The Tea Party Times? Rumors Swirling About The Koch Brothers Buying The Tribune Comapany

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.

MurdochalypseThe 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.

Jonah Goldberg: In A Hurry To Prove He’s An Idiot

Conservative douchebags have been outdoing themselves since President Obama successfully executed the mission that put an end to Osama Bin Laden. They have speculated as to whether Bin Laden is really dead. They have griped over whether Bin Laden’s death photo should be released. They have struggled mightily to deny Obama any credit for the mission, while slathering admiration on George W. Bush and his phalanx of ineffectual torturers.

That they are jealous and cowed is unmistakable. Yet somehow there is always one miscreant that manages to stretch the boundaries of the lunatic fringe. Today it is Jonah Goldberg.

In an article published by the Los Angeles Times (to their eternal shame), Goldberg boldly accuses Obama of having made a tactical error by rushing to announce that Bin Laden was dead. The headline blared: “Why the hurry to gloat about Bin Laden?” And early in the piece Goldberg makes an obvious confession:

I’m no expert on such matters – though I’ve talked to several about this – but even a casual World War II buff can understand that the shelf life of actionable intelligence would be extended if we hadn’t told the whole world, and Al Qaeda in particular, that we had it.

Goldberg’s thesis is that the President should have waited a week or two to give the military and intelligence communities more time to exploit that information before Bin Laden’s associates knew what had happened.

What a dolt! First of all let’s set aside the obvious. If Obama had delayed the Bin Laden announcement every winger to the right of Reagan’s ghost would have been furious that he withheld such vital information from the American people. Goldberg would have been amongst the first to complain that Obama was running a clandestine regime that ruled by keeping people in the dark and lying about its actions.

More substantively, Goldberg seems to think that the Bin Laden mission was conducted quietly with stealthy commandos tiptoeing into the compound, smothering him with a pillow, and sneaking out again. Of course, that isn’t exactly how it went down. Multiple helicopters roared into the urban neighborhood (one of them crashed and was blown up), the Navy SEALS barged into the compound with guns blazing, and after a tumultuous racket Bin Laden was disposed of and the team departed on their helicopter caravan. And all of this happened in the middle of a densely populated city.

Does Goldberg think that this sort of mission could have been covered up? Does he think that all of the neighbors, many of whom were Pakistani military, slept though the conflagration? Does think that the Pakistanis, whom most people believe knew of Bin Laden’s residence, would have scratched their heads and wondered what all the commotion was about? Is he so stupid that he is unaware that Bin Laden’s associates nearby were probably already warning one another before the choppers had crossed back into Afghanistan?

Let’s face it…ten minutes didn’t go by after the the raid before everyone in the vicinity knew exactly what had happened and to whom. The only reason Goldberg raises this complaint is to try to use it to bash the President. His theory makes no sense whatsoever, so it’s only purpose is for it to be a hit piece.

Unfortunately for Goldberg, he swings and misses and just makes an imbecile of himself. Fortunately for Goldberg, he must be used to that by now.

A Warning To Democratic Consultants

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the White House has threatened Democratic consultants that they could face consequences if they continue to appear on Fox News:

“At least one Democratic political strategist has gotten a blunt warning from the White House to never appear on Fox News Channel, an outlet that presidential aides have depicted as not so much a news-gathering operation as a political opponent bent on damaging the Obama administration.”

If this actually occurred it would be a positive step in support of ethical journalism. Fox is indeed a political opponent and an overtly partisan enterprise. It makes no more sense for Democrats and their colleagues to submit to the open hostility of Fox than it would to sit down with “reporters” from the Republican National Committee.

However, this article by Times staffer Peter Nicholas is somewhat less than edifying. In the very first sentence Nicholas veers from responsible reporting by saying, “At least one Democratic political strategist has gotten a blunt warning from the White House…” At least one? Then how many at most? Nicholas doesn’t say. Neither does he reveal the identity of the single strategist. In short, Nicholas hasn’t told us anything at all that he can support. This is just an anonymous source who may have an unstated agenda and who doesn’t even bother to identify the White House aide who allegedly issued the warning.

