bought at a garage sale. Provincial East Coast types of both the Left and the Right shouldn’t necessarily assume Bezos is one of them. Born in New Mexico, the scion of Texas ranchers and the stepson of an up-by-his-bootstraps Cuban immigrant, he comes from a completely different world from the Grahams and Weymouths, and plans to remain at his home base in Seattle, where standard conservative/liberal squabbles over social issues have no meaning; everyone’s a libertarian when it comes to personal mores. If past performance is any predicter of future results, however, one thing we know for certain is that the Post will be a very different newspaper a year or so hence, no matter what anyone says now.

Naturally, the Regressive Left sees the fall of the Graham dynasty as a bad thing; they’ve hardly ever meet real change they liked, except when it happens to other people, and preferably punitively.

But this change is all to the good. The cozy, and fundamentally anti-constitutional, relationship between the legacy media and their masters in Washington needs to be destroyed (which is why party apparatchiks like Dick Durbin are so obsessed with defining who is a journalist), the White House Correspondents’ Dinner needs to be abolished, and the revolving door between media and politics needs to have its old “Chinese wall” reinstated; my former Time magazine colleagues, for example, include the current Time managing editor, the head of the Aspen Institute (who also did stints as Time M.E. and the head of CNN), and President Obama’s current press secretary

In any case, it’s all over for the MSM. When I started at Time in 1981 under its last great managing editor, Ray Cave, it was commonly acknowledged that the Big Seven media outlets decided what was and was not news for the American public: the New York Times, the Washington Post, TimeNewsweek and the three broadcast networks. Today, not so much. In their place have come the small furry mammals of the Internet, harassing and ultimately supplanting the Manhattan- and Washington-bound dinosaurs. Somewhere along the line, Sousa’s Washington Post March turned into a march of the falsettos. The old media continued to bleat, but once they proudly jettisoned the outdated notion of at least nominally “objective” journalism in favor of “higher truth” and partisan cheerleading, their audience abandoned them. 

Still, until the MSM completely sold out, the model worked fairly well, even if it did slant left; the skills that real reporters have are still valuable, and the blogosphere could benefit from acquiring them. The amateurism of some websites is appalling, their tactics juvenile, their real-world sophistication nil. As I wrote at my PJ Media blog, Unexamined Premises, recently: 

I do not think “citizen journalism” is necessarily the miracle cure some consider it to be. I spent a year conceiving and executing the website Big Journalism with, and for, Breitbart, and my greatest difficulty there was trying to make him see that not everything about traditional journalism was a leftist plot. (I totally failed.) Today there remain some websites on the right that I simply do not either believe or trust, and I expect you can figure out which ones those are: They are marked by amateurish writing, shoddy reporting, and misapprehension of facts and circumstances that more experienced hands would instantly grasp. Further, there is something called “news judgment” — what is and what is not a story, which varies from editor to editor but which is vital to any institution, from the New York Times down to the lowliest blog, for it to have any credibility and influence.

But it doesn’t matter whether “citizen journalism” is better or worse than traditional journalism. All that matters is that it exists, and thus provides an alternative to what we have. Even with its flaws in style and methodology, blogging and tweeting have still brought us to a better place. . . .

They say that every man is a hero to his dog, but that no man is a hero to his valet. For decades, Democrat politicians have endeavored to reconcile those two opposites, by turning their valets in the media into their dogs. How well they’ve succeeded is in print and on the air for all to see and hear. How it galls them that just as they’ve finally seduced the Legacy Media, along comes this grubby upstart, [urinating] on their shoes and then refusing to shine them.

In the end, everybody — including the journalists who will have to look for new employment as the legacy media continue to shed readers and jobs — will benefit from the new order. The irony is that many mainstream journalists spent the better parts of their careers striving to become opinion journalists and talking heads instead of grubby reporters, and all of a sudden they find themselves in a democratized world in which everybody is a talking head and opinion journalist. Making the adjustment will take true grit, a quality not much in evidence latterly among the late-empire media poetasters. But dislocation does have a wonderful way of focusing the mind.

— Michael Walsh is a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. Writing as “David Kahane,” he is the author of Rules for Radical Conservatives: Beating the Left at Its Own Game to Take Back America. Follow him on Twitter @dkahanerules.