When billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett forked over $142 million to purchase 63 newspapers last year, most other newspapers didn’t take much notice. Buffett’s decision seemed backward-looking but deserving of praise: to us journalists, anyone rich and reckless enough to assume the cost of operating a newspaper in this grim media environment was worth celebrating.
But absent from the scattered coverage of the Buffett mega-purchase was the usual finger-wagging and moralizing about media concentration and the potential dangers of a politically engaged owner interfering in his newspapers’ political coverage. Odd because Buffett is a political guy. He hosts fundraisers for President Obama, pens opinion pieces for The New York Times advocating a more progressive tax code (the so-called Buffett Rule, which the administration adopted in 2011), and pops up on Sunday political chat shows to expound on gridlocked Washington.
Now compare the kid-glove treatment afforded Buffett to the apoplexy—the finger-wagging and moralizing!—accompanying rumors that Charles and David Koch, scions of the Koch Industries fortune, are considering snapping up the Los Angeles Times (and other newspapers owned by the its parent company, the Tribune Co). If you followed the 2012 election, you’ve doubtless heard lefty knees knock and teeth gnash when the “Koch brothers” were invoked. After a 2010 New Yorker profile declared them the éminences grises behind a “war against Obama,” the libertarian-leaning Republican brothers became a symbol of truculent, monied opposition to the president.
The opposition to the Kochs is entrenched. As Huffington Post’s Kathleen Miles reported, “The ownership [of the Times] that most Angelenos seem to favor is a coalition of L.A. billionaires who have expressed interest in running the paper as a nonprofit, led by former Democratic mayoral candidate Austin Beutner and including prominent Democratic donor Eli Broad.” (A New York Times story about political opposition to the Koch bid referred to Broad only as “a philanthropist.”) Times staffers are also rooting for Broad. According to Miles, when Times columnist Steve Lopez asked the entire staff for a show of hands if they objected to Broad buying the paper, “no one raised their hands.” When the same question was asked about the Kochs, “about half the staff raised their hands.”
Local politicians are applying pressure, too. The Los Angeles Times reported that “three Los Angeles City Council members—including a candidate for mayor—asked their colleagues Tuesday to consider pulling city pension money from the investment firms that own the Los Angeles Times if they sell the publication to buyers who do not support ‘professional and objective journalism.’”
It’s a charge echoed by the Courage Campaign, a liberal lobby organization running ads opposing the Kochs. A panting email plea from the group urges Californians “to pledge to stop reading and subscribing to the Los Angeles Times if it is sold to the Koch brothers,” presumably at a faster clip than they already are. “The Koch brothers want to buy the biggest paper in California and the fourth largest in the nation so they can set the debate, not cover it.” In an interview with The New York Times, Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs hyperventilated that “the Kochs are much more likely [than previous owners] to end journalism as we know it.”
The Kochs have never owned a media property, so one must ask Jacobs and the Los Angeles City Council: how do they know? Are there any newspapers—big or small circulation—that they believe the family should be allowed to buy? And what if the Kochs were the only potential buyers? Would it be preferable for the paper to fold—for hundreds of journalists to lose their jobs—rather than to see what the Kochs’ version of the Times would look like? Why urge people to cancel subscriptions before the Kochs enforce a political line? Why would journalists pledge to quit before any attempt at reconditioning its political coverage?
But it’s not about journalism. It’s about heretical politics.
The Kochs are the conservative analogues of Buffett and George Soros; the sinister bogeymen who supposedly pollute American democracy with ideological propaganda. Details that run counter to these simple narratives are often ignored. Politico, for instance, “revealed” last year that David Koch supports same-sex marriage, wants military spending cut, and wouldn’t rule out tax increases to balance the budget. Only one of those positions (the last one) is surprising, considering Koch ran as the Libertarian Party vice-presidential candidate in 1980. It was a scoop freely available in a 2010 New York magazine profile of Koch, which pointed out that “he thought the Iraq War was folly, and supports stem-cell research and gay marriage.”
When BuzzFeed announced that it was hosting an immigration debate “sponsored” by the Charles Koch Foundation, the outraged Twitter brigades (“Fuck you @BuzzFeed you broke my heart taking money from the Koch brothers. You lost a reader”) failed to note that the panel included three immigration reformers and one restrictionist and, as Slate’s David Weigel put it, was “intended to nudge along immigration reform.”
None of this matters, though, because the Kochs have been transformed into “the Kochs.” There was never any suggestion that the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Center (so named in 2008 after he made a $100 million donation) would only stage David Mamet plays, Ronald Reagan film festivals, and Elia Kazan retrospectives, yet the protesters descended, demanding a name change. The Kochs gave $100 million to MIT, underwriting a cancer-research center. But this was, said one critic, mere “manufacturing consent” for their reactionary views. The $20 million to the ACLU—which was heavily criticized by some conservatives—didn’t matter either, because they also underwrote candidates who don’t support the ACLU.
And now they have come for our newspapers.
Many American journalists, politicians, and media critics speak of the newspaper industry with a Western European inflection; the Los Angeles Times is a private company that serves a public good, one that should be protected from market vagaries and hideous ideologues. As California Senate President Darrell Steinberg told The New York Times, “Newspapers are public trusts, and I think it is wrong for the Los Angeles Times to end up in the hands of two people who have such a pronounced rigid ideology on a whole host of issues.”
There was quite a bit of excitement amongst my fellow journalists—which I shared—when Al Jazeera announced that it was opening shop in the United States, creating quite a few jobs in the process. None objected to the politics of its owners, the government of Qatar, whose record on democracy, environmentalism, human rights, and free speech leaves much to be desired. And as Human Rights Watch has pointed out, the station rarely reports at all on Qatar, much less reports critically.
But here’s the good news. All those principled Los Angeles Times journalists who threatened to resign if those dreadful libertarians hijack their newspaper now have a more ethical alternative: the Qatari sheikhs are still hiring.
(Note: I should mention that I once worked at a publication, Reason magazine, that included David Koch on the board of its parent foundation. I have never met either brother and probably disagree with them on a large number of issues, but to not reveal every degree of separation often results in the slinging of clever names like “Koch-whore” and “Koch-sucker.”)