By Aijaz Zaka Syed
The Washington Post has become the latest victim of the vagaries of the Wall Street. Considered the voice of the US establishment, the Post has played a strategic role in influencing and setting the governance agenda of the most powerful nation on the planet and even brought down governments as it did with its Watergate expose. This is why the news of a new technology upstart like Amazon.com casually picking up America’s most powerful newspaper for a cool $250 million has stunned the world media and media watchers.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who has earned himself a spot on the tech world’s Mount Rushmore along with Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Google CEO Larry Page, was quoted by the New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz as saying that his purchase of the Post was a “gigantic mix-up” and that he had “clicked” on the newspaper by mistake! “I guess I was just kind of browsing through their website and not paying close attention to what I was doing,” he said. “No way did I intend to buy anything!”
Borowitz is kidding of course as he usually does in his irreverent column. This is no laughing matter though. The fall of the hallowed, 136-year old media institution has set the cat among the pigeons, as it were. The deal with Amazon includes all of the publishing businesses owned by The Washington Post Company, including the Express newspaper, The Gazette Newspapers, Southern Maryland Newspapers, Fairfax County Times, El Tiempo Latino and Greater Washington Publishing.
The Post is not the only newspaper to move to new ownership, as the rival New York Times thoughtfully reminded its readers while reporting the Post deal. The New York Times Company announced around the same time that it had sold its New England Media Group, which includes The Boston Globe, for $70 million, a fraction of the $1.1 billion the Times company paid for just The Globe in 1993.
In fact, since the 2008 meltdown of the Wall Street, many a giant of the Fleet Street has fallen by the wayside. Some of them were plucked by big corporates. Others were neatly swallowed up by people with new money like Bezos, who was once mocked for the outrageous idea of selling books—and much more now—online.
From Los Angeles Times to Philadelphia Inquirer to Chicago Tribune, the list of media casualties is long and instructive. In 2009, Christian Science Monitor, one of the most respected newspapers, was forced to abandon its daily print edition and go online to survive as a brand. Last year, Newsweek that gave the iconic Time magazine a run for its money for eight decades and was edited by the Indian American wonk, Fareed Zakaria, folded too. It now survives only as a digital publication.
Many others have followed since. In, fact, newspapers and magazines the world over are dying a quiet, unlamented death in increasing numbers. And not all of them perhaps can be blamed on the 2008 crash—largely a result of George W Bush’s loony, trillion dollar wars in the Middle East.
With the ubiquitous Internet–which has otherwise been a great leveler and incredible blessing in unimaginable ways–taking over our lives and television, tablets and smartphones perpetually monopolizing our attention, few of us have time or patience for the papers and magazines—or books for that matter. No wonder the print media, with falling advertising revenues and increasing production costs, is finding it increasingly difficult to survive.
That said, the awesome power of the media and its role in influencing, impacting and changing our world remains far from diminished. Media continues to exercise inordinate power and influence over governments and decision makers and the decision making process in turn affecting our world and our lives.
Today, when conventional wars and arms and their striking power are becoming increasingly irrelevant, media is the weapon of choice in the war for hearts and minds. Those controlling it control the levers of power.
One of the reasons the Israeli lobby swings so much clout in Washington and on the Hill is because of the Jewish ownership of many, if not most, of the US media. This coupled with the Jewish money has helped the tiny state of Israel throw its weight around and manipulate and control the US establishment all these years repeatedly humbling the combined lot of Arabs.
But what prevents the Arabs from using the same power to protect their interests—especially when they sit on most of the world’s known energy resources and have enough financial resources at their disposal to assert themselves in this area? The tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar was perhaps the first Arab country to wake up to the infinite possibilities of media power when it launched Aljazeera.
With its bold, in-your-face approach–unprecedented in the carefully controlled world of Middle East media–Aljazeera soon managed to earn itself the wrath of many an Arab state and the US. This notwithstanding the fact that Qatar happens to be a close US ally and is home to US military command in the region and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of US soldiers. The network recently crossed another milestone with the launch of Aljazeera America.
When will others wake up to the latent power of the media and limitless possibilities that it unleashes for those who wield it? The voiceless of this world need to do more to tell their side of the story.
World media today is hopelessly owned and controlled by a few US and Europe-based corporations and moneybags. So if most of the Western media networks appear biased against Arabs and Muslims, as often seen in the Palestine-Israel narrative, it makes sense.
Leading lights of the all-powerful Israeli lobby either have a stake in US newspapers and television networks or simply bully them with their financial and political clout. It’s the same with Hollywood dream factory that churns out blockbuster after blockbuster celebrating Uncle Sam’s glorious war on the “Islamist terrorists.”
While Arabs bemoan the pernicious stranglehold of Israeli lobby over the US establishment, they have done precious little to counter it. Those trillion dollar fantasies in concrete are great and perhaps necessary in a region short on modern infrastructure. But if you want the world to listen to you, you need to invest in intellectual infrastructure like the media, universities and think tanks. The success of Aljazeera proves that it is possible to take on the Goebbelsian monsters and beat them at their own game.
When the Recession knocked out some of the biggest names on the US Fleet Street, an American friend asked me if any of my “rich Arab businessmen friends” were interested in picking up stakes in US newspapers and television networks. “They are selling like hot cakes,” said Karin, herself of Jewish stock, is sick and tired of the US media’s unabashed bias for Israel and open hostility for the Palestinians and Arabs. Unfortunately, I told my friend, I did not know any “rich Arabs.”
But, seriously, if any Arab businessmen with deep pockets are ideed reading this, they should give Karin’s advice serious thought. If nothing else, it makes good business sense to pick a stake, however humble, in the empire’s media empire. For the media controls the empire of mind. The media is power.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on the Middle East and South Asian affairs and Editor of Clarion India. Email: [email protected]