Anyone who cares about journalism and democracy can find it difficult to be upbeat these days. Money seems to dominate politics, giving billionaires the power to influence public policy debates and frame issues, affecting electoral and public policy outcomes. The power of money is even greater when media properties are on the auction block. At a time when the number of mainstream media outlets is shrinking, owning media properties means having a megaphone to get your message across, while those with opposing points of view can only whisper. This is the opportunity that ownership of Tribune Company presents to any prospective owner. An opportunity that seems tantalizing to the Koch Brothers.
David and Charles Koch have been masters of the free enterprise system. Koch Industries is the nation’s second largest privately held company, primarily operating in energy and related fields, with annual revenues of $115 billion, operating in nearly 60 countries. The Kochs have become philanthropists with their fortunes, but many of their donations have been more than investments in the arts. Their largesse has sustained an impressive network of think tanks fostering a pro-free-market anti-regulation viewpoint that is buttressed by generous donations to politicians who agree with them. Much of the Koch money has been pretty invisible, but many nonprofits, and a few investigative journalists, have laid bare the architecture of the Koch money machine.
Now the Kochs may be on the cusp of acquiring a venerable if financially ailing engine of mainstream journalism in the U.S. – the Tribune Company. I recently wrote about how I felt a Koch Brother takeover would be bad news for the Tribune Company and for journalism in general. Two weeks ago, the Newspaper Guild – Communications Workers of America, the union that represents journalists, sponsored a lively discussion exploring what a Koch purchase may mean for the future of journalism.
“These are really difficult times for media,” said Guild President Bernie Lunzer. “People think we should be thrilled that anybody wants to buy newspapers.” In his opening remarks Lunzer said that journalists, as well as “social justice” groups and “media watchdogs” are worried that a Koch purchase could give these billionaires a powerful megaphone to advance their “overt conservative agenda.” The prospect of such a purchase should inspire conversations about “newspaper ownership in the digital age,” and what newspapers mean to communities, he added.
Moderator Mark Lloyd, director of the media policy initiative at the New America Foundation, asked thoughtful questions of the panel that went beyond the flaws of the Koch Brothers to probe more concerning trends in journalism.
For John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, and longtime media reform advocate, what was most troubling about the prospect of a Koch purchase of The Tribune Company was the fact that one buyer could dominate the news in so many one-newspaper cities that often were the major opinion leaders in their states.
“Wealthy guys have always wanted to own newspapers,” he said, but in the past, cities had many papers, all the diverse points of view. New York City once had 24 dailies. The voice of moderate Republicans in particular had been “sustained by daily papers.”
“The biggest papers in states are now in play,” Nichols said, noting that Tribune Company owned not only mega papers the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, but also the The Hartford Courant, Connecticut’s leading paper, and The Baltimore Sun in Maryland. “Daily papers are the one place where you hire journalists,” Nichols said When dailies are bought, they are “ransacked,” he said. He called the pending purchase “a big deal. We the people have a right to have a dialogue on that.”
Christopher Assaf, currently a journalist at “The Baltimore Sun, who represents guild workers there, was a bit more sanguine. He observed that newspapers were “slow to change,”and that sometimes new owners see the value of newspaper properties and invest in them. At the Orange County Register, he observed, new owner Aaron Kushner is expanding the staff. “We’ll work with whoever comes in,” he said.
But award-winning documentary filmmaker Tia Lessin said her experience with the film, Citizen Koch, offers a cautionary tale about the power of ownership over the content of the news. The documentary explored the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (which greatly expanded the opportunities for corporations for political spending), through the lens of the Wisconsin gubernatorial race and Governor Scott Walker’s battle with public employee unions.
Not only was Koch Industries one of Walker’s largest donors to his 2010 campaign, Koch-funded groups were out on the hustings in the state in 2011, urging support for Walker’s anti-union positions. “The Koch brothers inserted themselves into the storyline in Wisconsin,” Lessin said.
ITVS, the Independent Television Service, which financially supports independent films for public television, pledged to give Tia Lessin and her partner $150,000, and to help them get their documentary aired. But the deal fell apart, and Lessin blames fears by WGBH and WNET, major public broadcasting centers in Boston and New York City respectively, that they would offend David Koch, a major supporter of both stations. “Jane Mayer filled in a lot of the blanks,” she said, referring to Mayer’s New Yorker reporting on why public broadcasting has been reluctant to air programs that call out the conduct of the Kochs. Lessin is clearly frustrated. “We can’t get our film out there. We can’t get the money for archival and music licenses,” she said. In this case, Koch’s presence and influence was felt just as a member of the station boards and as a large donor. And if the Kochs were Tribune Company owners? “Yes, they will influence news coverage, and what gets covered at all,” she said.
As Lessin struggles to get attention to her documentary, retired New York Times reporter Lena Williams observed that the power and pervasive influence of the Kochs is something young people need to learn about. When her niece used Google to search for David Koch, she came away with the impression that he was a philanthropist who supported the arts and public television, Williams said. “It’s important to educate the next generation.”