It has been nine years since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, and it’s worked out pretty well for the paper: The Post has become a renewed force in national news and was a vital source of coverage of the Trump White House. Its headcount has more than doubled. At the time, James Fallows wrote that the purchase might signal a happy turning point for journalism: “The beginning of a phase in which this Gilded Age’s major beneficiaries re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence.”
A happy turning point for the Post, yes. For the rest of us, not so much.
I thought of Fallows’ hopeful prediction on Thursday morning, when the news broke that Elon Musk was making a $43 billion bid for Twitter. Alexa, show me the opposite of the “infrastructure of our public intelligence.” Musk is trying to spend a fortune on a social network that has made us all dumber, in order to make it dumber. Or at least, more hostile.
It’s a cliché at this point to say that the richest people on Earth don’t know what to do with their money, but the world’s richest man deciding to drop $43 billion on Twitter because he’s mad at the mods might beat out the other world’s richest man flying a bunch of celebrities to outer space as a way to light money on fire.
Musk is right, unfortunately, about Twitter’s importance as the internet’s preeminent public forum. (The Twitter paradox: It is both stupid and important.) But his vision of it as a ruder, rawer, freer place is as uninteresting as it is inconsequential. Spending one of the world’s greatest fortunes to restore the version of Twitter as it was in 2018—the year Musk called a British diver who rescued a Thai soccer team from a cave a “pedo guy”—is not the revolutionary initiative that either his supporters or his detractors believe.
Twitter itself is resisting the offer, for now. Regardless, Musk’s venture speaks to the abdication of civic responsibility that characterizes the billionaire class at large. As far as resuscitating the public sphere goes, there have been some bright spots in the past decade, including the revival of the Los Angeles Times, purchased by Patrick Soon-Shiong, and the success of Fallows’ own Atlantic, purchased by Laurene Powell Jobs. (Though the latter still laid off 20 percent of its staff two years ago.)
By and large, however, the news industry has not attracted very many deep-pocketed saviors interested in sustaining the freedom of the press in less glamorous cities, let alone in rural regions far from the coasts. Employment at U.S. newspapers fell from 71,000 in 2008 to 31,000 in 2020, while those few jobs created in journalism tended to be shared between New York and Washington. Instead, once-proud institutions like the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun have been scooped up and hollowed out by Alden Global Capital.
Higher education gets more cash, but the results are similarly disappointing. In 2018, Michael Bloomberg gave $1.8 billion to provide scholarships at Johns Hopkins. It was the largest-ever donation to a U.S. college or university. It’s also the exception that proves the rule. Can you think of a recent philanthropic project in higher education that rivals the ambition of founding Stanford University (1885), the University of Chicago (1890), or Carnegie-Mellon (1900)? While he was at it, Andrew Carnegie also built 1,681 public libraries.
A more representative recent gift is that of the billionaire Stephen Schwartzman to Yale, the second-largest in that institution’s history: $250 million earmarked for a student center with his name on it. Or Charles Munger’s $200 million to build a dorm at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which came with the unusual condition that the donor be allowed to design the building. Those are some of the biggest university donations of our time, and their world-changing impact speaks for itself.
How about in the civic realm? While it’s true that the names of our first corporate citizens adorn more and more public places, such as San Francisco’s Salesforce Park, that branding usually represents the paltry proceeds of a naming rights auction, a thin layer of philanthropy frosting atop the cake of public funding. A more concerted effort is Little Island, Barry Diller’s $260 million folly in the Hudson River, a “public park” so micromanaged it might as well be a Disneyland ride.
In some ways it’s a strange standard to measure Musk by: Elon’s not giving away his money. He’s not trying to dodge taxes; he’s buying a company. But he does see his role as that of a guarantor, someone taking stewardship over a vital organ of democracy and what he’s called (on Twitter, of course) the world’s “de facto public town square.” In this sense, Musk’s bid is philosophically in line with those who buy newspapers or found universities. He is not in it for the ad revenue. He doesn’t “care about the economics at all.” He’s in it to shape the discourse. To free it.
The idea that the world’s richest man should control the world’s public square is, obviously, worrisome all on its own. His half-baked quest for an edit button has already caused this magazine to move away from embedding tweets in our stories. Perhaps Musk will make his tweets appear in 24-point font, and tinker with the proclamations of foreign leaders, and appoint himself a hands-on, trollish editor in chief of the world’s front page. But that seems like an edge case even for the billionaire trickster—he’d have an investment to uphold!
Either way, it represents a hilarious conclusion to the fantasy of philanthropic investment in the institutions of public knowledge: the world’s richest man buying a company whose great achievement, basically, has been making all its users incredibly mad all the time. We were, literally in this case, promised flying cars; we got Elon Musk bidding for Twitter.
For more on Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter, listen to this episode of What Next: TBD.