Media Matters

The Newsies’ Bogeymen

Journalists still scared of the Koch brothers don't understand capitalism.

By 5.1.13

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For the dwindling class of journalists who pretend they don’t receive their paychecks from some rapacious conglomerate, it is forever a dark and stormy night when it comes to the brothers David and Charles Koch.

And so it was again, on a recent front page of the Sunday New York Times. The Times takes us back three years to the St. Regis Resort in Aspen for a meeting with the Kochs and donors who, in the repeated tellings, are always wealthy and always political.

The story says the brothers are considering buying the Tribune Co. newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. Reading it, we imagine the drawbridge being lowered over an alligator-infested moat to admit black-shrouded guests.

Having exchanged secret passwords and handshakes, the assembled, in between thunderous cracks of lightning, conspire to brainwash the world with ideas that are either conservative or libertarian — it doesn’t much matter which to these storytellers.

One thing you can be sure of, however, is that these ideas are — My God, where are those hammering pipe organ chords coming from? — dangerous.

Other than utterly bankrupt imagination, this tale of conspiracy suffers from the same willful ignorance that has hurried the mainstream news business along to its current sorry state.

Nowhere in this incessantly retold capitalist morality tale is there the slightest consideration of capitalism. This is because, despite a generation of evidence that newspapers are woefully uncompetitive businesses, the people who work for them — and write about them — continue to think of them as temples of journalism.

To these critics, the Kochs are worse than heretics; they are defilers, having the temerity to “control both the medium and the message for their own political gain,” as Atlantic Wire posted recently. Such a power grab imperils democracy and America itself, the Daily Kos wrote.

Beware the Kochtopus!
Only in a world where the functioning of commerce is at best an abstraction could there be meaning in the signatures of more than 100,000 who have no vested interest in the Los Angeles Times demanding the paper be kept out of the hands of dystopian propagandists.

I’ve got a far more sinister conspiracy story, one at least rooted in some sort of reality. How about the Koch Brothers buying the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the others, and doing nothing except adjusting their editorial positions to reflect their audiences?

As Forbes, in response to the Times story, pointed out once again, there is still a lot of money to be made “sweating a declining industry,” just less than the days when 20 percent was the floor for annual profits.

“It’s still possible to make money in such an environment: it’s simply necessary to reduce costs faster than revenues decline,” the Forbes essay said. “Agreed, rather a large amount is resting on that 'simply'  there. But it can be done.”

What the Forbes writer takes for granted — what many people without a whit of business sense can see for themselves — is that newspapers are in a spiral most likely to be fatal.

Imagine the vampire Koch Brothers bleeding those dens of liberal bias dry and dumping them in a ditch without so much as ordering an editor to run one of their libertarian — I insist on using the more correct term — op-eds.

Scary, huh?

But it’s whole lot more realistic than men squandering hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cram free-market ideas down the constricted throats of the Hollywood and Gold Coast crowds.

The former New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who is reliably wrong about nearly everything, was recently allowed to drop nearly 4,000 words about the current state of newspapers on readers of New York magazine. From that blizzard of prose, the best Rich could manage was exhorting journalists to refrain from being nostalgic about the business.

Like most of what is written by wretches for wretches, Rich, whose loathing for the Kochs once caused him to refer to them as wolves of stealth at the door of democracy, had absolutely nothing to offer in the way of a future for the industry.

This would have required a framework, a business model, the perpetually elusive grail someone else should be chasing while the wretches busy themselves saving democracy.

Every so often, as if by amazing coincidence, those two pursuits intersect. Last month, when it was announced that the beleaguered Minneapolis Star Tribune had won two Pulitzer Prizes, analysts rushed to proclaim vindication for the hoary idea of investing money in quality journalism. Ken Doctor, one of the more respected of those analysts, then harnessed a railcar full of data to support the financial viability for the idea crystallized by journalist and analyst Steve Brill: “If you want to sell journalism, you have to do journalism.”

Having traveled to Minneapolis for American Journalism Review and seen for myself, there was no shortage of conviction in the newsroom for doing journalism. And no shortage of faith on the part of publisher Mike Klingensmith that their journalism could be sold.

To back it, Klingensmith ordered subscription and newsstand prices raised and, for the first time, erected a pay wall to charge website visitors to read Star Tribune journalism.

For all the excitement and hope, the Star Tribune was also coming out of bankruptcy. A newspaper sold for $1.2 billion at the end of the 1990s carried $500 million in debt a decade later.

One cannot judge from the coverage what the partners of Wayzata Investment Partners, the local group that controls the interest of the Star Tribune, think politically. As far as one can tell, they have hosted no spooky meetings with political donors. No one has tagged them Wayzatapus.

Far easier for the seekers of truth in Minneapolis to pretend they are being supported by some benevolent foundation rather than a group of businessmen who might have picked themselves up a nice property at a distress sale price and would sell it in a minute if it made good business sense.

This is the nub of it, the thing the folks with the ink stains miss about Charles and David Koch. The decision about the Tribune Co. will be a business decision, theirs to make with their money and their risk. The Kochs didn’t make billions on bad decisions.

The virtue of making money, that it has an honored place in any political ideology and that it might even keep a few temples of journalism around for a few years more, is foreign to the tired narrative of self-sacrifice flogged by the print news crowd.

Such a narrative demands an appropriate ending. And so it was that the good reporters, having revealed the real truth behind the Koch Brothers’ dystopian plans, made America safe once again.

And lived happily ever after.

Reprinted with permission from Watchdog.org. 

Photo: Creative Commons

Image courtesy freddthompson

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About the Author

Mark Lisheron is a reporter for Watchdog.org.