When the Internet makes you the world's richest person, what do you do with your billions? Help the disadvantaged? Save the environment? Cure diseases? Jeff Bezos may support charities quietly, but his most public "give back" has been to build embarrassingly-shaped rocket ships for the uber wealthy. But as his long suffering PR advisor points out, the solution to his apparent lack of empathy and imagination (boldly modelled by his ex Mackenzie Scott) may not lie far away, doubling down on his 2013 acquisition of The Washington Post. The Internet that made Bezos has hollowed out local media, with devastating consequences for US politics and the world. You have the power to save it, Jeff. Why not?
An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos
You don’t know me. I’m your personal PR consultant, have been for ten years. You signed my contract all those news cycles ago, and my invoices are getting paid each month, thanks. But you’ve never taken my calls or responded to one of my emails (email@example.com, right?). So I’m trying the open letter route before throwing in the towel.
I’ll admit I didn’t believe them when they told me managing your public image wouldn’t be a walk in the park. After all, I’d kept some pretty big names stay out of trouble, from Wall Street to Washington to (West) Palm Beach. You’d never guess who they are, which is what I get paid for.
But hoo boy, they weren’t kidding. Sure, you’re generally the richest man in the world (depending on the impact of Elon’s latest wacky tweet). The first centibillioniare on the Forbes Wealth Index for crying out loud, known if not loved for having created an Internet juggernaut that has come to represent over half of all online retail. (HALF, Jeff!) I figured with all that moola we could get the love to come along. After all, if the world can fall in love with that a**hole Jobs, I figured, how hard can it be?
Pretty damn hard, is the truth. You don’t make it any easier. On the one hand you’ve got that incredible ex out there revolutionizing impact philanthropy, giving it away faster than anyone in history—and still, bless her, managing to get richer than she was before she started (for which you and her Amazon holdings could take a bow, if only you would).
Okay, okay, you say—or so I would imagine if you’d talk to me—all Mackenzie and Chris Smalls are doing is spreading around the wealth that YOU created. Fair enough. But that isn’t really our problem here, is it?
The question is, what are YOU doing with YOUR gazillions—just over $200 billion to be exact, as of early 2022? It’s not just that you can’t take it with you. Picturing how anyone could spend a tenth of that in a lifetime is as stomach churning as the prospect of having to watch them do it, the equivalent of watching Brewster’s Millions several hundred times.
You’ve managed to come up with exactly one high-profile way to use your unprecedented wealth for the betterment of humankind: building rocketships—shaped, perhaps in deference to your personal resemblance to Dr Evil, like the phallic spacecraft in Austin Powers 2—for the uber-wealthy to travel, well, nowhere.
That’s not entirely fair. Anyone who transforms how we even think about buying stuff, actually CREATING (vs inheriting ,having it gush out of the ground or stealing it) enough value to become the world’s wealthiest person must have some sense of how they want to change the world.
But spare a moment to think of your defenders—those capitalist apologists (and I’ll admit to once having been one of them) who argue that outsized accumulation can never truly be other than a public good, for the money has to go somewhere? The same individuals who have never lost an opportunity to point to how the great 19th century robber barons, from Carnegie to Vanderbilt, invested most of their wealth in great philanthropic works like universities, museums, libraries, and public parks?
How do you think they look while Mackenzie supports the environment, medical research, and the disadvantaged, and you play around with big metal also-ran dicks for the grostesquely-privileged and bored?
Okay. Here endeth The Attack.
A New Hope
My job is not simply to warn you of PR nightmares you might be creating for yourself and free marketeers generally, particularly after the horses has been let so publicly and irreversibly out of the barn.
No, if you’re going to get any value out of the high-priced retainer you’ve been paying me all these years—and if you have any concern for how humanity is going to remember you, regardless of any regard you may have for humanity itself—it falls to me to suggest how you might crawl out of the fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into.
I’m gonna help you find that WHY.
Now that was a good look, Jeff. Not only did it put you in the company of the great public-spirited scion of wealth, Kathy Graham, who put her own financial interests on the line to bring us the Pentagon Papers, before getting behind Woodstein when the mainstream media had decided Watergate was a non-story. It also put you in the spotlight as a noble defender of American democracy at the very moment its arch enemy, the fascist-loving con artist who makes Richard Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln, had taken up residence in the Oval Office.
God knows what possessed you to do the right thing then. But let’s not stop there.
The very same Internet that has allowed you to make your fortune has not been quite so friendly to others. I don’t mean all those independent bookstores you helped put out of business, some of which have somehow managed to hang on, even as you’ve managed to gobble up 67% of the market (just what do those anti-trust people do all day?).
