Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about Jeff Bezos's purchase of the Washington Post, Barack Obama putting Vladimir Putin on ice, and the RNC's threat over a pair of Hillary Clinton movies. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Margaret: Not conservatives, Ramesh, but everyone else loved the Washington Post. As the Watergate scandal was unraveling, I would hear the plop of it landing on the porch and race down the stairs to get it. As owners, the Grahams were model citizens, stewards and philanthropists, and in a personal way. Katherine Graham hosted my daughter's wedding in her backyard; such a good neighbor. But if the paper had to be sold, and it did, then Jeff Bezos is about the most benign press baron I can imagine. Of course, I associate him with free shipping and those brown boxes all my stuff comes in. He's trained for the Post, having gone years at Amazon without making a profit -- the new model for press barons.
Ramesh: Like the many companies that Amazon has driven out of business, the Washington Post is having trouble with the new world of Internet competition. Classified revenue is down and people generally don't pay for online content. So maybe this is the future: Instead of a news business, we have newspapers that are a hobby for rich people.
Margaret: I remember when the Post brushed off Craigslist as nothing to worry about. They didn't even try to make their classified ads friendlier -- as someone who always buys their cars used can attest. Remember when movies about New York always had a subway scene where people had the papers folded just so? Most days I'm the only person on the subway with an actual newspaper, although I assume everyone is reading the same content online (free). Perhaps Bezos, who has thrown millions away on a millennial clock, will keep the romance of newspapers going. Maybe he'll include one in each of the overnight shipping boxes from his warehouses that seem to be in every ZIP code. It could be a lovely favor, like a chocolate on the pillow at four-star hotels.
Ramesh: I assume at the very least that the newspaper's website will see a dramatic improvement in its guidance of readers toward other articles they might also like. I'm not immune to the romance of printed newspapers, Margaret, but it's a lost cause. When I started working in journalism in 1995, I read five bulky newspapers a day. I don't subscribe to any newspaper today, and I'm at least as well informed (and have much cleaner fingers).
Margaret: Not even the Sunday Times? At least for the crossword puzzle? I know you're still entertaining right-wingers on a boat in the fjords -- my idea of hell -- so you probably didn't see Obama on Leno the very day he decides he isn't going to bi-lat with Putin. He gave a list of important issues, such as trade, that stand between them and listed Edward Snowden as his last reason for canceling the meeting, but that's got to be his first. He has to do something to discipline the incorrigible Russian leader, even if, like in child-rearing, it hurts him more than it hurts Putin. With pressure to cancel the Olympics by Republicans over the asylum, this seems like a small thing in contrast. Number twos and various counterparts will still keep talking. Putin just doesn't get to show his utter disdain for the president with his rude body language.
Ramesh: First of all, Margaret, I am delighted to see you use the words "asylum" and "Republicans" in the same sentence and be referring to a country's extradition decisions. I agree that Obama had to draw a line on this issue -- but doesn't the way the Russians are handling Snowden suggest the naiveté of our "reset" with them?
Margaret: "Reset" is such a small word to convey what we have to do with Russia. On a lighter subject, what about your buddy Reince Priebus? He seems like such a studious-looking guy to be running a purely political operation. Who calls a review of the party an "autopsy"? His latest ploy is to raise a big stink about a couple of Hillary Clinton movies about to be broadcast on NBC and CNN. He wants equal time. Diane Lane as Hillary is sure to enhance the former Secretary of State. Still, you can't beat someone with nobody. If he has two good films about equally riveting Republicans, bring it on. Maybe Romney and his binders full of women? A drama about Rick Perry trying to remember anything at all (I'm in Florida -- no, I'm in Louisiana)? Or a narrative about character development as Ted Cruz becomes thoughtful? I agree with him that movies are powerful -- I just saw Lee Daniels' "The Butler" and am moved again over what blacks went through to get basic dignity. Priebus' threat to boycott NBC and CNN when the presidential debates roll around shows him looking for an excuse to do what he advised in the autopsy report. He wants fewer debates for the public to see his party's candidates struggling to recall just which Cabinet departments they would want to close or listen to a pizza mover say 9-9-9 100 times in an hour.
Ramesh: I don't think the debates were a major factor in sinking the Republicans in 2012, but they didn't help. There were too many of them, they put people who could make real bids for the presidency on par with people who were running to be talk-show hosts, and they kept the serious Republican candidates from being able to convey any message to the public. None of the individual candidates can fix this problem. The no-hopers just want attention, and the more stage time they get with the big guys, the better. The candidates who are in it to win can't say no without looking like they're afraid of a fight. That's why the RNC is getting involved. You're right, I think, that the Hillary movies aren't the real motivation. But Priebus is doing something smart, I think. Plus, I expect the Clinton movies to be terrible. I'd watch one about Snowden, though.
Margaret: I would watch both, Ramesh, and bring the popcorn. See you next week if you are out of your Norwegian woods.