The Monotonously Free Press

I haunt flea markets, partly because the stuff is so cheap (and I am genetically Scottish), but partly, too, because I find things there that will never appear in a big box store, or any other chain retail environment. Likewise, I haunt second-hand bookstores, where the range of possible titles to be found is vastly greater than in stores confined to selling only those books that happen to be in print.

Quality is an issue here. Most things one finds in a flea market are better made and will last longer, as well as being a lot cheaper than anything bought new. This general rule may not apply to food, or electronic devices. But in the case of books Id rather pay five dollars for something wove-papered and stitched, than, say, $29.95 for shinily wrapped pulp, crudely glued together. Indeed, it is a mystery to me how e-books have failed to kill off ghastly paperbacks altogether.

One of the pleasures of the flea haunt is of course to compare purchases with fellow shoppers. In the last week, for instance, Ive been impressed with Jeff Bezos, who picked up the Washington Post for just $250 million, and John Henry, who bought the Boston Globe and some other small items for $70 million.

To tell the truth, both gentlemen are out of my league, and I doubt that my banker would put up even $1 million should I embark upon a legacy media shopping spree. I cant be sure, because Im too shy to ask. My general impression is that a million is easier to borrow than a thousand, and a billion would be easier still, and most people simply lack the nerve and imagination.

But a quarter-billion is pocket money for a man like Mr. Bezos, whose Amazon company could be sold for many hundred times that. For him, it was a flea market purchase. And $70 million is 7 per cent of what the New York Times company had paid for the Boston Globe a few years ago, which is about the knockdown in a typical Salvation Army outlet.

The son of a soybean farmer, as I understand, Mr. Henry became something else when he discovered the futures market for soybeans, and the joys of leveraging that followed. He has assets worth a few billion, at one moment of reckoning, or “less than $100 million” at another. He owns the Boston Red Sox this side of the Atlantic, and Liverpool FC on the other.

And I can understand why I never became a banker. Because, if I were a banker, Id never go near this man. Id also be the sort of fool who might have bailed out one of the innumerable little family bookstores that Mr. Bezos finished off with his brilliant book delivery machine.

You dont get rich growing soybeans – at least, not seriously rich – and as an old hack or pundit I can assure gentle reader you dont get rich printing newspapers any more. These latter may be something nice to own for a while, if you can afford it; and here might be the place to add that covering their losses will cost these gentlemen a lot more than merely acquiring them.

          Flea market superstars: Bezos and Henry 

Sic transit gloria mundi. They are playthings now, where once they were “pillars of the liberal establishment.” Their decline is enjoyed by many of the “conservative” persuasion, one of whom regretted that the knock-down sale of the Post had driven the price of Schadenfreude over 100 Euros a liter. The deathwatch on the New York Times fills a large electronic stadium.

You might think that, as a Catholic reactionary, I would also be thrilled. For decades I moaned that such newspapers were full of what I characterized as “gliberal smuglification.”

But the broadsheets in question had a bit of class, and the sort of editorial budgets that enabled them to report some of the news in detail. However misguided, their writers were reasonably intelligent, and somewhat better informed than. . .some others. With a bit of effort, one could read between their lines.

What bothered me was not the existence of elite liberal media, presenting an essentially false meta-narrative of current history that trickled down to the more modest news suppliers. Instead, I was bothered by the absence of effective competition for that “worldview” – which I would characterize as a spiritualized materialism, not fundamentally different in its conservative or liberal form.

In particular, I regretted the absence from “mainstream media” of genuinely Catholic and Christian voices to break the monotony, and report what others suppressed. By this I do not mean especially religious papers, but instead actual news-papers whose writers and editors would, by nature, look at the world in a much different way.

Hilaire Belloc, nearly a century ago, wrote a short book entitled The Free Press, which provided a remarkably astute analysis of the industry, and of the anaesthetizing similarity of its products – both in what they covered and what they excluded. At root, advertisers not readers were paying the bills, and the publishers task was not to inform, but to deliver eyeballs.

Big media, then as now, was owned by the “plutocrats” of big business and government, whose interests converge. They are invested in the meta-narrative of “Progress,” and the docile, consumerist society it requires. Belloc wanted an alternative press, to disturb this consensus from many different angles. He wanted “news” to return to its primordial condition, of conflicting personal accounts, to be synthesized by reader or listener and not editor or producer.

It remains to be seen if the mushrooming of the Internet, with its million Davids against the mainstream Goliaths, can deliver this. Superficially, it has done so already, while delivering the Goliaths into the hands of a new class of plutocratic patrons. Yet it is now being shaped as another commercial advertising medium, of much greater power than the media it displaces, and thereby the old monotony returns.


David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: