Who’s afraid of the Koch brothers?
The thought of the Koch brothers purchasing the Los Angeles Times so distressed staffers attending a recent in-house award ceremony that half of them raised their hands when asked if they would quit their jobs should the paper — which has come out of bankruptcy court and is very much for sale — fall into the two oil billionaires’ portfolio, the Huffington Post reported recently.
The unscientific show of hands indicated greater newsroom hostility for the Kochs, who have never owned a daily newspaper, than for Rupert Murdoch, journalism’s usual whipping boy, who has owned dozens of papers and rarely shied from using them to advance his business interests: Only a “few people” promised to throw themselves out the window if Murdoch wins the Los Angeles Times.
Murdoch!? The guy whose London tabloids excelled at phone-hacking? The owner of Fox News Channel and the New York Post? The kowtower to the Chinese? Whose newspapers have brought readers such headlines as “Nympho Gets Life for Killing Hubby With Paraquat Gravy,” “Maniac Who Cut Off Mom’s Head to Go Free,” “Uncle Tortures Tots with Hot Fork,” “Leper Rapes Virgin, Gives Birth to Monster Baby,” and “Green-Eyed Sex Fiend Is Hunted.”
Automatically judging Murdoch a better steward of a newspaper than the untested Kochs is an idea that would only occur to a journalist.
(Disclosure: In the early 1980s, I worked at a Koch-funded political magazine, Inquiry, for less than three years. It was a pretty good magazine. I met David Koch at a cocktail party in those years, but he didn’t give me the time of day. I’ve never met or spoken to Charles Koch.)
It’s a mark of the newspaper depression that the only people interested in buying a big-city daily these days are 1) those who have never owned one, 2) those who have recently purchased one and think they’ve discovered the secret to profitability (Aaron Kushner in Orange County, Douglas Manchester at the U-T San Diego and John Georges today in Baton Rouge), and 3) Rupert Murdoch.
Metropolitan newspaper executives have exited markets where they see little hope for recovery or expansion. For instance, the Washington Post Co. recently jettisoned its only newspaper title outside of the D.C. area, and the New York Times Co.’s public plans to sell the Boston Globe await only a buyer. One experienced newspaper owner, billionaire Warren Buffett, who owns the Buffalo News and about 21 percent of the Washington Post Co., has been adding small- and medium-sized town titles to his deck. But he has limited his interest to local newspapers that hold a quasi-monopoly advertising position. Recently, Buffett expressed negative interest in buying the Los Angeles Times or any of the seven other dailies (Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, Baltimore Sun, et al.) in the Tribune Co. chain.
Based on the hand-vote reporting of the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times newsroom appears to prefer a bid by Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, a generous donor to Democratic causes, who is said to be working on such a deal with investment banker Austin Beutner, a former Los Angeles deputy mayor. At the Times ceremony, not a single paw of opposition to Broad-Beutner ownership was observed. The pair hopes to convert the paper into a nonprofit corporation. If that vote of confidence was reflective of the greater Los Angeles Times newsroom’s mood, it indicates that its journalists think of their work as a gift to the public that liberal money should forever underwrite. Koch money, alas, is not good enough for them. Nor is it good enough for three of the 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council. They want the city pension fund to cash out of the investment firms that currently own the paper if it looks like a Koch sale will go through. “Frankly what I hear about the Koch brothers, if it’s true, it’s the end of journalism,” City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t want to see Los Angeles, the second-largest city and the biggest region in the nation, not to have a quality newspaper.”
Oh, and the Newspaper Guild opposes the Kochs, too.
Koch opponents fear they’ll turn the Los Angeles Times into a “conservative mouthpiece,” as one anonymous source put it to Media Matters’ Joe Strupp. Casting the Kochs as conservatives, which Garance Franke-Ruta (the Atlantic), Michael Wolff (USA Today) and David Horsey (Los Angeles Times) do in their recent pieces, makes them sound totally out of tune with cosmopolitan Los Angeles. Such a case can be made, of course, if you track the Kochs’ campaign donations and political philanthropy. They’ve given richly to Republican candidates and the party’s presidential nominee Mitt Romney, they’ve funded controversial climate science research and they’ve supported Tea Partiers.