Further casting doubt on this story is that it later quotes former Democratic consultant, Pat Caddell, who has gone on to become a Fox News contributor and frequent guest of Glenn Beck. This suggests that the anonymous source may be from the same school of phony pundits that gave us Caddell and fellow Fox mouthpiece, Dick Morris. In typical Fox fashion, Caddell expanded on the assertion that the White House is intimidating consultants, and went further to allege censorship.

“I have heard that they’ve done that to others in not-too-subtle ways. I find it appalling. When the White House gets in the business of suppressing dissent and comment, particularly from its own party, it hurts itself.”

Caddell joins with Nicholas here to plant unsupported allegations about things that he has “heard.” And Nicholas accepts Caddell’s refusal to offer anything more substantive. But what’s truly appalling is his claim that dissent is somehow being suppressed. Even if there were a warning to avoid Fox, that doesn’t suppress dissent in the least. The consultant can still go to any other news enterprise and complain to their heart’s content. The only thing the admonition as to Fox concerns is the desire to prevent Democratic operatives from being exploited by a right-wing propaganda outfit.

Nicholas does include a response from the White House communications director, Anita Dunn. She told him that, not only has there been no edict to avoid Fox, “On the contrary, they had urged people to appear on the network.” Nicholas also points out that President Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, is scheduled to appear on Fox Monday with Greta Van Susteren. While it is comendable that Nicholas offers this balance, it doesn’t change the tone of the article that explicitly criticizes the administration for anonymously sourced behavior that is not proven and which is directly denied by named White House sources.

Personally, I would welcome an official policy to embargo Fox News and to punish Democrats who cooperate with them. That is not likely to happen in any public way. So in the interim, it would be nice if reporters like Nicholas would at least report stories about this matter honestly and accurately. Is that too much to ask?

The Myth Of The Liberal Media II

One of the most persistent fallacies in media culture is that there is a leftward bias in the “Mainstream” Conventional Media. That mantra is sung from every sector ranging from the expected misinformers like Bill O’Reilly to the button down suites of CNN. It has never been true, and is even unreasonable on its face. Why are so many people ready to accept the nonsense that giant, conservative corporations like Time Warner (CNN) or General Electric (NBC) are thick with liberals?

The Los Angeles Times has now published a story on a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at George Mason University that confirms that the liberal bias myth is just that. The CMPA conducted a study that was more than the shallow query as to the quantity of coverage or whether viewers and reporters were considered to be liberal or conservative. They did a content analysis to assess what was actually being broadcast. They found that…

“…ABC, NBC and CBS were tougher on Obama than on Republican John McCain during the first six weeks of the general-election campaign.”

The content breakdown revealed that 28% of the on-air statements about Obama were positive and 72% were negative. Compare that to McCain for whom 43% of the statements were positive and only 57% negative.

This is consistent with previous studies that measure content. The Project for Excellence in Journalism did a study that showed that, while there was more time spent on Democrats, it was time spent mostly disparaging them:

“…nearly two-thirds of the election coverage (61%) was specifically about candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. This was nearly three times those that focused on Republican candidates (24%). Another 13% dealt with both parties. […] conservative talkers, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage were the most Democratic focused of all – 75% of their time … and only 13% focused mainly on Republicans.”

So while there was more “coverage” of Democrats, that extra focus really only translates into more time bashing them. It was conservative programs that were the most heavily weighted toward coverage of Democratic candidates, and they weren’t saying nice things.

It’s good to see some authoritative reporting on the disparity of ideologies in the news, but the Times author, James Rainey, found himself unable to resist propagating another myth about the media propensity for bias:

“Such pronouncements, sorry to say, tend to be wrong since they describe a monolithic media that no longer exists. Information today cascades from countless outlets and channels, from the Huffington Post to to CBS News and beyond.”

Indeed there are more sources for news than in the past, but most of them are still owned by, or otherwise affiliated with, the Monolithic Media Rainey says no longer exists. The truth is that most Americans still get the majority of their news from five multinational coprorations with conflicts of interest bulging from their seams. Until that issue is examined and resolved, the remaining myths will continue to be spread and believed.

Another Head Rolls At The Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times is about to get its fourth editor in less than three years. News has leaked from the Times’ newsroom that editor James O’Shea has been sacked for the same reason three of his predecessors were ushered out. O’Shea, who was air-dropped in from the Chicago hive to replace Dean Baquet, was cut for his unwillingness to implement further cuts to the paper’s budget. Publisher David Hiller, another Chicago transplant has been having trouble finding pigeons to carry out his executions.

