Fears that David and Charles Koch will buy Tribune Company's major regional newspapers sparked a lively discussion at the National Press Club today among those who worry the conservative billionaires would misuse the influential properties.
The event, titled, "Should the Koch Brothers Own the Tribune Newspapers?" was sponsored by the Newspaper Guild and drew an audience of about 60 reporters, union leaders and concerned media observers.
"In just 2011 and 2012, more than 6,000 U.S. newspaper workers were laid off or accepted buyouts," Guild President Bernie Lunzer said in a statement at the event. "This not only affects workers; it dramatically affects communities and their access to information via qualified, experienced journalists. With the appearance on the scene of the Koch brothers, many people and organizations are raising new concerns."
As Tribune Company emerges from bankruptcy, it has indicated plans to sell its eight regional daily newspapers. Charles Koch has indicated an interest in the brothers' company, Koch Industries, acquiring media outlets, and the company reportedly may bid on the Tribune papers, which include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Charles Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), Morning Call (Allentown, PA), and the Daily Press (Hampton Roads, VA).
The Kochs are major funders of the American conservative movement, funneling tens of millions of dollars every year to build a right-wing infrastructure geared toward reducing the size and impact of government.
As The New York Times detailed earlier this year, at a 2010 convention of like-minded political donors, the Kochs "laid out a three-pronged, 10-year strategy to shift the country toward a smaller government with less regulation and taxes." Part of the strategy called for investing in the media.
Charles Koch recently told the Wall Street Journal that their company would seek to purchase newspapers to provide a "focus on real news, not news with an agenda or news that is really editorializing." But current and former staffers at the Tribune papers told Media Matters in April that a purchase by the Kochs "scares people" and puts the credibility of those outlets at risk.
Those concerns were on display at the National Press Club event.
Christopher Assaf, a multimedia editor at The Baltimore Sun who is also the paper's guild leader, said the Kochs' past history of political influence through PACs and other outlets is a concern as it could affect the newspapers' standing in the community.
"We have goodwill and we have credibility and if people start leaving in droves and they see changes...they will know and the goodwill will help to kill it," said Assaf. "The Sun will become something else, it may become a mouthpiece, a national mouthpiece, but it will lose that credibility. Credibility plays a large part in what a newspaper does and we have to protect that credibility."
"The Kochs very explicitly have a mission to influence public policy, that's what they do," offered Tia Lessen, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and producer of Citizen Koch, a documentary that had been slated for PBS broadcast but was dropped. "If the question is will David and Charles Koch influence how news is covered? I think the answer is yes."
The Nation Washington correspondent John Nichols agreed, adding, "I think it is important to realize that the Koch Brothers are very active in media already, these are folks who have for a long time funded conservative efforts to create alternatives to traditional media. One of the things the Koch Brothers have done have funded the creation of statehouse news outlets."
Those include the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which has received indirect funding from the Kochs and oversees dozens of websites that cover statehouse news with a strong right-wing slant.
"They have focused an immense amount of their energy at the state level," said Nichols. "That is where you can really change the playing field."
Lena Williams, a retired writer and guild leader from The New York Times, cited Koch support for efforts to end collective bargaining in the past as a concern.
"We are at a state where unions are being disbanded, are being assaulted," she said. "There are a lot of reporters who wouldn't be employed today were it not for unions."
"One of the reasons why the Koch brothers and others like them are going after organized labor is not just financial," Lessen pointed out. "But because the public unions are significant as a way of massing money from ordinary people and using it" for political influence.
Assaf said his paper and others at Tribune have been through a lot with cutbacks under previous owner Sam Zell: a bankruptcy, consolidation and now an unknown future. He said that might make any owner attractive, but that does not mean any owner is positive.
"We'll work with whoever comes in... Koch brothers, [Rubert] Murdoch, whomever it is, local ownership," he said, but later stressed that if an owner tries to influence coverage, he or she can if subtly. "Owners have an effect, positive or negative...we learn what things they like or don't like,"
Williams concurred that Koch ownership would lead to coverage changes: "You would like to think in an ideal world the Koch brothers would not try to influence reporters...but that's in an ideal world, reporters are in a position that if you want to keep your job or want a favorable beat, you will speak to people who the publisher likes."
Nichols also noted concerns about any monopoly ownership, especially at a time when the number of news outlets is shrinking
He also pointed out that Tribune owns some of the largest dailies in major cities: "Those are the papers that are in play, the biggest paper in Illinois, the biggest paper in Connecticut, the biggest paper in Maryland. The daily newspaper is still the one place where you hire a lot of journalists, online has not filled that void, cable has not filled that void... if one person buys that newspaper, it is a big deal."
Two panelists said they supported protest tactics to prevent a potential Koch takeover.
"I think that protests have a role," said Nichols "If there is pressure from the community saying 'we want quality journalism,' that has a chance to have an impact. [The Kochs] have egos and in the journalism game ego is not necessarily a bad thing...we have too many people who own newspapers in this country who don't care how bad they are... because the next owner of these papers will likely be some wealthy folks, you hope they will feel the pressure."