City Desk

The Transparent Trap: Will Jeff Bezos Continue the Graham Family’s Fights for Open Government?

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The Washington Post is one of the rare news organizations in America that has spent more than 40 years trying to serve two distinct audiences: its diverse local community and, since the era of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal, the American people. For decades, it served these two audiences astonishingly well.

Over the past week, with the news that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would buy the newspaper from its parent, The Washington Post Company, many media observers have commented on the collapsing newspaper business model and the difficulties of running a risk-taking publicly owned company while demonstrating a profit every quarter. I’ve spent the last week ruminating over something closer to my heart and actual expertise.

For the past 13 years, I have worked with dozens of leaders from the Washington Post on open government issues at the state, local and national level. During my 12 years as executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, I frequently interacted with the Post’s publishers, editors, reporters, lobbyists, and lawyers. I’ve also worked with them over the past year as I’ve learned in my new job as dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. The Post’s flagship and suburban newsrooms have provided many internships over many years for University of Maryland journalism students.

The Graham family and other Post leaders have played an almost unequaled role in ensuring that citizens have access to the information they need to participate in our democracy.
To be sure, newspaper owners in communities all over the country have spent millions establishing and protecting open meetings and records laws and suing to fight for open court proceedings.

But the Washington Post’s geography presented the Grahams with a unique challenge: fight for open meetings, public records, shield laws, and open courts in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Throw in Congress, the federal judiciary, and the White House, and you’re talking about an enormous government transparency legacy over the years. Some of the time, the work was done by coalitions of news companies and nonprofits. But the Post always played a significant leadership and financial role in those efforts.

While it’s true that those transparency battles were also good for the Post’s bottom line—you can’t run a profitable news enterprise without access to accurate and reliable information—each of those initiatives benefited the public.

At the Reporters Committee, I frequently called upon Post Company executives to speak up or write a check to support the RCFP’s legal defense and transparency work. I can count on fewer than three fingers the number of times Don Graham, former publisher Bo Jones, and publisher Katharine Weymouth said “no.”

The Post’s leaders took the initiative in getting broader media and public support for amendments to the District of Columbia’s inadequate open meetings law and adoption of “anti-SLAPP” statute amendments in Maryland that would make it more likely that citizens and journalists sued for claims such as libel could get lawsuits dismissed more easily if they were brought primarily for the purpose of silencing speech.

On the national level, they provided significant time and money on efforts ranging from amendments to the federal Freedom of Information Act to adoption of a federal shield law that would allow reporters to protect confidential sources and information.

Digital innovators like Bezos have not been afraid to pick legal fights, particularly when it comes to their intellectual property. But most have focused on the bottom line, not the public’s right to know. I’ve often speculated that might be because they view themselves as citizens of the world. They’re not tied to the wellbeing of a particular community the way most local newspaper owners have been.

Perhaps Bezos has spent enough time in Sun Valley each summer with Post Company CEO Don Graham to have absorbed some of Graham’s sense of community and public service. By keeping the current leadership team, Bezos may be able to pick up some of the Post’s First Amendment ethos.

I very much hope so.

Lucy A. Dalglish is a professor and the dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland. Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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