Opinion

Jack Shafer

Who’s afraid of the Koch brothers?

By Jack Shafer
May 1, 2013

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 NewsBarry 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

Comments
29 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Not even a mention of the Kochs’ influence in Wisconsin, or their attempt to take over Cato in order to better align its research with Tea Party political activism? Both cases point to a craven ruthlessness at the heart of the Kochs’ political intentions.

Opposition to the Koch brothers need not be strictly ideological—they have a style of political engagement that specifically seeks to leverage its wealth to force massive institutional change. Disinterested in the aspirations of democracy, they manipulate its mechanics in the hopes of reshaping society to look more the way they want it to look.

It’s not that their wealth disqualifies them from being worth owners, or worthy employers. But these men have demonstrated through their activism in the last decade that they are more than comfortable taking ideological driven enterprises (Cato) and during them in to political tools. They may not have completely succeeded in the case of Cato, but that does not mean that they won’t try again with Trib. Neither do they question the ethics of dismantling fundamental components of their opposition’s political efficacy. As we saw in Wisconsin (and Ohio, and Michigan) the Koch brothers targeted and outlawed huge swarths of liberal political activism.

The Kochs are worse than Murdoch, because while he may know how to make money off of bad journalism, profit is Murdoch’s endgame. David and Charles Koch have every intention of using every tool they have to recreate this country in their own image.

Posted by t_st0rm | Report as abusive
 

“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.”

So you’re saying the current readership is something other than what you described? Subscribers have already deserted the LAT in droves, in part due to the extreme left-wing stance of the news and editorial side of the publication. These reporters threatening to quit are just afraid they might be required to act as actual straight journalists rather than as the paid Progressive activists they currently are.

Posted by ChuckLong | Report as abusive
 

You left out the environment. The bros are as anti-environment as you can get.

It’ snot fair to bring up the Washington Times; that city at least had the larger and more widely read Post. LA only really has the Times.

The bright side for me if they do buy the LA Times is that I will be able to convince my wife to cancel our subscription. We get the paper delivery, but I only read it on line. I guess that would stop also.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive
 

The press is only as free as its right wing owners let it be.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive
 

Having been a long time LA Times subscriber nothing could be better than the Kochs taking over and giving Los Angelenos a counterpoint to the left wing swill which permeates all public media life in California. As for cancelled subscriptions you might even get an increase as I can tell you I know of literally dozens of people here who already cancelled because they can’t stand the LAT’s editorial page and political endorsements, sophmoric puns on the sports page by writers who couldn’t even sharpen the pencils of former greats like Jim Murray, John Hall, Mel Durslag, Bud Furillo and Alan Malmud, and the lack of hard nosed investigative reporting on city officials and their labor union allies as they loot the public fisc. As for the staff their threats to leave are hollow posturing. Where would they go? About as credible as Barbara Streisand’s threat to leave the US if Bush were elected.

Posted by Erbsteu | Report as abusive
 

The left’s totalitarian impulse to shut down any view that does not hew to the party orthodoxy is in ugly view once again. It does not matter if anyone is socially liberal if ALL the checkboxes are not marked off. Heaven forbid dear readers are exposed to views they disagree with.

My favorite part of the article is all the brave writers who say they would quit. My guess less than 5% follow through on that threat. Its not exactly a booming job market out there for out of work newspaper workers.

Posted by hostdude99 | Report as abusive
 

@borisjimbo,

What does that even mean? The press is dominated by the left.

@KenG_CA,
The Koch brothers are “anti-environment”? Really? Do you honestly believe that they are against “the environment”? What kind of position is that?

Posted by John_II | Report as abusive
 

Murdoch comes from a publishing background, and he simply wants to make gobs of money, and if he can push an agenda, so much the better. While he hasn’t been able to elect his like minded politicians in the US, he has had a lot of influence in England.

But even at that, studies show those who depend on Fox News know less then those who don’t follow the news at all. So who is to say it hasn’t worked for Murdoch.

The Koch brothers simply want to spend huge amounts of money to push their agenda. That they spent large sums of money to no avail in the last election suggests they have a longer term goal in mind, rather the simply making money.

It is a false comparison to compare the Washington Times with the Washington Post as far as influence. One is not comparing quality or depth, and there is a diversity of voices in Washington.

But take over the major press voice in a City, and one can have tremendous influence.

Saying that the Wichita Eagle treated Koch to a soft profile is a false analogy for predicting the future, as the influence of the Eagle extends to how many feet beyond Wichita? Now compare that to the LA Times.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive
 

“studies show those who depend on Fox News know less then those who don’t follow the news at all.” – pavoter1946

That was a bogus “study”.

“The Koch brothers simply want to spend huge amounts of money to push their agenda.” – pavoter1946

So what? Are there not plenty of people on the left doing the same thing?

Posted by John_II | Report as abusive
 

So pavoter1946, it would be OK for the Koch brothers to build their own newspaper from the ground up, but not to buy one already in operation? Or would you simply shut them up (or not let them spend their own money to speak) because you dislike their views? Either way, you are an utter hypocrite.

A foolish one, too. Perhaps you did not know that the Koch brothers are one of NPR’s largest contributors.

Posted by Zumkopf | Report as abusive
 

Probably worth mentioning that the “controversial climate science” they helped fund is a PRO-anthropogenic warming study that’s controversial because Judith Curry withdrew her name from some of their papers because they were slanted in the climate-change direction.

Posted by CharlieMartin | Report as abusive
 

You forgot to mention those of us who live here and are subscribers. They can always hire reporters. It’s unclear where they’ll find people who’ll continue to pay to receive their product.

