The List

Jeff Bezos, Meet Your Fellow Media Plutocrats

With his purchase of the Washington Post, the Amazon founder joins the ranks of other millionaires and billionaires who are reshaping the global media landscape.

"I have a most surprising announcement." With those words, Don Graham, the Washington Post Company's chairman and chief executive, dropped a bombshell on the newspaper that has been in his family for four generations. The family would sell, Graham announced, to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos now joins that most exclusive of clubs: plutocrats with newspapers. With his $250 million purchase of the Post, the Internet entrepreneur joins the growing ranks of the global media elite, an eclectic group of outsize characters who have cashed in on and backed the world's most powerful media companies.

Jeff Bezos, meet your new peers.

Samir and Vineet Jain

The woes of the newspaper industry are well-known, but in India the Internet revolution that has beset Western newspapers is nowhere to be seen. In fact, India's broadsheets are thriving. At the forefront of this surprising renaissance in newspaper publishing are Samir and Vineet Jain, the men behind the world's largest paper by circulation, the Times of India. Together, Samir and Vineet (the latter is pictured above, left) have taken a publishing empire and turbocharged it. Pursuing an aggressive advertorial strategy, the brothers have made the Times the country's most read and most important paper. But in doing so they have adopted a controversial editorial strategy. As detailed in a marvelous profile of the two men by the New Yorker's Ken Auletta, Samir and Vineet have taken to selling an "aspirational" editorial product, one in which content is often for sale to the people the paper covers. Bollywood stars and celebrities buy coverage in the paper to boost their profiles. A disclaimer that the coverage has been purchased is provided only in the finest of fine prints.

In India, the traditional constraints of newspaper publishing do not apply. Internet penetration is nowhere near what it is in the United States, and rapidly rising literacy rates means an increasing appetite for newspapers and the written word. This the Jain brothers are only too happy to provide. But their main goal is not to hold power to account. They freely admit that they do not consider themselves in the newspaper business; rather, they are in the advertising business. Their job, they say, is to help companies achieve their goal of increasing consumption of one product or another. To that end, content is available for purchase. More importantly, writers at the paper allege, stories about the paper's advertising partners are off limits. Instead, the paper offers a happy, sanitized version of its chaotic homeland. Death rarely features. Government accountability stories rarely make the grade.

It's a strategy that has made the brothers rich and the most important media moguls in India. The family matriarch, Indu Jain, is estimated to be worth $2.2 billion.

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Koos Bekker

In 1984, South African publishing houses were on the ropes, steadily losing revenue to their television competitors. Nasionale Pers, an established Afrikaaner publisher, was one of those organizations when, out of the blue, a young Columbia Business School student named Koos Bekker wrote to the company with an idea for revitalizing it. Inspired by the success of HBO, Bekker convinced the company's executives to push into the pay-for-TV market, a move that gave the organization a much-needed shot in the arm. That same firm is now called Naspers and has established itself as the pre-eminent force within African media. With operations in at least 130 countries, it has significant holdings in the South African newspaper, magazine, and book markets, in addition to its large paid TV interests. With a 1-percent stake in Facebook, a 29-percent stake in the Russian email behemoth Mail.ru, and a 35-percent interest in the Chinese chat service Tencent, the company is also becoming an Internet player in the developing world. As a result, Bekker, whose fortune is estimated at $450 million, has been crowned the Rupert Murdoch of South Africa.

But Bekker is uncomfortable with the idea of being compared to Murdoch, and the differences between the two media moguls are marked. Whereas Murdoch's News Corp. remains predominantly a newspaper, television, and entertainment company, Bekker has encouraged his company to make greater investments in digital start-ups. More importantly, Bekker does not look favorably on Murdoch's political activism. "He is an ideologue, and that is dangerous," Bekker told the South African writer Anton Harber. But as Harber points out in his excellent profile of Bekker, the media mogul's investments make him a bedfellow with regimes that bear a startling resemblance to the apartheid society of which his company was once a fixture. The company's involvement with Tencent, for example, makes Naspers complicit in Chinese censorship policies that have driven other multinational media firms to cease operations there. That, however, is also where the company's future lies.

