In the days and hours before Jeff Bezos launched himself to space Tuesday, I watched an animated cable TV discussion of whether this was a flight of fancy by a $206 billion man or a history-making moment that could change everything.
What did he say to critics who suggested he spend his riches helping planet earth?
What does he mean when he says his technologies will “solve problems here on Earth” with space travel?
When he says that going to space underscores "how small and fragile" Earth is, and how "we have to preserve this planet" and care for it even more – more than what?
These were all hard questions – questions that needed to be asked.
That changed after the 11-minute flight.
Journalists shouldn't gush and grin
Over at ABC, a headline read: “Jeff Bezos soars to the edge of space in historic flight.” (The real history had been made exactly 52 years ago on Apollo 11.)
“Jeff Bezos reaches space – a small step toward big spaceflight dreams,” said National Geographic. (Are they equating Bezos brush with space with Neil Armstrong’s first-ever moonwalk, that one “small step” for man, one giant leap for mankind moment?)
“He is the world’s richest man and we have no choice but to cover his hobbies,” declared Tucker Carlson on Fox News.
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We had a choice, and that choice was whether to give this adventure by an uber-powerful billionaire a critical eye or amplify his hype. Sadly, we chose hype.
“Jeff Bezos, you are an astronaut now! How does it feel?!" gushed Stephanie Rule on MSNBC, literally gesturing and bouncing on her heels. He’s an astronaut? Military pilot Alan Shepard had trained for months before becoming the first real American astronaut to reach space. This group, who rode on the "New Shepard,” had studied for 14 hours before leaping on board as passengers.
“You spent time on your grandfather’s farm playing space cowboys,” Ruhle told Bezos, who was in fact wearing a cowboy hat for no particular reason, and his brother, who joined him on the flight. “But this is so much more than boys who wanted to be astronauts.” But was it?
"Clearly it's a bonding moment for the two of you. Did you have a moment with the two of you up there?" Gayle King on "CBS This Morning" asked the Bezos brothers.
“It’s a bold vision, it’s an ambitious vision,” a CNBC reporter of his plans to build the infrastructure for ongoing flights, which even sent both the Bezos brothers into peels of laughter as they declared that it was also “so much fun.”
NBC’s Tom Costello asked at a press conference: “How do you bring the cost down so this can be more accessible for everybody.” Right now the Bezos company is approaching $100 million in private sales to rich civilians, not ordinary people. (The first actual ordinary person to try to reach space was teacher Christa McAuliffe who died aboard the ill-fated Challenger.)
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Journalists gushed and grinned like little kids instead of asking hard questions. Space flight is important and riveting and has the potential to unite us with a common purpose. All the gushing just got in the way of exploring what this truly does – and doesn’t – mean for the critical use of space and its potential to advance the common good.
What the press should have asked
That suits Jeff Bezos’ agenda just fine. He is pushing back on the $2.9 billion award NASA gave to rival SpaceX to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024. A little hype for his Blue Origin company can’t hurt.
It also helps him advance his narrative that he is so grateful to the public for funding his adventure while ignoring that it wasn’t just Amazon purchases that fueled his wealth. He paid no federal income taxes in 2007 or 2011. Literally not a dime for Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, or our safety net. Bezos acknowledged as much when he said: "I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this.” Journalists should have asked why he has money for thrill rides but not his fair share of taxes.
Journalists also could have asked why Bezos didn’t choose to raise wages, rather than extend his excess to space. Or do both. Amazon’s net income in just the first three months of 2021 was $8.1 billion. Yet Amazon’s median employee earned a salary of $29,007 in 2020, according to the company's annual proxy statement.
Then there is the fact that Bezos pierced a sky that belongs to no one and everyone at the same time, declaring he is out to fight climate change, even donating $10 billion to the cause. But in 2018 alone Amazon “emitted 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – greater than the carbon footprint of Switzerland,” wrote Dave Murphy, an associate professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University, in USA TODAY. Journalists needed to ask about that.
They didn’t. And by not speaking up they show why Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, is not just ushering a new era in space travel but reflecting a sad era in journalism. This is a time when the media gushes over billionaires and fantastical flights and forgets that its job is to challenge the powerful and represent the powerless.
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CNN Business reporter Rachel Crane got it right before the launch when she asked about criticisms of his spending choices. "They are largely right," Bezos told her of his critics. "We have to do both. We have lots of problems in the here and now on Earth and we need to work on those, and we always need to look to the future. We've always done that as a species, as a civilization."
When forced to answer hard questions, Bezos is actually forced to participate in a conversation about the role of the rich in causing our planet harm and their ideas on how to fix it. “We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space and keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is,” he told NBC News. “Now that’s going to take decades and decades to achieve, but you have to start. Big things start with small steps.”
This time around it was small steps advancing billionaire space travel, but a not-so-giant leap for the press.
Soledad O'Brien is anchor of the syndicated political magazine show "Matter of Fact" which she co-produces with Hearst Television. She is CEO of Soledad O’Brien Productions. Follow her on Twitter: @soledadobrien
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jeff Bezos' space coverage was an embarrassing display for journalists