Newspaper wires are buzzing over a report by the L.A. Weekly that billionaire oil magnates and Tea Party financiers David and Charles Koch are interested in buying the Los Angeles Times or even its parent corporation, the Tribune Company. Tribune owns the Times as well as the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and some 20 television stations.
On the surface this might appear to be an ominous development that would put a number of influential media assets in the hands of some notoriously self-serving political manipulators. The prospect of the plutocratic Koch clan assuming control of a network of media properties that they could convert into clarions for their Tea Party fronted campaign to expand their wealth and power is worthy of some concern. However, a deeper examination of this will take the sting off of it.
First of all, the Tribune newspapers are not exactly journalistic powerhouses that break major stories or shape public opinion. To the contrary, they are mere shells of their former glory having cut their editorial staffs to the bone which, not surprisingly, has resulted in a downward spiral in circulation. And if the Koch brothers were to assert their ultra-conservative political ideology on newspapers in liberal enclaves like L.A. and Chicago they are not likely to find many new subscribers.
This brings us to the question of whether an acquisition by the Kochs would represent any change in ideology at all. The Tribune Company was already a right-wing enterprise that published papers with editorial positions that conflicted bitterly with the majority of their constituents. The current CEO of Tribune is a former News Corp executive. Until 2008 the L.A. Times had never endorsed a Democrat for president. And, in a particularly telling and shameful action, the Times fired columnist Robert Scheer, a thirty year veteran with the paper and a Pulitzer Prize winner, and replaced him with Jonah Goldberg, a dimwitted conservative hack with no journalism credibility. So contrary to conventional wisdom, these media operations were not bastions of liberalism.
The Tribune rumors have added to speculation about the company’s future that has also included gossip about Rupert Murdoch as a potential buyer. News consumers in the cities affected must be excited about the prospect of having their hometown papers run by the man responsible for hacking into the phones of hundreds of people including a murdered schoolgirl. However, all of this chatter ignores some fairly steep obstacles for both parties. Despite their wide-ranging conglomerate, the Kochs have no experience with media companies. And as noted above, the specific entities available with Tribune would not be very helpful to their propaganda mission. Murdoch would likely be unable to close a deal due to his current ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same markets. A Tribune acquisition would violate FCC rules (for which he has already received waivers) and would initiate a long and difficult approval process.
Given the impediments to the deals by these famous suitors, one wonders where the rumors might have come from. The most obvious source would be from within Tribune itself. They may be trying to create the illusion that there is acquisition interest in the company and its assets in order to stir up potential buyers and artificially inflate its value as it emerges from bankruptcy. That’s a more likely scenario than one wherein either Murdoch or the Kochs actually bid on the company.
If either of these rumored suitors actually did acquire all or part of Tribune, it would be a sad day for journalism, but only on a symbolic level. Seeing any media property with the history of these enterprises become so embarrassingly intertwined with Tea Party nutjobs would be unfortunate and disheartening. But on practical terms it really wouldn’t result in any observable change considering how stridently conservative and deeply ineffectual these properties have become in recent years. What is truly sad is just the fact that the papers have already fallen to such appalling depths that these rumored acquisitions by disreputable characters bent on deception wouldn’t really make any difference at all.