THE BLOG
08/20/2013 03:38 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Three of a Kind

In the news these days are Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post, Alex Rodriguez receiving a 211 game ban for use of PEDs, and Fabrice Tourre being found guilty of securities fraud in a New York courtroom. Read on to see if they have anything in common beyond the fact I'd like to write about them.

There is nothing the media likes more than a story about itself. Why else would Citizen Kane, not even Orsen Welles' best movie (the first scene in Touch of Evil is more notable than the entirety of Citizen Kane) appear at the top of so many 'best movie' lists? Because those lists originated in newspapers. If the lead character were say, an oil magnate, and not a media baron, would it rank above There Will be Blood?

So the Bezos purchase gets lots of ink. Gordon Crovitz writing in the Wall Street Journal gushes that Bezos' genius in customer knowledge will magically transform the paper's financial outlook. On the evidence, this is highly unlikely. First, Amazon is not the colossus it is because of customer knowledge. I love Amazon and use it dozens of times a year, but they have yet to make a recommendation (of a book, or pruning shear, or dog collar) that I've ever found useful. Amazon's success is due to customer service-- an enormous selection at cheap prices available to you in only one click ™. Fast, cheap and easy would describe an excellent first date, though they wouldn't necessarily be what we as a society should want from the Fourth Estate. What's more, newspapers are already these things. If they get any faster, cheaper and easier they will become a Russ Meyer movie (or amnewyork).

Second, in the litany of newspaper purchases by non-news people in recent years, none have stemmed the tide in readership decline or red ink. Sam Zell, the highest profile of these buyers, sunk the Tribune even faster than it was sinking on its own, driving it in to bankruptcy in less than twelve months .

Crovitz writes that people are reading more than ever, but he falsely suggests that readership of major metropolitan dailies is turning around. Data from the circulation bible, The Alliance for Audited Media shows otherwise. The outlets gaining the new readership, places like Twitter and to a certain extent Huffpost, get their content directly from primary sources, which is more appealing to most readers than getting it filtered through a journalist they've never heard of. And what's more, Lady Gaga submits her content for free, while each journalist costs the Post hundreds of thousands a year in salary, benefits, and for all I know fedoras. Bezos buying the Post ahead of someone who was actually interested in it as a money making venture (the Sam Zell's of the world are no longer taking the bait) belies Crovitz's claim that traditional journalist-centric news outlets can make money if they just get online. Then again, Crovitz would make that claim since he founded a business that helps newspapers get online.

Speaking of false claims, is it news that Rodriguez (who in 2009 admitted to using banned substances) or any high level athlete has used PEDs? Show me a great athlete and I'm pretty sure I can show you a person who is interested in winning at virtually any cost. To me the interesting question isn't 'does so and so use'? My belief is if you recognize the athlete's name and the sport isn't chess (wait, did I say chess?) your best guess is 'yes, he used' because if he didn't he is at a distinct disadvantage physically and mentally with the majority of his competitors.

Thus the interesting question isn't if someone has crossed the line, but where should we draw the line? Banning steroids appears arbitrary. If you want to prohibit anything that affects long term health you wouldn't allow six-foot NFL lineman bulk up to 340 pounds, and if you didn't want to give an 'unfair' edge to athletes who had preferential access, you wouldn't let runners train at altitude or sleep in hyperbaric chambers.

An ESPN commentator when discussing the presence of drugs in sport said 'I just hope it doesn't come down to who has the best pharmacist'. But being a top level performer comes down to many things that could be considered non-intrinsic--best nutritionist, best trainer, best coach, best traveling secretary, least lead paint on the walls back in the day, and yes, best doctors (ask Tommy John). Adding pharmacist (and lawyers) to the list doesn't change much. The public knows this and there is no evidence of public issue with PED use as ratings for live sports continue to be the only thing that draws advertising money on network TV. PED stories make the news because fall from grace stories are something that have been of interest since ancient Greece, and newspapers can sell them. And the fall from grace here is that Arod was one of those who were sloppy enough to get caught.

Which brings us to Tourre. He was no saint--he was misleading with at least one investor (who it turns out was so clueless that his truth-bending was lost on her) and was willing to put his employer in an unduly dangerous financial position in the hopes of getting a deal done that would line his pockets. But I'd suggest, as would many, that his behavior was not all that unusual and that the percentage of ambitious employees who will act immorally to further their own cause in most bastions of white collar ambition (Wall St, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and yes, Fleet Street) is about the same as percent that would use PEDs in professional sports. The difference with Tourre is he got caught. Well, actually not caught, but became an attractive target because of immature emails that caught the fancy of regulators (that knew they would catch the fancy of headline writers). And so he was literally singled out. The evidence was circumstantial and a criminal court would not have convicted him, which is why the case wasn't brought in criminal court. Who showed more morally questionable ambition, Tourre, the SEC, or the journalists whom the SEC could rely on to sell a salacious if ultimately useless prosecution?