So maybe Rupert Murdoch really is the better option?
That’s the unfortunate thought that raced trough my head while reading the report in Sunday’s New York Times that Charles and David Koch — the notorious billionaire bankrollers of climate-change denial, voter suppression, and much of the right-wing noise machine — could be the leading candidates to buy eight major daily newspapers from the recently bankrupt Tribune Company, including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
The Koch brothers reportedly see “the media” as a next phase in their “10-year-strategy” to shift the country toward their political goals of no taxes, no regulations and no unions to interfere with the pursuit of profits. As Harold Meyerson wrote in Wednesday’s Washington Post, that “doesn’t bode well for the kind of fact-based journalism that most American newspapers strive to practice.”
The positive spin on this development is that perhaps the Kochs just want to siphon off cash from the still-profitable newspapers business before it completely dies off. Yes, the upside is that maybe they’re just vulture capitalists picking at the industry’s bones.
The more likely story is that the Koch brothers recognize how much influence these outlets still have in shaping the political agenda. Local TV and, yes, the blogs still look to the local papers for many of their story leads. The websites of these newspapers are still the highest-trafficked sources for local news and information.
Being a newspaper reporter may have been named “the worst job of 2013,” but if you’re looking to shape the local or national narrative on any issue that matters, newspaper owner remains a very powerful perch.
Rupert Murdoch — who is known to covet the Los Angeles Times in particular — understands this. And so do the Koch brothers. Choosing between them is like being asked whether you’d prefer the firing squad or the electric chair — either way, your long-term prospects aren’t so good.
So how do we stop this from happening?
Under existing Federal Communications Commission rules, Murdoch shouldn’t be able to buy the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune because he owns TV stations in those markets. (There are, of course, many other good reasons to disqualify him starting with hacking phones and bribing foreign officials. See also Sean Hannity.)
He could still seek a waiver to complete such a deal (which is how he controls TV stations and newspapers in New York). And the Obama administration has gone out of its way to try to change the rules to make it easier for Murdoch to make a move on the Tribune papers. But so far growing public opposition has kept that from happening.
The Kochs present a trickier case. They don’t currently have massive media holdings, so the FCC or Justice Department won’t be involved. And as a privately held empire, they’re not susceptible to shareholder pressure against getting into the newspaper business.
So the best hope of preventing the Koch brothers from becoming America’s newest press barons is convincing the Tribune Co. leadership that it’s a bad idea to alienate their already shrinking ranks of readers.
That means millions of people speaking out now. (You can start by signing this petition.) If you are currently a subscriber to the Tribune, Times, Baltimore Sun, Hartford Courant or other Tribune paper, you can commit to canceling your subscription if the Koch deal goes forward. We may need to picket and protest, too – basically, to do whatever it takes to make selling these papers to somebody else more attractive.
Better still, we should push the Tribune board to sell these papers to more than one somebody.
Tribune could find local owners in each of these places willing to make a go of it. They are out there. Some will fail; others may push their personal agendas; maybe one will become a nonprofit; another might experiment with a new business model once it’s not buried under the crushing debt of its companions.
We already know what won’t work. Media consolidation has been bad for journalism. It has been bad for an informed local citizenry. And it has been bad for business, too.
The Koch Brothers are telling us what they want – and it’s not better journalism and community service.
There’s a better option: break up the chain. Putting these newspapers back in local hands, making them again part of the communities they are supposed to serve, would give each of these papers the best chance not just to survive but to prosper.
Craig Aaron is president and CEO of the media reform group, Free Press, at freepress.net.