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With 'Post' Purchase, High-Tech Continues Its March On D.C.

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon.
Reed Saxon
Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon.

It's kind of an obvious thought: Jeff Bezos' purchase of The Washington Post is Richard Nixon's revenge.

So obvious, in fact, that when I searched Twitter to see if my thought had occurred to anyone else, I wasn't surprised to find that it had. So it's not unique. That's the thing about the Internet. Never before in history could humans find out so quickly about the unoriginality of their clever idea.

Still, I like it. If Nixon had lived to see the Graham family lose control of The Post, it's easy to imagine his face lighting up as he crossed another name off his infamous enemies list.

But Nixon has been gone since 1994. And it was the next year that Bezos took online, placing it on a path that would lead to it becoming an Internet behemoth that spins off so much wealth for its founder that he needed only a fraction of his fortune — $250 million — to buy The Post.

Back in the mid-1990s when Americans still mostly thought the word Amazon referred to a South American river, The Post was at the top of its game, the aura from its Watergate scoops and its role in history still strong even decades after the scandal. The paper broke many other stories over the years, but Watergate was on its own pedestal.

The Post Bezos purchased, however, is just a remnant of the institution that helped bring down a presidency. Like other brand-name journalism companies, The Post lost its news and advertising dominance due to the disruptive forces unleashed by the Internet, a decline that began in the 1990s and accelerated in the aughts.

The death in 2001 of Katharine Graham, the doyenne of Washington journalism and its A-list social scene, symbolized the loosening of quaint Old Media's hold on Washington culture.

Bezos' purchase of The Post, in contrast, symbolizes High-Tech's continued ascent in the nation's capital. President Obama and Google's Eric Schmidt seemed to hang out together as much as President Kennedy and famed Post executive editor Ben Bradlee once did.

As ever more wealth accumulated in Silicon Valley and Washington state, political power came with the money the Internet millionaires and billionaires increasingly spend on lobbying and political campaigns.

Tech's influence in Washington also derived from the expertise high-tech executives brought to discussions with senior policymakers — and from the promise of the technologies themselves.

For politicians always looking for ways to get past journalistic gatekeepers in order to directly communicate with voters, Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms allow them to do just that.

The Internet became vital not only for distributing a campaign's message, but also for raising cash and getting out the vote. And partisan blogs sprouted like mushrooms to keep the polarized party bases fired up.

Meanwhile, the utility of Big Data and "the cloud" for everything from campaigns to the basic functions of government — like homeland security — became more evident, further amplifying the tech influence in Washington. That growing influence has been used to weigh in on issues dear to those technology executives, ranging from immigration, tax policy and antitrust law.

Given that context, Bezos' purchase makes a certain sense as the boldest planting yet of a high-tech mogul's flag on the banks of the Potomac. But we're still scratching our heads over how he plans to make the deal a big success.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.