I swear I’m not addicted to media schadenfreude over Elon Musk. I can give it up any time, I tell you! However, when it’s as cheap and plentiful as it is at the moment, why not indulge?
Today’s exercise in irony comes from Christine Emba, a columnist at the Washington Post who claims that Musk’s desire to buy Twitter outright is “peak billionaire,” and that it’s an attempt for the ultra-wealthy to control the flow of information:
It wasn’t enough to secretively buy a 9.2 percent stake in the social media company, becoming its largest individual shareholder. It wasn’t enough to accept an offer to join the company’s board (which provoked huge internal outcry from the company’s employees). It wasn’t even enough of a power trip for him to then reject that offer five days later.
He’s got to own it all! …
Millions of people use and actively depend on Twitter. Journalists rely on it for sources and information sharing, and private individuals have used it to shine a light on issues that otherwise might not have reached mainstream consciousness. Twitter was a pivotal platform for the dissemination of information during the Arab Spring uprising, for the #MeToo movement and for Black Lives Matter. In recent weeks, it has been a hub of information and images on the war in Ukraine.
What does it mean when a billionaire can almost single-handedly swoop in and eat up this sort of communications platform? The easy answer is nothing good.
Great question. Oddly enough, the name “Jeff Bezos” never gets a mention from Emba while attempting to answer it, nor “Amazon” for that matter. You don’t have to be a member of Musk’s “fawning fan base” to recall that Emba’s being published by a major “communications platform” that was bought in a “single-handed swoop” less than eight years ago by Internet-based multibillionaire Bezos. He paid $250 million for full ownership of the Washington Post and all of its subsidiaries at a time when Bezos’ net worth exceeded $26 billion. Today, Bezos is worth close to $180 billion and still has “single-handed” control of the Post’s “communications platform.” Oh, and he also competes with Musk on space travel, a little conflict of interest that the Post also never bothers to note.
That makes Emba’s core complaint even more laughable:
It’s also a perfect example of why allowing this much money to pool under a single individual is a mistake. With wealth comes power. And when seemingly inexhaustible wealth is concentrated in the hands of a wildly ambitious loose cannon like Musk, it can only lead to severe social consequences.
Does Emba eschew Bezos’ money while writing this? Or is there an appreciable difference between the inexhaustible wealth of $259 billion (her estimate for Musk) and Bezos’ $180 billion? Or is Emba prepared to argue that a platform that provides reporting is somehow less important than a social media platform that mainly provides journalists not much more than opportunities for self-promotion?
All that said, I’m actually a bit sympathetic to the broader argument that consolidations and acquisitions have put far too much economic and political power in too few hands. It’s interesting to note, though, that the same people who now want to amplify that argument only seem to care at the moment because they object to this billionaire and his potential impact on communications. All of their arguments treat Musk’s attempts to buy his way into the media world as some sort of novel affair for billionaires, or at least like nothing seen since the days of William Randolph Hearst:
In today’s On Tech: Elon Musk as Charles Foster Kane
“He would be a throwback to the Citizen Kane days of press barons using their newspapers to advance their favorite causes,” Erik Gordon said.
Musk’s cause is recasting Twitter in his image. https://t.co/6FyNBve99F
— Shira Ovide (@ShiraOvide) April 14, 2022
This is utter gibberish. Even if we exclude organic-growth media billionaires like Michael Bloomberg from consideration — who actually did use his wealth to attempt to run for president, mind you — there are plenty of examples of billionaire media acquisitions between Citizen Kane and now.
Chris Hughes and the New Republic, Michael Bloomberg and his news/financial empire, John Henry and the Boston Globe, the Barbeys and the Village Voice, Warren Buffett and dozens of newspapers …
— Ed Morrissey (@EdMorrissey) April 14, 2022
As of last year, here were the top 5 media billionaires:
1. Bezos – WaPo
2. Zuckerberg – FB
4. Larry Page – Google
5. Sergey Brin – Google
But sure, Musk’s attempt to join the club is the *real* problem.
— Ed Morrissey (@EdMorrissey) April 14, 2022
Rupert Murdoch is on this list, but he only comes in tenth on this list compiled by Yahoo. A couple of the names on this list are organic-growth media billionaires such as Bloomberg and David Thomson, but also acquisition-driven ownership, such as Warren Buffet’s control of dozens of newspapers around the country. Glen Taylor’s purchase of the Star Tribune and John Henry’s purchase of the Boston Globe gave them arguable monopolies in those major metropolitan areas, as did Patrick Soon-Shiong’s acquisition of the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and other papers in 2018.
None of these billionaire acquisitions caused more than a curious blip in the mainstream media. Why? Because these billionaires were part of The Club. Elon Musk is not part of The Club. This isn’t a matter of principle — it’s a matter of taste.
Anyway, perhaps this could start a good conversation about the need to enforce anti-trust legislation and to unroll consolidations so as to end these “clubs” altogether. When commentators stop taking paychecks from billionaire acquisitors to make those arguments, or at least even acknowledge that conflict of interest, then we can take those objections seriously. Until then, we’ll just enjoy the schadenfreudealistic entertainment their freak-out provides. I’ll quit enjoying it when they quit providing it. I swear.