Few events shake organizations to their cores the way a change in ownership or leadership does. The consequences can range from a shift in priorities to the rolling of heads. New ownership is of particular concern in the modern newsroom, where jobs are scarce and big principles are at stake.
Here in Connecticut, progressives are apoplectic at the possibility of Tribune Company, which counts the Hartford Courant among its holdings, being acquired by the billionaire Koch brothers. Never heard of them? Charles and David Koch are wealthy industrialists who champion libertarian causes at every turn. In a word, they are left’s bogeymen du jour.
Ever since Karl Rove and Dick Cheney left the White House, the left has needed someone to fear. And the brothers make an attractive target. Koch Industries employees and their political action committee, KochPAC, have put millions into Republican campaigns and initiatives, and millions more into organizations like the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. And according to Mother Jones, KochPAC made the second largest donation to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2010.
More than 4,000 SignOn.org petitioners, the vast majority of whom list Connecticut addresses, are in high dudgeon. Chief among their concerns is that the “union-busting, election-buying Koch brothers” will turn The Courant “into a right-wing mouthpiece.”
First of all, if the Koch brothers turned the Courant and the other Tribune properties into ideological rags, circulation and advertising revenue would no doubt drop even farther than they already have during the great newspaper decline of the last several years. It’s one thing for the editorial and op-ed pages to grind axes, as they often do. But a wholesale takeover of the newsroom by ideological forces would reduce the papers’ credibility as fair news sources.
Readers of blue-state Tribune newspapers in California, Illinois, Maryland, New York and Connecticut would be appalled. Newscorp CEO Rupert Murdoch knew that when he acquired the Wall Street Journal. The Journal has a decidedly conservative editorial page, but no more so than when the paper was owned by Dow Jones. The news pages, on the other hand, are firmly on the other side of the firewall that typically separates the two departments in any newspaper. Indeed, from better design to more accessible content to several Pulitzers, I’d venture to say Murdoch has actually improved the Journal.
Ditto, the Waterbury Republican American, which has editorial and op-ed pages that are, if anything, even more conservative than The Journal’s. But you’d be hard pressed to detect a political agenda on the news pages. I know several reporters and editors at the Republican and they definitely don’t carry water for the editorial board or the paper’s longtime publishers, the Pape family.
Would the Koch brothers be any different? Or would they swoop into Hartford, furlough The Courant’s 100-plus reporters and replace them with Yankee Institute interns? Granted, with annual revenues of $115 billion, the Kochs don’t need — or expect — to make much money off the Tribune newspapers, which are only valued at $623 million. But would they want to preside over the trashing of the papers by using them as libertarian playthings?
When Murdoch started Fox News, he saw an underserved portion of the market: conservatives who felt alienated from the left-leaning mainstream media. The network’s success has scared the daylights out of progressives, whose counterparts (MSNBC, Current TV) trail badly in the cable ratings race. But they needn’t fear the Kochs. Fox performs best in red states, while Tribune’s newspapers are mostly in blue states.
Besides, I sense a display of progressive crocodile tears here. The complaint that the Kochs would pursue a political agenda rings hollow. After all, is there anyone out there who thinks the Sulzberger family that reigns over the New York Times doesn’t have an agenda? Are progressives also in a lather over liberal financier George Soros funding the left-wing media watchdog Media Matters or his ties to more than 30 news organizations?
Still, concern has reached such a fevered pitch that half the news staff at the Los Angeles Times has reportedly threatened to quit in the event of a Koch takeover. Would the same happen at The Courant? No, that really strikes me as a bluff ripe for the calling. In this dismal economic climate, any newspaper journalist with a job should be happy to have one.