The people of Los Angeles would be up in arms if some out-of-town billionaires tried to buy the Dodgers and institute a rule that only right-handers could play on the team. Petitions would be signed, protests would be organized and politicians would rise up to condemn the sale. It would be nice if there were a similar outcry at the prospect of the Koch brothers buying the Los Angeles Times.
After all, as exciting as it may be for a city to have a major league sports team, a good newspaper is a far more valuable asset. Even in these tough days for the journalism business, newspapers remain the core providers of comprehensive news coverage in every town that still has one. Sure, there are local television stations. They are great if all you need to know about is crime, weather and traffic. There’s the Internet, if you are free to spend your day surfing for bits of information that may or may not be true. But the providers of America’s bedrock news reporting are still newspaper journalists.
Newspapers continue to provide most of the comprehensive coverage of government, business and society at large that is essential to democracy. It would seem like a terrible idea to turn that function over to rich industrialists seeking a megaphone for their self-serving political views, but that very well may happen, not only in L.A., but in Chicago, Baltimore and the several other American cities with newspapers owned by the Tribune Co.
For those who have not been paying attention, here is some background:
Owned by the same family for 118 years, the L.A. Times was sold to the Tribune Co. in 2000. The Tribune media group seemed like a safe haven for the Times legacy, but, in 2007, the company was acquired in a leveraged buyout by a Chicago real estate wheeler-dealer, Sam Zell, who had zero publishing experience and some zany ideas about the news. The Zell deal loaded the company with so much debt that it quickly went into bankruptcy.
After four long years that enriched lawyers and hollowed out newsrooms, Tribune finally emerged from bankruptcy. It is now in the hands of a bank – JPMorgan Chase – and two hedge funds. The word on the street is that, rather than selling Tribune’s eight daily newspapers separately, the money men want to market the newspapers as a package for a price edging toward $1 billion. There are few businessmen foolish enough to come up with that kind of money in today’s beleaguered newspaper market. A buyer would need cash to burn and a motivation other than making an easy profit.
That is where David and Charles Koch come in. The brothers own Koch Industries, a Kansas-based energy and manufacturing conglomerate that rakes in $115 billion annually. That’s the money to burn. And the motivation? Right-wing ideology. The Kochs hate government regulation and taxes and they love tea party Republicans. Over the years, they have dumped millions of dollars into think tanks, magazines, political action committees, candidates and attack ads – all of them staunchly conservative.
Having fallen short of their objective of crushing Democrats and liberalism, they now apparently believe a necessary component in their strategy is ownership of a few major newspapers. It is doubtful they want to merely have a voice on the editorial pages, as has always been a publisher’s prerogative. It is far more likely they hope to create print versions of Fox News.
Is that what citizens in L.A., Chicago, Baltimore, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, Hartford, Hampton Roads and Allentown want? Do they know what is about to happen? And, most of all, do they care enough to start making a big stink? Because public outrage may be the only thing that might prevent the bankers and hedge fund managers from selling off these hometown newspapers to a pair of billionaire brothers who only want to print the news that fits their politics.