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Jay Rosen is one of the leading media scholars in the United States. He has been a professor of journalism at New York University since 1986 and has published widely about structural changes in journalism and the media over the past three decades. He is known for his use of terms such as "view from nowhere" to criticize ideas about journalistic objectivity. He is currently a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, where he is studying the way German journalists conceive of their profession.

ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Rosen, is it really such a good idea that the richest man in the world owns one of the two most influential newspapers in the United States?

American media critic Jay Rosen, June 2018 © Robert Bosch Akademie

Jay Rosen: It's only a good idea because there are not a lot of good alternatives. For The Washington Post as an institution, getting sold to Jeff Bezos was good news. In a way, it was the greatest thing that the previous owners, the Graham family, did for this newspaper. They acknowledged that they didn't know how to keep the paper going in the future and went on a search for people who had the money and potentially the skill to do it. In the end, they decided that Jeff Bezos would be the best to keep The Washington Post alive. There are problems with the richest man on the planet owning a powerful newspaper, absolutely. But there are problems with every single method of keeping journalism going. Public interest journalism has always been subsidized by something. Look at the massive subsidy that the license fee gives news in Germany. That's also a subsidy system. All subsidy systems have different problems.

ZEIT ONLINE: The concern with Bezos is not only that he is immensely rich. He is also the founder and CEO of Amazon, a company that is close to a monopoly in e-commerce.

Jay Rosen: And Amazon inevitably has business with the government, of course. Bezos has been investing into Washington in different ways. He bought a home there, which is quite an unusual move for a tech billionaire who lives in Seattle. Obviously, this is meant for socializing with the town's elite. Amazon is also stepping up their Washington lobby. What we in journalism have to keep a close watch on is Bezos' role in The Washington Post, preventing his interference into journalistic work and making sure he understands that if he were to interfere, that would be a big problem. On that, I think The Washington Post situation is pretty good.

ZEIT ONLINE: How did the journalists at The Washington Post respond to the new ownership?

Jay Rosen: Martin Baron, the top editor, says that if there was interference from Amazon, for example in the Post's coverage of technology or of Amazon itself, we would all hear about it. According to everybody who works with Bezos, he doesn't interfere. And journalists know how to leak. That doesn't mean that the issue is over. It's just an important thing to keep our eye on. 

ZEIT ONLINE: What has changed at the Post since Bezos took over?

Jay Rosen: The first change is often unappreciated for how important it actually was. Bezos restored confidence in the people who work there. When you feel like you are shrinking, it is very hard to take risks and do the kinds of things you need to innovate. Bezos invested so that new people could be hired. Secondly, Bezos reversed a strategic decision the Graham family had made, which was to concentrate on making the Post a local newspaper by and for Washington. Bezos concluded that the only way for the Post to prosper in the internet era was to be national, and then international. Moreover, he looked at the Post as a technology company. They started to develop their publishing technology and develop a market for it within the publishing business. The Post started to sell their own tech. That's a big deal. And then Bezos started to use the combination of The Washington Post and Amazon to gain more subscribers. We don't know exactly, because it's private property, but they say that the Post is now a bigger company than it used to be and that it is closing in on The New York Times in size.

ZEIT ONLINE: After Donald Trump was elected, The Washington Post changed its slogan to"Democracy Dies in Darkness." That's quite an unusual term for an American company. It's bleak.

Jay Rosen: It's bold.

ZEIT ONLINE: You have said that America might be sliding toward authoritarian rule, and that in this situation, reporting the news will not be enough for journalists.

Jay Rosen: I've been writing about the press and Trump for three years now. My conclusion is that many of the conventions of political reporting depend on certain assumptions about how presidents and political actors will behave. They are based on an estimate of how the political class would cooperate. Trump violates all the assumptions that the practices of journalism are built on. And so, those practices are collapsing in certain ways. Journalists have to recognize that. A lot of what they normally do doesn't make sense for a president like Trump. They have to adjust. The slogan "Democracy Dies in Darkness" is an example of how the press reacted to Trump.

ZEIT ONLINE: How did The Washington Post deal with this new situation?

Jay Rosen: Compared to The New York Times, I think The Washington Post has navigated this sea pretty well. It's not only their slogan, it's three things. The confidence that I spoke of earlier, having Bezos behind them. If there was a really big legal confrontation with the government, they know that Bezos would be able to back them. Another big part is the leadership of editor Martin Baron. He is like a spiritual leader – not only of the Post, but of the American press. And then there is the tradition at the Post that the people who work there can call on to inspire them, the legend that goes back to Watergate. Those things together with a lot of professional talent made The Washington Post do very well. Martin Baron doesn't really agree with my analysis though. His famous sentence about journalism in the era of Trump is: "We're not at war, where we're at work." It captures what most American journalists think they should do. Don't let him get into your head. Don't become the opponents of Donald Trump. Don't fight his war, just do your work.