Silvio Berlusconi

With his conviction at the Italian Supreme Court on charges of tax fraud, the days when Silvio Berlusconi kept a stranglehold on Italian politics may finally be coming to an end. But he nevertheless has achieved something no other modern media mogul has managed. Not only is he the dominant player in the Italian television market, he has also been the defining figure in Italian politics for the past decade -- for better or worse. As the media writer Michael Wolff observed, the American equivalent would be something like Barry Diller buying Universal, then running for president and winning. It's an arrangement that is unimaginable in the United States, yet for the past decade Italy has existed under the yoke of Berlusconi politics and Berlusconi media.

With three networks now to his name, Berlusconi essentially created independent television in Italy -- and became wildly rich off it. His estimated net worth is now $6.2 billion, and even if his star has dimmed, he remains a dominant force in Italian politics. His conviction by the country's Supreme Court may carry with it a ban from politics, which could in turn generate enough aftershocks to bring down the government. Even in disgrace, then, Berlusconi retains a fair amount of power in Italian politics, and it is a measure of his ability to firmly enmesh himself in the country's politics and media that he has bounced back seemingly career-ending setbacks as often as he has. It is a rare mogul-cum-politician who can survive charges of paying prostitutes, tax evasion, and corruption. In the firmament of media moguls today, Berlusconi is unmatched.

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Thaksin Shinawatra

Among the media barons who have successfully made the transition from industry to politics, only Thaksin Shinawatra comes close to the success -- and infamy -- Berlusconi has garnered. Through a canny -- and, some say, corrupt -- use of government concessions, Shinawatra built a media empire from scratch that at its height (it's now owned by a Singaporean holding company, though the family is still a powerhouse) included a majority stake in the country's only private television network, a significant chunk of its largest mobile phone operator, a 40-percent stake in a major Internet provider, and a 41-percent stake in a satellite communications firm. But his good fortune was not to last. Elected prime minister in 2001, he was thrown out in a coup in 2006 amid charges of corruption and an anti-democratic governing style. Tellingly, his critics in the intelligentsia liked to call him the "Berlusconi of Asia."

Now, Shinwatra, who is worth about $1.7 billion, has become something of a post-modern prime minister. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, currently serves as prime minister, but because of corruption charges Thaksin can't return to Thailand. Though he holds no formal political office, he's still reportedly running the country from his private jet as he bounces around the world to his various villas and gold mines. He now governs remotely by phone and instant messenger, his sister serving as the public face of the Shinawatra empire. Yingluck has attempted to downplay the role her brother plays in the country's affairs, but the mogul is widely acknowledged to be the power behind the throne. "We can contact him at all hours," Charupong Ruangsuwan, the interior minister and secretary general of Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party, told the New York Times in January. "The world has changed. It's a boundless world. It's not like a hundred years ago when you had to use a telegraph."

Rupert Murdoch

While the Bezos purchase of the Post came as a surprise, there's a long line of eccentric billionaires who have bought expensive, struggling media properties. Among that crowd, no star shines brighter than that of Rupert Murdoch, the wily Australian media mogul. With the purchase of the Wall Street Journal in 2007, Murdoch achieved a life-long objective: acquiring a newspaper with the gravitas to go head-to-head with the New York Times, a favorite object of Murdoch hatred.

The Bancroft family's decision to sell the Journal to Murdoch stands as perhaps the clearest analog to the Graham family's move to put the Post on the chopping block. But the Post is quick to emphasize that this time around is very different. "This isn't Rupert Murdoch buying The Wall Street Journal, this is somebody who believes in the values that the Post has been prominent in practicing, and so I don't see any downside," Bob Woodward, the paper's superstar reporter, told MSNBC's Morning Joe. The differences are certainly clear: Bezos, unlike Murdoch, has no history of turning his corporate enterprises into ideological mouthpieces. Many believe the Journal has taken a rightward turn under Murdoch, not just on its editorial pages but also in its news reporting. Little is known about Bezos's political leanings, but he is thought to be something of a libertarian -- the magazine Reason celebrated him as one of their "35 Heroes of Freedom" in 2003.