Posted by rock646 | Report as abusive
 

“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.”

Actually, yes it is completely preposterous.

In 1984 there was no internet and cable TV was in it’s toddler years. Those Chicago Sun-Times writers had options. In 2013 when newspapers are shutting down and losing readers in droves, the LAT workers don’t. Where would they go? Are there lots of unfilled, good paying journalist jobs out there? I sincerely doubt it.

Posted by Bankerdanny | Report as abusive
 

Koch opponents fear they’ll turn the Los Angeles Times into a “conservative mouthpiece,”

As opposed to the Progressive mouth piece of the DNC that they are now?

ROTFLMAO

Posted by constitutionfst | Report as abusive
 

Some of us find the benefit that if you’re not reading online, you’ll also not be commenting. Wait … that hasn’t stopped you to date KenG

Posted by BrightSide | Report as abusive
 

“I hope they’re prepared for a readership of newspaper dead-enders, the sort who would keep subscribing even after the Antichrist purchased it.”

But that’s pretty much what they have now. The paper is so far to the left — upset councilman Rosendahl was a Kucinich supporter in 2008 — that only inertia is keeping them going. The fact that they call the Kochs conservative is more because anything to the right of Gerald Ford looks like the far end of the spectrum than because they want to mislead. Go read the business columns in the Times if you want to understand just how left-statist they have become.

The paper has been a liberal mouthpiece, publishing lying article after lying article for decades. Naturally they project on the right the same behavior they already engage it. If the Kochs simply remove the leftist bias from the editorial content it would be enough. Of course, the incumbents abhor that eventuality and they are resorting to this scorched-earth defense. Of which this column is a part.

Posted by caseym54 | Report as abusive
 

I find it amusing when conservative voices want to enter the fray of newspaper or media ownership, the wringing of hands and the gnashing of teeth is frankly fun to watch and listen to. No one seems to have a problem when the New York Times, or LA Times, or Boston Globe, or any of the other large metropolitan dailies blast almost nothing but left-wing propaganda dressed up as news. What about equal access? What about the free exchange of ideas? All you hear from the left is trying to shut out opinions that don’t match theirs. Ask yourself this question, have you ever heard of the Right trying to shut down or silence the opposition? I can’t think of any examples, they just try and find ways to get their message across and let the market decide who wins and loses.

Posted by iamstopper | Report as abusive
 

And subscribers hate/fear the Koch brothers.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive
 

If the writers don’t like the new management, they can always quit blog for a living. The blogosphere definitely needs more whiny leftists.

Posted by amateurediteur | Report as abusive
 

I think it would be a good thing if those reporters actually did quit. Clearly they put their politics over their reporting…as if it wasn’t clear that they did so already. So let them quit, and then there’s that fewer Leftists writing for major newspapers.
Instead of staying on to “speak truth to power” which, of course, Leftists never do when the “power” is Democrat (come to think of it, they don’t speak “truth” when the power is Republican), they will quit, like the little whiny babies they are. Cowards, every single one of them. If I were the new owners, I’d fire every single one of them that raised their hand.

Posted by Diggs | Report as abusive
 

I’ve often said that wrapping dead fish in the LA Times would be an insult to the fish. I know plenty of people who agree with me, and have cancelled subscriptions due to the hard-left bias of the Times. I’m sure that there are also plenty of people, myself included, who would consider subscribing again if it changed to a more balanced viewpoint.

Posted by JBM22 | Report as abusive
 

Jack,
Well written. An added benefit if the Koch brothers take over, Roman Polanski might have material for Chinatown II.

Anyway, as long as a newspaper owner keeps his/her mitts off the news side, it doesn’t much matter what editorial policies the paper espouses. Dan

Posted by dbuck | Report as abusive
 

That’s right this country needs more influence from narcissistic oil billionaires. The speed of the death spiral of this country into the toilet is staggering.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive
 

It’ll be a good reason to cancel the subscription I’ve had for over 20 years.

Posted by rock646 | Report as abusive
 

Also worth noting:

In 2003, Charles and David Koch each gave $10 million to the ACLU earmarked for the fight against passage of the PATRIOT Act.

PS: David Koch gave $45,000 to Andrew Cuomo in the last election. Cuomo is not known for being a conservative.

Posted by antiwar99 | Report as abusive
 

Are the reporters at the Times afraid of having to print the truth, the WHOLE truth, and nothing but the truth, instead of their current shaded censored versions of it?

Posted by jimmy37 | Report as abusive
 

Yes I am sure the Kochs are happy to support gay marriage and other non-economic issues, as long as their economic agenda plows forward. To say that all their economic and environmental positions (including denial/astroturfing)are balanced out by gay marriage and abortion could only be said in the land of the ignorant and free.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive
 

Yeah – judging from these posts – the writers and readers want to believe their own mutual ideas of what they want the world to be – instead of simply the truth. The psychobabble begins – maybe we might get a reprieve. Please stop the bigotry – if you can’t tolerate someone’s ownership or opinion – make yours known. You are entitled to it.

Posted by xit007 | Report as abusive
 

Why does this article completely discount the return of former, and entrance of new, subscribers that have been alienated by the liberal/progressive bias of the LATimes current editors and their staff? (although, I must say I find the LATimes to not be the worst offender of the liberal/progressive media mouthpieces).
I hope the Koch’s purchase of all these “news rags” happens; the US needs a mouthpiece for the Libertarian message. This message actually IS the most representative of the positions held by the US public………reason it is attacked by both left and right, and the young flocked to its known practitioner, Ron Paul, in every election he has been in.

Posted by gatekeeper327 | Report as abusive
 

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