What separated Bannon and Kushner more than anything else was their views of the media's importance. Kushner seemed to regard the Observer as just another asset in his diverse portfolio, with no special significance; Bannon considered Breitbart a force for imposing his nationalistic vision on a disgruntled electorate.
As the two men compete for influence in the White House, Bannon's approach to running a media company would seem to be paying higher dividends than Kushner's. Though he no longer calls the shots at Breitbart, Bannon can rely on the site to undermine his rival by posting unfavorable news about Kushner, while dissing his “thin resume.”
Last week, when Bannon suffered through a bad news cycle, following his removal from the National Security Council, Axios quoted “a close Bannon ally outside of the White House,” who offered an ominous prediction: “I see some bad press in [Kushner's] future.”
The Observer has not mounted an equivalent campaign on behalf of Kushner against Bannon — nor could it. The newspaper, publishing online only since the election, does not carry the same clout among Trump voters as Breitbart does.
Kushner does have a key advantage in this West Wing power struggle, however: He is the president's son-in-law. One administration official told The Washington Post last week that Bannon is playing “a dangerous game” because it is “not a smart strategy to go up against the president and his family. That’s a game Steve will never win.”
Kushner purchased the Observer in 2006, reportedly for about $10 million, and offered the following explanation for his acquisition to the New York Times:
Mr. Kushner said that he bought the newspaper because it was a marquee property in the media capital of the world, and that the opportunity to buy a newspaper did not come around very often. The paper’s relatively small circulation — 50,000 — belies its influence, particularly in New York’s media, political and real estate circles.
He also said the Observer was a good brand that could one day make a lot of money, though it now loses about $2 million a year.
Elizabeth Spiers, the Observer's editor in chief from 2011-2012, wrote last month on the PostEverything blog that Kushner's strategy to “make a lot of money” centered on staff cuts, adding that “he could not see the relationship between scale and profit — between risk and reward.”
He viewed investments in terms of opportunity costs. “Why should I put more money into the Observer when I could invest in a software company?” he would say. This is a legitimate question for any returns-driven investor. But news media doesn’t scale like software.
Spiers was asked during an interview with Recode last summer what Kushner wanted the Observer to be. She gave a blunt answer: “He didn't know.”
In January, the Observer's current editor, Ken Kurson, offered Recode a more positive take on Kushner's philosophy: “Jared didn’t have a ton of input into the tone. … He’s actually much less intrusive than just about any publisher I’ve ever worked for.”
Nonintrusive or noncommitted, the bottom line is that Kushner did not devote himself to shaping the Observer into a political tool.
Bannon, on the other hand, threw himself into his mission to establish Breitbart as the voice of populism in the United States. He “turned Breitbart into his personal domain,” former Breitbart writer Ben Shapiro wrote last August, when Bannon became chief executive of the Trump campaign.
Where Kushner was hands-off, Bannon was the opposite. He wrote regularly for Breitbart and hosted a daily talk show on Breitbart's satellite radio station.
While Kushner sought to shrink his newsroom, in the name of efficiency, Bannon hunted for obsessive types to add to his.
“We hire people who are freaks,” Bannon told The Post early last year. “They don’t have social lives. They’re junkies about news and information.”
We'll see whether Breitbart's “freaks” can overcome Kushner's familial connection to Trump and help Bannon solidify his dominance in the president's inner circle. They might not be enough. But it is clear that Bannon's time at Breitbart has armed him with a weapon that Kushner's stint at the Observer cannot replicate.