In July, reports surfaced that a private company known as Emerson Collective LLC had purchased a majority stake in The Atlantic. The news seemed hardly unwonted: the company had a history of media investments, with such outlets as news-summary site Axios and criminal-legal journalism outlet The Marshall Project among its beneficiaries. What distinguished the acquisition, however, was the person at Emerson’s helm: Laurene Powell-Jobs — also known as the widow of Steve Jobs.
As reporters have noted, Powell-Jobs’ procurement came on the heels of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post in 2013. Indeed, the parallel events would seem to mark an inchoate phenomenon: West Coast tech billionaires’ foray into mainstream media ownership.
This is cause for alarm. To begin to parse why, it’s prudent to examine the seductive narrative of tech billionairedom. The villainy of such figures as Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch and Peter Thiel — the rogue Silicon Valley Trump supporter who infamously engineered the dissolution of Gawker Media due to a personal vendetta — is transparent. However, those who’ve amassed their fortunes in the tech industry (with the exception of Thiel) are often deemed the “good billionaires,” earning the trust of the business-cheerleading professional class and its young aspirants.
One of the draws of the “good billionaires” is their brandishing of “innovation” and corporate liberalism, a reflection of the industry’s age-old PR aphorism “change the world.” Powell-Jobs extols the virtues of “social entrepreneurship“; among Emerson Collective’s stated priorities are immigration and education reform. While Bezos has long been notorious for his comparative dearth of philanthropy, he has professed support of same-sex marriage and has recently sought ideas for charitable projects. “‘The Good Rich’ Do Exist,” Forbes declared in 2013; writers Brian Solomon and Caleb Melby proclaimed that “billionaire philanthropists … genuinely care about making the world a better place,” citing Bill Gates’s global work and tech luminary Elon Musk, whose companies “are trying to solve the world’s energy problems.”
Furthermore, pundits often fetishize tech magnates as modern Horatio Alger characters. Industry leaders tend to be “self-made“; rather than a breeding ground of moneyed dynasties, the technology industry is framed as a hub of innovators who “bootstrapped” their way out of kitchens, garages or prestigious universities to futuristic mega-campuses. (This perspective, of course, often disregards the social and financial capital that permitted such ascents in the first place.) Much of the hagiographic lore surrounding these figures centers on resilience: Google cofounder Sergey Brin immigrated from Russia to the United States, where his ingenuity would catapult him into realizing the “American Dream”; Bezos, an adoptee of his Cuban immigrant grandfather, dared to quit his Wall Street job to begin selling books out of his garage; Steve Jobs, born to an immigrant and adopted by a working-class San Francisco couple, disrupted his way into superlative affluence. (“Remember what a Syrian immigrant looks like — the father of Steve Jobs,” Nicholas Kristof has fondly mused.)
Under the auspices of these celebrated techno-capitalists, media outlets will likely only heighten these narratives while obfuscating dissent. A recent survey from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found that since Bezos acquired The Washington Post, the newspaper had published “almost uniformly uncritical — oftentimes boosterish — coverage” of Amazon over the last two years, as had The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Ninety-five percent of The Washington Post’s coverage “ranged from neutral to positive/fawning”; The New York Times’s and Wall Street Journal’s percentages were 93 and 94, respectively. In a crowning example, FAIR noted, the Post ran a piece entitled “An exclusive look at Jeff Bezos’s plan to set up Amazon-like delivery for ‘future human settlement’ of the moon” last March.
Such corporate propaganda substantiates what would seem like an obvious truth: When businesspeople buy the media, they leverage it to protect their own interests. It’s not hard to imagine the direction The Atlantic — a periodical that already has a history of repackaging Apple’s press releases — might take under its new ownership; a simple look at Axios’s soft, often glowing coverage of Apple provides another clue. (Among its greater offenders: a story about a new Foxconn manufacturing plant in Wisconsin that neglects to address the pattern of suicides at the Foxconn iPhone factory in China.)
These reverent biases ignore the myriad ills their subjects inflict — from Apple’s tax-evasion schemes to Amazon’s labor abuses — essentially absolving tech’s aristocracy of its iniquities. In the wake of an election whose outcome hinged largely on media coverage, the political influence of corporate media can’t be understated. This is especially true considering the growing fusion of tech’s upper crust and US politics; though Bezos has denied presidential ambitions, his monopolistic intrigues — namely, Amazon’s recent Whole Foods purchase — betray an interest in titanic power, and his California counterparts Mark Zuckerberg and Thiel are angling for technocratic policy influence and possibly political office. Powell-Jobs, whose fortune has afforded her personal ties to both the Clinton and Bush families, might not be far behind.
Painted as champions of innovation, titans of industry and purveyors of the “American Dream,” tech elites have manufactured a trifecta of hype; meanwhile, the voices that should be rebuking them are instead beholden to them. Bezos’s and Powell-Jobs’s acquisitions must serve as cautionary tales of a system in which the flow of information can be treated as another business venture, a mere stratagem in a campaign to pursue the sheerly capitalist virtues of wealth and power. At a time when the US is suffering from the election of one billionaire, it can’t afford to be bamboozled into empowering others.