Are the Koch Brothers Getting in the Newspaper Business?

If you ask ten conservatives what they think of The New York Times, seven or eight of them would probably tell you that it's an organization whose primary purpose is advancing a sinister liberal agenda, and journalism just happens to be the tool it uses to accomplish that goal, though they'd be more likely to call it propaganda than journalism. The rest of us think that's nuts, but those conservatives sincerely believe it. So it's not surprising that some of them would dream of creating a conservative version of what they imagine the liberal media to be. Sure, they've got Fox News, and they control most of talk radio, and they have their magazines and websites. But wouldn't it be something to have some real old-fashioned newspapers to advance the cause? And not just ones that are ridiculed like The Washington Times, but papers that already have respected names and large audiences?

Sounds like an interesting idea, which is why Charles and David Koch—who, depending on your perspective, are admirable and civic-minded businessmen committed to economic freedom, or dangerous plutocrats committed to bespoiling the Earth and enhancing their own wealth and that of their class at the expense of the rest of us—are considering buying a group of newspapers from the troubled Tribune company, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, and the Hartford Courant. So what are the implications of the Kochs getting so heavily into the newspaper business?

In case you weren't aware, Koch Industries is America's second-largest privately held corporation, with revenues in 2011 of over $100 billion. It owns a constellation of companies in a variety of areas including oil refining, chemicals, textiles, lumber, and a whole bunch of other things. If you've bought paper from Georgia-Pacific or a Stainmaster carpet or a pack of Dixie Cups or a pair of pants with Lycra in them, the Kochs got some of your money. All that makes Charles and David tied for #4 on the Forbes 400 with $31 billion in wealth each, behind only Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison among America's wealthiest people.

And that means they could buy the Tribune papers with pocket change. The Times puts the value of the papers at $623 million, which would make them a relatively small part of the Koch Industries portfolio. If they do make a bid for the papers, you can bet they'll describe it as nothing more than a business opportunity. A Koch spokesperson told the Times, "We respect the independence of the journalistic institutions referenced in the news stories," but there's no reason to believe that's true. It isn't as though the newspaper business in general or these papers in particular stand to be a huge profit engine in the future, and the Kochs are looking at this purchase as just one more way to make money. If they buy the papers, it will be to use them as a megaphone for their beliefs.

That doesn't mean, however, that on the first day there'd be a screaming headline on all their papers reading, "Socialist Obama Continues Destroying America." They'd be facing a real dilemma if they bought these papers. On one hand, their substantial audiences and reputations built since the 19th century provide an invaluable platform to influence the debate and promote the Kochs' preferred solutions to policy questions. On the other hand, turning the papers into partisan organs would undermine the very things that made them an attractive purchase in the first place. People would start dumping their subscriptions by the thousands. You can bet there'd be an organized campaign from folks on the left to encourage them to do so. And when it comes to influencing the national agenda, the more the Los Angeles Times became the Koch Times, the less other journalists would care what it had to say.

So they'd face a catch-22: Give the journalists the independence they need to do their jobs, in which case there wouldn't seem to have been much point in buying the papers, or turn them into ideological rags, in which case the papers' reputations would plunge, which means they wouldn't give the Kochs nearly what they were after. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean it would be impossible to find a middle ground; Rupert Murdoch manages to retain lots of readers with his papers while pushing a conservative agenda. But it's telling that people within Tribune papers now believe that compared to the Kochs, Murdoch would be a dream owner.

If the Kochs did buy the papers, it seems more likely they'd follow a path like that of the San Diego Union-Tribune, which was bought last year by an extremely conservative local developer who quickly turned the paper into a platform for his ideas about development and politics. Lots of people grumbled about it, but the Union-Tribune is the only daily general-interest, English-language paper in San Diego, so where else are you going to go?

Next week, the Kochs are holding one of their occasional confabs, where conservative billionaires get together with the Republican politicians they fund to plot strategy (and in this case, figure out why they got their asses handed to them in 2012). I'm sure a lot of the operatives and office-holders in attendance will encourage the Kochs to go ahead and buy the Tribune company's papers. After all, they've got the money, so what do they have to lose?

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