The Constitution Outside The Courts: Bezos and Henry

Editor’s note: Many actors, in the government and outside of it, make contributions to the meaning of America’s Constitution.  The Supreme Court and lower courts, of course, have a large role in that, but the role is actually shared by a multitude of others.

Lyle Denniston, the National Constitution Center’s adviser on constitutional literacy, begins a series of posts about individuals or organizations outside the courts helping to shape the Constitution in the nation’s life.  Each post names a specific “Constitution-maker” – sometimes more than one — and describes their contributions, actual or potential.  “Constitution-makers” are chosen from across the political spectrum.

The first “Constitution-makers” are Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, and John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox baseball team.

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Only one industry throughout America carries on its day-to-day business with the specific blessing of the Constitution.  That is the press, made up of newspapers, broadcast outlets and, in today’s world, online media.  It is sometimes a commercial enterprise, sometimes not.  The press itself has helped to shape the meaning of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, in the First Amendment.  And the nature of the press has been shaped by those individuals who have been its private owners – perhaps especially, the owners of major newspapers.

Great newspaper traditions are associated with the names of such owners as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, Colonel Robert McCormick, Boston’s Taylor family, New York’s Ochs and Sulzberger families, and Washington’s Graham family.   The First Amendment is more robust, because of the performance of their newspapers.

But American newspapering has fallen on hard times, economically, and pessimism runs deep among those who watch the industry’s seemingly inevitable demise.   For more than a generation now, the industry has been trying to figure out a “business model” that will work in the Digital Age, to stave off the flight of readers and advertisers to the new social media, and to cable TV.

800px-Washington_Post_building

Washington Post building. Wikicommons user Daniel X. O’Neil

It is a cultural reality that, if the industry does not figure that out, investigative and public-service journalism – which costs a lot of money – will diminish and perhaps disappear.  And the First Amendment’s promise of a rigorous press that monitors public life will surely wane.

Perhaps what the industry needs is a “white knight,” some form of a generous and civic-minded savior.

For The Washington Post and The Boston Globe – two of the most-honored papers in the nation – a would-be savior has now come on the scene.   For $250 million, Bezos has bought The Post from the Grahams, and, for $70 million, Red Sox owner John Henry has bought The Globe from The New York Times (which had bought it for vastly more than that from the Taylor family).

Bezos promises to bring the genius that he has displayed in online retailing to daily newspapering, and the industry will be watching closely to see whether that is the answer.  Henry promises to keep the tradition of local and regional journalism alive in New England, and the industry will be watching to see whether that can be done in an economic world that thinks nationally and globally.

If Bezos and Henry can fulfill their promises, they may well be shapers of a new First Amendment tradition – running a big-city newspaper that does not need to take a tin cup and go begging on the streets.  They could be Constitution-makers.

Lyle Denniston is the National Constitution Center’s adviser on constitutional literacy. He has reported on the Supreme Court for 55 years, currently covering it for SCOTUSblog, an online clearinghouse of information about the Supreme Court’s work.

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