But this portrait of the Kochs as proponents of smaller-than-small government and deregulation isn’t complete without a mention of their libertarian views — their long history of pairing fiscal conservatism with social liberalism. Politico acknowledged that wrinkle last year in a piece about David Koch in which he spoke in favor of gay marriage, defense cuts and military withdrawal from the Middle East. Hardly the views of a hard-core conservative. If these notions were smuggled into Los Angeles Times editorials or even (gasp!) news pages, would many of the city’s orthodox liberals reject them as propaganda? Last year, Charles Koch’s hometown newspaper, the Wichita Eagle, treated him to a soft profile in which they allowed him to espouse his opposition to corporate subsidies, high defense spending and corporate cronyism. He also accused his fellow corporate CEOs of cowardice for not espousing economic freedom. “He also never says anything about religion, abortion, immigration or gun rights,” the Eagle obliquely added.
These are the ultraconservatives the Los Angeles Times newsroom so fears? Go ahead and disqualify the Kochs from owning the Los Angeles Times because they’re too rich for their own good, but not because they’re batty conservatives or leading members of the right wing or hard right. Those labels don’t apply.
If the Koch brothers think owning the Los Angeles Times will transform the political realm, I have just three words for them: the Washington Times. In just one decade — 1982 to 1992 — convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon spent in excess of $1 billion on his conservative daily newspaper to little political effect. Yes, the Washington Times served as a sort of Conservative Mingles site for Republicans during the Reagan and Bush years, providing a place to swap gossip and backstab, but if Moon’s paper advanced the conservative mission, I’d love to see the evidence.
Rich guys like Moon who have burned part of their fortunes on publications — Mort Zuckerman at U.S. News & World Report and the New York Daily News; Barry Diller and Sidney
Harmon Harman and Newsweek; Philip Anschutz at his Examiners; Arthur L. Carter and his Observers and Nation; et al. — assume they’ll extract influence and power from their publications. But as publishing amateurs, all they usually get out of the transaction is a very expensive business lesson before they start looking for the next dumb money to buy them out of their mistake.
“The press is not, and probably never has been, as powerful an agent as politicians seem to believe,” Roy Greenslade wrote in the U.K. Guardian in 2010. “On the other hand, it is certainly not as neutral and lacking in influence as proprietors and editors tend to say.” The same applies in the United States. The largest Tribune newspapers — in Los Angeles, Chicago, Central Florida, South Florida and Baltimore — can make life uncomfortable for state and local government and even on occasion make the feds jump. But as circulation dwindles and competition from other media sources increases, today’s newspaper is a shrinking megaphone.
Why buy a shrinking megaphone? Perhaps old age has made the Kochs impatient — Charles is 77 and David is 72 — and they itch to spend their billions making their mark before they depart. Maybe buying Tribune is their idea of a desperation move. Or perhaps, as Michael Wolff notes in his piece, what the Kochs have in mind is a deal like Murdoch has arranged at the Wall Street Journal, where the news pages remain “straightforward” and the editorial page zigs the Koch line. But where’s the power and influence in an editorial page? If Murdoch’s national Fox News Channel plus his Wall Street Journal editorial page and his New York Post couldn’t get a candidate of its liking elected president in 2012, how the hell will the Kochs crown kings from Los Angeles? Or Chicago? Or Orlando?
Owners, being necessary evils for the production of journalism, shall always be with us. Having survived the Sam Zell disaster, the Tribune papers can probably weather a Koch interlude. But even if the brothers make no editorial changes, they should expect their arrival to drive away readers repelled by the very idea of them as owners. If they do make the sorts of changes their enemies predict they’ll make, I hope they’re prepared for a readership of newspaper dead-enders, the sort who would keep subscribing even after the Antichrist purchased it.
It’s not completely preposterous that Los Angeles Times staffers would bail out if the Kochs bought it. When Murdoch purchased the Chicago Sun-Times in 1984, more than 60 workers quit rather than work for him. Send your resignation from the Los Angeles Times to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com for editing. My Twitter feed accepts dead-enders only. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries, applauds during an Economic Club of New York event in New York, December 10, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid