During the early First Amendment debates over the survival of the infant democracy called the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Although he obviously had no inkling of the Internet age, we are now approaching the moment that Jefferson feared: Newspapers are disappearing or are, alternatively, becoming mere vanity presses for vastly wealthy people like Jeff Bezos, who may or may not have the nation's best interests at heart as they add what is effectively intellectual bling to their collections of art, cars, or mansions.
And this is happening at a moment when, as Jefferson also feared, government has grown huge, superpowerful, and all but out of control. The government is paralyzed on policy choices, and the debates that occur in the nation's capital are, increasingly, unchecked by reliable information, of which The Washington Post is one of the country's last major national conduits.
The response of those who take an optimistic view of Bezos's surprise purchase of The Post--as well as other recent Silicon Valley takeovers of old media, such as Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes's acquisition of The New Republic--is to say that this is the natural order of things. These are the media's new barons; if the old ones got rich on railroads or oil or Wall Street (the provenance of Eugene Meyer's fortune when he started the Graham family media empire by buying The Post in 1933), the Bezoses earned their way in from Silicon Valley. So what? And the Internet Age, after all, has supplied us with oceans of information that were once available only through newspapers.
But this may be a fool's paradise. Eugene Meyer (Katherine Graham's father and current Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham's grandfather) wasn't just some rich guy. He was a passionately involved patriot and denizen of Washington, D.C., who served in and out of government, including a stint as Federal Reserve chairman, and who spent a good part of his fortune over 20 years building The Post into a great newspaper. And for decades, the Grahams were the center of Washington life, devoted and generous caretakers of The Post and the once-great magazine I used to work for, Newsweek.
Bezos, by contrast, is a classic West Coast techno-libertarian who most likely sees Washington as a toxic-waste dump to be avoided whenever possible (and he told Post employees in a letter Monday that he would indeed be an absentee landlord). One of the last great national newspapers--what Jefferson insisted was necessary to functioning of American democracy--is now the Amazon founder's personal toy, its fate the subject of his whimsy. If The Post were to disappear from the Earth tomorrow, Bezos would lose less than 1 percent of his personal fortune. Yawn. What's next?
Oh, well, you might say, that's also the natural order of things. Print is dying. Digital rules. But unfortunately, just as Bezos may not be the ideal substitute for Meyer, digital is proving to be a dubious replacement for print when it comes to reliable information. The Internet has only encouraged the disappearance or marginalization of formerly trusted conduits of information. What was once a continent of responsible news gathering, led by major trusted news outlets (including The Post and Newsweek), has become a sea of crap. The continent has been washed away, and all that is left are a few eroding islands of reliable sources. Especially for young readers, there is no direction home any longer. What's the home truth on immigration? The national debt? The tax code? How to produce economic growth? Which website will tell you the truth? None, really. Almost all are ideologically skewed. The advent of "fact-checker" columns at The Post and other newspapers has been a good trend, but they just can't keep up with all the bad information.
No better evidence of this exists than Capitol Hill, where junk science and misinformation rule in every debate from climate change to stimulus spending. As New York's Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, seemed to realize during last year's president campaign, when he came out for Barack Obama just after Hurricane Sandy, by the time we wait for our legislators to separate the real information from the false, Manhattan may be under water.
As Jefferson divined, the dissemination of good information is necessary to the functioning of a democracy. "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right," he wrote to Edward Carrington in the January 1787 letter in which his famous quote about newspapers appears. And after writing that newspapers were more important than government, Jefferson clarified that this meant "that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."
People aren't receiving them nearly as much today; what they are receiving instead is too often tainted information on the Internet. If that trend continues, can American democracy still function? Jeff Bezos is a very smart guy, and no one has ever had reason to doubt his patriotism. So perhaps helping to correct this problem is just what he has in mind. "We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads," Bezos wrote to Post employees.
But Bezos is also a frugal businessman with a passionate customer-first retail philosophy who is entering a business that is by its nature expensive and inefficient: news gathering. So the truth may lead him elsewhere. It will be up to him to see the larger value in that to the country. Let's hope he does.