former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Kochs Mean Bad News for Tribune

In Blog on May 30, 2013 at 10:30 am

Okay, this post is not about ABC news reporter Jonathan Karl or Benghazi. So if you want to talk about that, you should probably go elsewhere. What concerns me a lot more than the lapses of individual reporters are systemic changes in the news business that may have lasting and damaging repercussions on journalism for years, if not decades, to come.

I’m talking about you, Koch Brothers. As has been widely reported, Koch Industries, is considering a $660 million purchase of the Tribune Company’s TV stations and eight newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times. It appears that Koch may be the only bidder interested in all the media properties, a state of affairs that has alarmed progressive reform groups throughout the country.

The worry is that the Kochs have a very distinct, vocal and aggressive agenda – big on free markets, naysayers on climate change, and definitely against government intrusion into capitalism.

Certainly, these are sentiments that have been shared by many newspaper publishers over the years. But the Kochs are unique in the way they’ve advanced their views, not just the old-fashioned way through big political donations, but also through lots of financial support to think tanks that create the academic underpinnings to make the Koch ideology more respectable. Koch-infused messages challenging the validity of climate change or equating regulation with massive job loss, neither validated by evidence, seep out of these think tanks, or through so-called academic “experts” dependent on millions of dollars in Koch funding, and make it into the public sphere where they influence public policy.

The New York Times recently reported that the Kochs have a discussed their ten-year plan for moving their agenda forward, a plan that not only includes rallying grassroots support and supporting think tanks, but also influencing the media.

There are two ways a Koch purchase could be pernicious. They could actively involve themselves in news reporting side of the business, something so blatant that it likely would stir up lots of opposition and reader and even advertiser resistance. Indeed, some media commentators believe that the Kochs would gain little, and may lose money, on a deal to buy newspapers in two liberal bastions of Chicago and LA

Or it could be a lot subtler. The Kochs could buy the Tribune’s papers and broadcast stations, and assume what appears to be a hands-off approach. However, over time the Kochs could make changes in the newspaper’s upper management in ways that downgraded importance of certain reportorial functions.

Would a Koch, for example, be happy with the award-winning journalism of the Tribune’s investigative team? Would the brothers be able to tolerate, and let flourish, the inestimable Patricia Callahan? Callahan is not the only excellent reporter in the Tribune’s stable of journalists. But she is a good symbol of the kind of journalist that would appall the Tribune’s putative new owners. Her investigative reporting led to more government regulation, and more federal spending, and it helped make corporations more accountable for their actions.

Callahan’s searing series on the failure of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to protect children and infants, won her a Pulitzer in 2008, and played a large role in convincing Congress to pass the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). That law gave the moribund and pretty pathetic agency the resources it needed to start actually being the product safety watchdog American families need. The law also required the CPSC to develop a product safety database, which makes publicly accessible reports by consumers and others about unsafe products.

Somehow, I can’t get my head around David Koch reading a Callahan series about corporate misdeeds and the failure of government to adequately regulate, and simply finishing his morning coffee.

Nevertheless, a Koch-chosen manager wouldn’t necessarily fire Callahan at the get go. That would be too obvious, and stir people up. He or she could, over time, simply disband the investigative team and find something else for Callahan and her stellar colleagues to do. That’s been true for publishers who are far less ideologically committed as the Koch Brothers.

I’ve seen good reporters at papers like the Wall Street Journal after Rupert Murdoch purchased that esteemed publication stymied and frustrated. They still had a job, but no mandate to do good work. They found a paper with no space and no interest in the issues they wanted to pursue. That’s a slow death for any journalist who cares.

Until I know otherwise, I am very uneasy about this transfer of power to rich and powerful men with agendas they have pursued with zest.

Will the Tribune be safe for the Patricia Callahans of the world to do what they do best? And how will we know?

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