The Rise of Authoritarian Media

A Russian oligarch and former KGB agent is trying to buy London's Evening Standard. The paper is just the latest traditional journalism institution to cozy up to autocracy. Take CNN.

The news network joined HaperCollins, Random House, the BBC and the Financial Times in a government-built media campus in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. At a time of widespread cutbacks by U.S media in international coverage, CNN will staff its new bureau there with 30 people and launch a new show from the the hereditary Islamic oligarchy.

CNN insists it's paying for the space, but a UAE exec told the Times in October that the payments are "negotiable." Also, the government invested $1 billion in a movie deal with Time Warner, so CNN's parent company is still net positive, cashflow-wise.

Then there's Forbes. In November, a Russian billionaire was rumored to be trying to buy the magazine for around $700 million. Forbes denied any deal.

But the transaction seemed plausible, if only because authoritarian media sugar daddies dominate deal talk like never before. And it doesn't stop with Sam Zell and Tribune Company or Carlos Slim taking a stake in the Times (ahead of a once-rumored sale to Michael Bloomberg); the once-sacrosanct, nonprofit world of journalism education is in the game as well.

The Northwestern j-school, Medill, is setting up a Qatar branch; USC's journalism school has plans in Dubai and NYU is duplicating its whole academic program in Abu Dhabi.

If the internet is pushing a new, more democratic crop of news outlets online, it seems to be having the opposite effect on traditional journalism. For old organizations, it's far easier to switch from one well-heeled boss (say, a family or benevolent media mogul) to another (an oligarch, sheik or finance billionaire) than to try and adapt to the uncertain, low-margin business of publishing for the online masses.

(Pictured: Alexander Lebedev, said trying to buy Evening Standard, and reportedly kind of a good guy, as far as oligarchs go.)