No, I’m thinking about the sector we’ve just been talking about into which you’ve already dipped part of the nail on your tiniest toe.
It was round about the time of the French Revolution when the English MP and writer Edmund Burke was said to have noted Britain’s unwritten constitution included not just three estates, as in France (clergy, nobility, and commoners), but four. “The Reporters’ Gallery” in the House of Commons, what we would now call the Media, was in his view “more important far than them all”.
Political ne’er-do-wells like Nixon and Trump excepted, few have ever thought to question the importance of a flourishing press in safeguarding the liberties of a free society. The absence of such is what allows the same system of government that has brought freedom and prosperity to the UK, Canada, Australia, etc.. to become an instrument of oppression in Zimbabwe and other former colonies.
Your people at WaPo know that. But it’s not enough simply to proclaim “Democracy Dies In Darkness”, that winning slogan they adoped in 2017 that was first said to have out of your mouth at a conference earlier that year, but which you had in fact slyly swiped from Bob Woodward two years earlier when he was promoting his last kick at the Watergate can.
You might think the “darkness” in question emanates largely from the last presidential administration, or Rupert Murdoch’s unhinged Fox News—and you would not be wrong.
But this would also be to overlook the catastrophe in American newsrooms that created enough shadow for such shady character to step into in the first place. I’m talking about the steady demise of local news that has taken hold ever since we all began to turn our eyes from their classified pages and commercial breaks towards online platforms—and the news-free likes of Netflix.
As our British friends at The Economist have not shied from pointing out, the decline in local news coverage has been an undeniable factor in the rise of political extremism at all levels of our politics. Uninformed voters increasingly vote for local representatives based on their perception of national issues, best person for the job be damned. Split ticket voting, a longstanding American tradition that favored individual merit over party affiliation, has all but gone the way of the dodo.
All is not lost. Consider The American Journalist Project, a non-profit attempt to revive local coverage with grants. Or brave non-non-profits on Substack looking to do the same through paid newsletters like The Charlotte Ledger. Axios Local , from the people that brought us the independent voices of Politico and Axios, is even attempting to fix the problem on a single platform with better economics.
Here's your chance, Jeff. The AJP is doing great work. But it’s also getting by on less than $20M a year, largely funded by a small number of donors, including your friends over at the Meta Journalism Project.
Let’s just focus on you. With just 1% of your current net value—say, an even $2 billion—the Amazon Journalism Project could fund TEN American Journalism Projects for the next DECADE. Or more, if, as I expect, such singularity of purpose and commitment to the public good would inspire Elon and Bill and Mark and Larry and Warren and Steve and Michael and the Waltons and Phil Knight— the top 14 wealthiest Americans according to Forbes, collectively worth $1.5 trillion. Yes, TRILLION. (Number 15 is Mackenzie Scott, who as we’ve noted is already doing more than her share.)
You’re at the top, Jeff, smiling like you’re in the process of taking over the world—as indeed you are. That doesn’t mean you can just check out of the planet. It means YOU are their de facto leader.
So show some leadership! Stop messing about with space penises and get behind the vision you’ve already hinted at with the Post.
A Modest Proposal
Whether or not you knew what you were saying, you were right. Democracy does die in darkness. With the rise of partisan extremism, gerrymandering, and other forms of vote meddling, all signs suggest it already is.
No one person can stop it, of course. But to the extent that the problem is structural, virtually no one has the means have your disposal lot to stem if not turn back the tide of ignorance that threats America, and so the planet.
YOU can help return balance to the Force. To return our democratic playing field to something more similar to what we had before the advent of the Internet that made you—when politicians were not afraid to think and show true leadership to their constituents and work across the aisle to bring down corrupt presidents.
You have the resources, and apparently, not much else to do with them. Don’t blame yourself. Maybe you’ve been working too hard. Maybe that’s the natural consequence of a life committed to the notion that a billion dollars is cool: you lose all sense of what else it, and you, have to offer.
Keep flying into space if you wish, no one’s stopping you. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that’s doing anything of value for the species, or your legacy, or anything else.
The world is in trouble. You really can do a lot to help, if you can get that pate out of your rectum.
Not only would it make it look like you might be able to hold a candle to the ex. It might even help cut down on the Dr Evil memes. Who knows, they might even start to compare you to a hair-free hero, like Kojak or even that cool Jedi played by Samuel Jackson?
That’s all I got, Mr Bezos. The best I have to offer.
If anyone bothers to show you this and any of it sounds interesting, you know where to find me.
If not, consider this my resignation. I can’t take anymore.
Donna Draper (no relation)
D. Draper Media Relations
Stephen Butler is a partner at Framework, Rimrock, and Project WHY.