The Koch threat to independent newspapers

The billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch, are the fourth and fifth richest Americans, according to Forbes magazine.  They own Koch Industries, a conglomerate corporation founded by their father, Fred Koch, which Forbes says is the second largest privately-held American company.

Little known to the general public, they have spent decades funding right-wing, conservative and libertarian organizations, such as the Cato Institute, the Federalist Society, Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

They reportedly are interested in acquiring the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers owned by the Tribune Company.

My friend Anne Tanner e-mailed me a copy of this letter from David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of The Wire television series, about his concerns regarding the possible Koch takeover.

Dear Friend,

Strange that I acquired a certain notoriety and success writing television drama, yet for some dumb luck, I’d be in a newsroom somewhere watching what is happening to American journalism and wondering when anyone is going to speak up and act.  Yes, I make television now; but The Wire and Treme are narratives rooted in what I came to value in print journalism, and the world that the Baltimore Sun opened up for me when I arrived in that city, fresh out of college.

A newspaper — an honest one — was a marvelous place to learn about the world and to convey what is learned to the community it serves.  But this is only true, of course, if the newspaper is of and for the community and if it values its daily report more than any pre-determined point of view.  So it is alarming to me that the Koch brothers, the billionaire duo so actively engaged in supporting a particular political ideology, are interested in buying the Baltimore Sun and a dozen other newspapers including the Los Angeles Times , the Chicago Tribune and the Hartford Courant .

Join me in signing a petition asking the Tribune Company not to sell to the Koch brothers, and to instead support the local ownership of American news organizations.

My concern does not stem from my distaste for the Koch brothers’ right-wing ideology.  I would be appalled if, say, Arianna Huffington or Ralph Nader or any other politically engaged voice was attempting to buy my local newspaper.  Good journalism needs to be unaligned and indifferent to ideological cant and partisan politics; it needs to be about the acquisition of unaligned fact.

There are many who claim the internet has rendered professional reporting obsolete; that the careful, impartial coverage of an increasingly complex world can be left in the hands of citizen bloggers, that no one needs to be paid to cover institutions consistently and with unbiased and ethical rigor.

I don’t agree.  Reporting is a delicate and professional endeavor.  And maintaining that endeavor is the only way to maintain an open and honest society.  This will remain true whether a news report is delivered digitally or in print, and supporting professional journalism with a revenue stream that is rooted in a committed hometown readership that trusts its local newspaper.

The original sin of American journalism is having listened to Wall Street four decades ago, when it was first suggested that out-of-town ownership by publicly-traded chains were the optimum means of assuring profit and viability.  The seeds of this disaster predate not only the Koch brothers, or the internet, or even the Tribune ownership of my hometown paper.  It goes back nearly three decades to the moment when local ownership of that paper passed from Baltimoreans to those who did not live, or work, or live and die with this city.

Wall Street is very good at manufacturing short-term profit and little else.  And political ideologues are very good at manufacturing a stunted political argument. But for a newspaper to serve its community with care and precision and dedication, the newspaper must be of the city and a part of the city — and beholden only to that city.

To that end, there are Baltimore-based consortiums who have made clear to the Tribune Company that they are ready and willing to purchase the Baltimore Sun and operate the newspaper as a locally-owned enterprise.  There are people in my city who understand that a first-rate metropolis requires a daily paper that is not merely a vessel for profit or ideology, but rather for unbiased, unaligned and properly supported journalism.  And the Tribune company, in divesting itself of its newspaper assets with an eye to local ownership, could undo the great damage that news-chain journalism has done to our civic life.

A sale to the Koch brothers would indeed be a journey from bad to worse.  The only way to restore print journalism for the civic good is to have it practiced and owned by those who live in and are dedicated to the community itself.

Join me in asking the Tribune papers not to sell to the Koch brothers.

David Simon
Baltimore, Maryland

Click on Working Families to sign the petition.

[Update 8/5/13]  Another threat.  Washington Post to be sold to Jeff BezosIt is always a problem when a newspaper or news broadcaster is a component of a corporation in some other line of business, which has interests that will be affected by the way news is covered.  In this case, Jeff Bezos is buying the business as an individual rather than as CEO of Amazon, but the principle is the same.

§§§

For an idea of the Koch brothers’ power and influence, click on the following links.

Inside the Koch Empire: How the Brothers Plan to Reshape America by Daniel Fisher in Forbes.

Political activities of the Koch brothers on Wikipedia.

The Koch Club – Koch millions spread influence through nonprofits, colleges by the Investigative Reporting Workshop of American University’s journalism school

Koch Brothers Influence Peddling Exposed for highlights of the AU students’ report on Daily Kos.

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