I was going to write a post about the Koch brothers’ possible purchase of the Chicago Tribune and sister papers, but Ken Doctor wrote it for me. Thanks, Ken!
The Koch brothers are oil-and-gas billionaires from my hometown, Wichita KS, who finance political activites on the extreme right wing of U.S. politics. They’ve provided a lot of the financing that’s kept the tea-party movement running in the past several years.
This wouldn’t be the first foray into daily newspapering by right-wingers. Robert McCormick, who considered Franklin Roosevelt a Communist, owned the Tribune itself for many years. Elsewhere, the Washington Times is a creation of Sun Myung Moon; Richard Mellon Scaife owns the suburban Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and controlling interest in a news radio station in Pittsburgh; Rupert Murdoch has the New York Post and Wall Street Journal in addition to his British holdings; and as Doctor details, Doug Manchester bought the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2011. The results are a mixed bag: Scaife uses his paper for political crusading but also takes it seriously as a newspaper; the Washington Times is more heavily ideological.
Under McCormick’s stewardship, the Chicago Tribune supported rightist politicians, but its owner took it seriously as a civic institution apart from all that. It’s not clear that the Kochs would do the same. It’s “the agenda-setting, what-we-think-of-ourselves value of a daily newspaper,” as Doctor put it, that I’m sure the Kochs are after. San Diego provides a possible view.
But that doesn’t mean traditional journalistic lines aren’t being crossed. Take U-T TV, for instance. As the service launched, the paper greeted it with a special section, seemingly editorial and written as news, touting “a new frontier in news.” That’s just one example of many, of how the paper has tried use its influence to support Manchester’s political beliefs and his own business interests, well-covered in this Media Matters rundown.
Last fall, the U-T bought Lee’s North County Times, its main competitor, and largely shut it down. “The second newspaper in San Diego County is just gone,” says Lewis.
… It’s hard to imagine the Kochs respecting the traditional division between news reporting and the opinion pages. They’re using to having their way — a way paved by wealth — but the San Diego experience shows how that can be problematic. There are always those pesky journalists and paying readers that may get in the way.
Doctor hold out hope that the professional, civic-oriented journalists working at the Times and Tribune would be an effective counterweight to the Kochs’ political ambitions, as has apparently happened at the U-T. I’m not so sanguine. A Timesman informally surveyed his colleagues and found most of them ready to leave rather than work for the Kochs. (UPDATE: HuffPo says about half the staff at an internal meeting raised their hands when asked who would quit if the Kochs took over.)
This suggests that the Kochs might get a freer ride than Manchester has. And the real danger isn’t just that the new owners will cover more conservative and fewer liberal issues. It’s that the Koch/tea-party/neo-Bircher ideology, which is generally agreed to be on the fringe of American politics, will get normalized by being represented in highly visible media outlets, sort of a Fox News chain for print. It’s not hard for most people to avoid the hammering of right-wing ideology on Fox, but when it stares at the citizens of America’s second and third cities from every newsbox, it works its way into the collective subconscious. That’s a dire situation.