Even if the Journal remains Murdoch's flagship publication, it represents but a sliver of his  media empire. News Corp. has annual revenues of about $33 billion, and most of that money comes from its film, cable, and satellite television divisions. Murdoch's star briefly dimmed in 2011 when his British tabloids were implicated in a wide-ranging scandal involving the hacking of telephone voicemails. That scandal briefly knocked Murdoch on his heels and torpedoed a satellite television deal that would have vastly expanded his empire. He now plans to split his newspaper and publishing holdings, which have been a drag on the overall performance of his company, into separate divisions. This should unlock greater returns on his most profitable units, while protecting his main assets from the liabilities of the print division -- which include the legal fallout in Britain from his reporters' hacking activities.

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The List

Snowden's Butterfly Effect

5 unlikely consequences of the NSA leaks.

Like a bull in a china shop, Edward Snowden breaks everything he touches. Among the items left in tatters by his leaks over the past two months: a fragile détente between the United States and China over hacking, an on-again, off-again post-9/11 consensus on aggressive intelligence-gathering, and, perhaps most notably, the illusion of privacy in the digital era.

Now, the ramifications of Snowden's decision to reveal the National Security Agency's most closely held secrets have entered the stage of second- and third-order consequences. As my colleague John Hudson reports, the Snowden revelations and the subsequent chill in U.S.-Russian relations threaten to torpedo one of President Barack Obama's signature second-term initiatives: the reduction of deployed strategic nuclear weapons. With the president under immense pressure to retaliate against Russia for its decision to grant Snowden asylum, a planned summit between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin may not happen. As a result, the nuclear talks may collapse.

Call it the Snowden Butterfly Effect. Snowden's leaks have resounded in nearly every corner of global politics, and their precise consequences are only beginning to emerge. Most obviously, the former NSA contractor's disclosures have sparked a renewed debate over the scope of intelligence-gathering and handed China a powerful argument in countering American complaints over Chinese hacking activities.

Other consequences are far less obvious -- but no less significant.

The Return of WikiLeaks

Early on in the Snowden saga, I wrote an article with the headline, "Assange Struggles to Stay Relevant in Snowden Affair." Boy, was I wrong. When Snowden first revealed his identity and squirreled away in Hong Kong, WikiLeaks appeared to be looking on in jealousy. The world's most famous whistleblower had snubbed WikiLeaks in making his revelations, and Julian Assange hadn't received positive headlines in months. Withering away in the Ecuadorean embassy, the WikiLeaks founder sounded tired and drained, his organization on the ropes.

Now, WikiLeaks has come roaring back, refashioning itself as a legal advisor and aide to individuals disclosing government secrets. Assange lieutenant Sarah Harrison shepherded Snowden from Hong Kong to Russia's Sheremetyevo Airport, and now accompanies him in asylum somewhere in Moscow. With Snowden keeping a low profile, WikiLeaks has emerged as the sole interlocutor between the leaker and the world. As a result, the global media now hangs on Assange's every word. Once more, Assange and WikiLeaks are back exactly where they want to be -- at the center of a churning story with geopolitical ramifications.

 

The Sullying of Silicon Valley

Without the cooperation of America's most prominent technology companies, the NSA would never have been able to amass its extraordinary power. By asking -- and, in several cases, coercing -- Silicon Valley to provide gateways to its databases and servers, the agency has gained access to just about every corner of the web. But prior to the Snowden revelations, the full extent of that relationship had escaped public scrutiny.

By disclosing the links between the agency and companies like Facebook and Google, Snowden sparked a wave of investigations into Silicon Valley's ties to Fort Meade -- and the reputations of these companies have suffered immensely as a result. In June, the New York Times revealed that Max Kelly, Facebook's chief security officer, left the company in 2010 for the NSA. And in July, Reuters revealed that an intelligence agency paid $50,000 to an unnamed tech company supervisor who installed tampered computer chips in computers bound for a foreign customer so that they could be used for spying. Microsoft, meanwhile, found itself in the embarrassing position of running an ad campaign that declared "your privacy is our priority" just as the Guardian exposed that the company had handed over user content to the NSA and undermined its own encryption protocols for the agency's benefit.

Silicon Valley likes to pride itself on its so-called hacker culture -- a notion of digital innovation grounded in a commitment to smashing the status quo. Snowden's revelations have put the lie to that claim, and these companies are now reaping the fruits of that collaboration. As my colleague Shane Harris reports, other governments are digesting the NSA revelations with a mixture of awe and anger, and now want their own NSA-like capabilities. As a result, they may force companies to relocate their servers from the United States to the countries in which they operate -- making it that much easier to spy on their own citizens.

