The explosive announcement that Elon Musk is buying Twitter and taking it private has generated a slew of commentary. While there have been some hosannas, the general tone has tended more toward the apocalyptic, and the most common refrain has been that we are at “peak billionaire” and that Musk’s acquisition reflects a disturbing acceleration of not just inequality but of the ability of the very rich to dictate the rules of the public square and hence of democracy itself.
The consensus of the commentariat does not equal Truth with a capital T. Nor does the conviction that billionaires buying media companies imperils the free flow of information and debate in a democracy. If you believe, as many do, that the very existence of billionaires represents a failure of capitalism to distribute gains more equitably, then it follows that much of what the very rich do is tainted and likely not in the best interests of the many. In that case, most of what happens in capitalist systems today is at best sub-optimal for a good society. If, however, you accept that there is no perfect human society and that most of us are some messy mix of things that work well and things that are spectacularly awry, then it’s worth asking whether Musk buying Twitter is actually a very good thing for speech and democracy.
The idea that the free flow of information is imperiled when new mediums are owned by a few wealthy individuals resonates today, but that doesn’t make it so. When William Randolph Heart and Joseph Pulitzer and Cyrus McCormick presided over their early 20th century news empires, their newspapers were undoubtedly partisan, but that was balanced by the fact that none had anything approaching a monopoly, even in individual cities.
Today’s commentariat might be forgiven for forgetting such a distant past, but what of the more recent past? In the middle of the 20th century, the news outlets that were held as icons of the free press were by and large owned by…a few wealthy families: the Grahams owned The Washington Post, the Chandlers owned The Los Angeles Times, the Taylors owned The Boston Globe, and, of course, the Sulzbergers owned (and still own) The New York Times. Major media companies that controlled TV stations were likewise owned by a few major wealthy people, such as the Cox family (which still controls a plentitude of cable and TV stations), the Gannet family, and a bit later, the Sinclair family and its hundreds of stations, and, of course, the Murdochs with the Fox Network and The Wall Street Journal (purchased in turn from another wealthy family, the Bancrofts).
So, during the two supposed “golden ages” of media, the first in the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when journalists were part of the great social movement toward reform and government oversight and the second from roughly the 1950s through the 1990s, private ownership by the very rich was typical. When that began to falter in the early 2000s, we saw a massive closing of newspapers and gutting of local newsrooms, especially as ad revenue disappeared thanks to the rise of Facebook and Google. The same pattern happened with magazines, many of which had also been owned by wealthy families.
The savior of those ailing properties in the past decade have been, by and large, wealthy individuals: John Henry bought The Boston Globe, Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times, Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, Laurene Powell Jobs The Atlantic, Chatchaval Jiaravanon Fortune, and Marc Benioff, of course, Time. That list is hardly comprehensive—most of the papers and platforms you likely read have similar owners, though some aren’t billionaires.
Why then is Musk buying Twitter seen as such as dangerous anomaly? In part, it’s because Twitter isn’t a publication distributed in the public square (digitally or physically), it is one of the squares. In that way it’s more like a very big network than a single media property. But it commands nowhere near a monopoly, and if Musk were truly to turn it into a right-wing bro ghetto, it’s more than likely people would turn elsewhere, namely Facebook or Snap or Tiktok, all of which are already bigger than Twitter. Setting up a new social media platform has never been easier, even if doing it well is a challenge (as Trump and his rocky Truth Social launch have demonstrated).
In part, however, the reaction to Musk is an explosive reaction to the general ugly tone of public debate, and the fear that the current state of social media is chaotic dissemination of unfiltered content in the name of profit that imperils democracy. That fear is palpable, but here too, that doesn’t mean it’s the right diagnosis of what ails us. The late Sixties and early Seventies were tumultuous, angry, and seemingly on the brink in both the U.S. and Europe when there was no social media, which suggests that the fact that social media is anarchic today doesn’t mean that it is a root cause of all of our collective ailments.
Part of the reaction is undoubtedly about the epochal weirdness of Musk himself, and the mercurial unpredictability of his words and actions. And yet, here is a man who has excelled in constructing two mega-companies—Tesla and SpaceX—that requires meticulous attention to process and detail as well as rigorous organization, recruiting and retaining immensely talented people, and high levels of internal and external accountability. Musk’s persona in no way has precluded that and he has in fact enabled the cultures that make sophisticated vehicles whose failure would result in death. That should, at the very least, suggest that as a manager and owner, he does not play fast and loose.
Finally, before this recent crop of wealthy individuals stepped in and bought these media properties and platforms, their ability to function as robust clearinghouses of information was becoming increasingly hampered by their inability to make a profit. Compared to the net worth of their new owners, these platforms and publications are mostly rounding errors: Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million, which was a fraction of his multi-billion net worth at the time. They bought these properties not to make money but to gratify either their ego or because of some sense of noblesse oblige that having a flourishing marketplace of ideas is simply a good thing for society. And judging from the past decade, as these publications and platforms have rebounded with the investments made by their wealthy private patrons, their ownership by a few wealthy people has been far healthier for a vibrant society than what came immediately before. Even if we don’t like these billionaires owning these publications, what’s the alternative? Government control? DAO-owned magazines?
Twitter will cost Musk and his backers considerably more, but they will still be free to run the platform without the relentless pressure of Wall Street to generate profit and margins according to the dictates of fickle public markets. The fear that Musk will somehow turn Twitter into his personal megaphone belies that fact that it already is—and that’s true for many others, too. And the fear that he will turn Twitter into an ungovernable sphere of false information belies the fact that in many ways it currently is just that, along with a magnificent sphere for finding information and like-minded people and groups. Musk claims that he is dedicated to making that space better for speech; perhaps that will prove false, but that critique should come once that is clear, not in advance.
There is nothing new about someone with great wealth buying a media platform. A look through the past decades suggests that free speech is often enabled by wealthy patrons. The uproar over Musk is predictable in our culture of outrage, but let’s pause our high dudgeon and see how this plays out before writing the obituaries and shrill pronouncements that perform so well on Twitter but do so little to advance our understanding of the world we are living in.
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