Strange Congressional Bedfellows

It isn't often that Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats find themselves on the same side of an issue, but in late July these two disparate factions united to very nearly pass an amendment in the House that would have defunded the NSA's bulk collection activities. They came within 12 votes of passing the measure. Incredibly, it required the personal intervention of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- no defense hawk herself -- to bring a fractious Democratic caucus into line and prevent the amendment's passage.

With 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans voting for the amendment, the final tally heralded a political marriage of convenience midwifed by Snowden. The amendment, which was co-sponsored by Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, and John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, would likely have never made it out of the House. But for critics of the NSA and America's surveillance state, the vote marked the closest anyone has come to seriously curtailing an intelligence agency's powers in the post-9/11 era. Without Snowden, that would never have happened.

Cooling Transatlantic Trade Talks

In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama announced that he was launching talks for a free trade pact with the European Union. But on the heels of revelations that the NSA has been aggressively spying on European states and their citizens, those talks are now under significant strain. With the United States struggling with sluggish growth and Europe mired in a protracted economic crisis, a trade pact between the two blocs could provide the jolt to jumpstart the two massive economies.

But no one, it seems, really wants to do business with Big Brother. "Our concern is that after the tragedy of 9/11 the U.S. security services may have run amok," Corien Wortmann-Kool, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said in July. "We need to discuss the code of conduct and see that proper oversight is in place." The French government went so far as to say that trade talks should be delayed until the issues surrounding the spying disclosures have been settled, though Germany was none too pleased at the suggestion. In a measure of his newfound influence, Julian Assange was right in the thick of things, egging on the EU to strike back at the NSA and its overlords in Washington. "European Union states, first and foremost France and Germany, should reserve him their warmest welcome," the WikiLeaks founder wrote in an op-ed for the French newspaper Le Monde.

The Enduring Strength of the American Empire

As Edward Snowden scampered from Hawaii to Hong Kong to Moscow, eluding U.S. authorities at every turn, the United States found itself looking rather silly. Here was a young, skinny I.T. administrator bringing deep embarrassment to the most powerful country in the world -- and there was little the White House or anyone else could do about it. For the prophets of American decline, the Snowden saga offered yet another example of receding U.S. influence in the world. "However the Snowden episode turns out ... what it mainly illustrates is that we are living in an age of American impotence," Bret Stephens wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "The Obama administration has decided it wants out from nettlesome foreign entanglements, and now finds itself surprised that it's running out of foreign influence."

But even if the Obama administration has been unable to apprehend Snowden, the young NSA leaker forced the United States to flex its muscles - and, in so doing, helped prove just how influential a country America remains. Eager to repair fraying relations with Washington, Beijing washed its hands of the Snowden affair, encouraging him to leave Hong Kong for Moscow. And while Vladimir Putin's government has now granted Snowden a year-long temporary asylum, it is by no means obvious that the Russian president particularly relishes sheltering Snowden. The former KGB agent offered this choice comment on the benefits of keeping the NSA leaker in Russia: "It's like shearing a piglet. There's a lot of squealing and very little wool." Shortly thereafter, America's European allies forced Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane to land amid rumors that he managed to slip Snowden on board while leaving Moscow. That speculation turned out to be false, but the episode served as a not-so-gentle reminder of which countries in the world still have the ability to ground a presidential jet. Elsewhere in Latin America, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have offered Snowden asylum -- but Ecuador shas not. Ecuador, of course, is harboring Julian Assange in its London embassy and was one of the first countries to speak out in Snowden's defense. In retaliation, Congress is letting Ecuador's preferential trade status lapse (not to be outdone, the authorities in Ecuador have renounced the deal, saying they refuse to be intimidated). But since the initial war of words between the two countries, an eerie silence has reigned in Quito (in July, it emerged that Ecuador had signed a $300,000 contract with a top lobbying firm in Washington). Comments by Ecuadorean officials that it would take "months" to decide whether to grant Snowden asylum spoke volumes.

The United States, in other words, still has a lot of weight to throw around in the world - even if those efforts have yet to unmoor Snowden from Moscow.

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