After three departures that hinged on an editor’s perception that the paper’s viability would suffer under the the publisher’s proposed budget, you might think that someone in the executive suite would set down his martini long enough to become curious as to why all of these editors would prefer to be fired than to go along with draconian cuts.

While each of the former editors had persuasive arguments for retaining, or even expanding, the newsroom’s budget, O’Shea may have had an even better case. He was looking forward to a year that included a presidential campaign as well as the Olympics. That seems like an inopportune time to be pinching pennies. At the time that Baquet was jettisoned, I criticized the move and mocked O’Shea as another corporate ringer brought in to wield the ax. Imagine my surprise to read O’Shea’s farewell message that included this choice morsel:

“Journalists and not accountants should seize responsibility for the financial health of our newspapers so journalists can make decisions about the size of our staffs and how much news remains in our papers and web sites […] When this industry stops relying so much on cuts and starts investing in Journalism, it will prosper because it will be serving the best interests of our readers.”

These actions on the part of the Times’ parent company, Tribune, are neo-Nixonian in that they emulate the famous Saturday Night Massacre. That was the affair where Nixon had to keep firing Justice Department chiefs until he found one that would carry out his order to whack independent counsel Archibald Cox (Robert Bork turned out to be the willing trigger man). Tribune has had to keep fishing for an editor to do their dirty work. O’Shea was their golden boy who was editing the Chicago Tribune before taking the assignment in L. A. But editors here are apparently as expendable as starlets. Now another has fallen, but not nearly as far as the quality and credibility of the Times.

L. A. Times Promotes Tim Rutten

The Los Angeles Times is moving Tim Rutten from the Calendar section to the Op-Ed pages beginning in the new year. This is a promotion that is long overdue for one of the paper’s best columnists. While I’ve had a disagreement of two with Rutten, he is the most consistently honest and insightful writer the paper employs – particularly since they traded the brilliant Robert Scheer for the brain-dead Jonah Goldberg.

Rutten is unafraid of taking on the powerful, even if that means his own bosses. His last “Regarding Media” column for Calendar is a good example of this. While he has a much more optimistic view of the Times’ future under new owner Sam Zell than I do, he is also unambiguous in his contempt for corporate media:

“The era of corporate accumulation has been an unmitigated disaster for American journalism. Money has flowed like a fiscal Mississippi into the pockets of investors and fund managers, draining one newspaper and TV station after another of the resources necessary to serve their communities’ common good.”

There are a couple of unanswered questions surrounding Rutten’s promotion. Is some other progressive opinion columnist being let go to make room for Rutten’s op-eds? Will a less courageous writer, or a worse, a Big Media apologist, replace Rutten as author of “Regarding Media”? Time will tell. But all in all, I will be looking forward to Rutten’s work in the section of the paper where it really belongs. Two years ago I wrote an article praising Rutten’s criticism of a speech by Dick Cheney. I closed by noting the difference between Rutten’s substantive analysis and the relative intellectual vacancy of the Times’ Opinion writers:

“Perhaps I should turn first to the Calendar for insight into the news, then pick up the opinion pages for entertainment, where their newest columnist, Jonah Goldberg, is best known for his fiction.”

Beginning next year, it may be safe to read the Opinion section again.

A Declaration Of Independence From The Los Angeles Times

Human beings are creatures of habit. We find great comfort in familiar surroundings and established routines. That’s why, despite the abundance of persuasions, it is still difficult to break free from a decades long ritual of breakfast with the Los Angeles Times. Difficult, but not impossible.

The time has now come when the negatives outweigh the positives. There are many who would say that that time came long ago. So many, in fact that the Times has the distinction of having lost a larger percentage of subscribers than any other major American newspaper. And now as I join them, I shall, paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, “declare the causes which impel [me] to the separation.”

The past couple of years have been tumultuous for the Times and its parent, the Tribune Company. Along with rapidly declining circulation, they also have been undergoing close scrutiny by investors who have forced them to seek opportunities to sell the paper or the whole company. There was lukewarm reaction to their emergence on the market, but a few curious parties emerged. They included the Chandler family (the previous and historical owners of the Times); a management consortium (of current Tribune executives); the McCormick Foundation (which is also dominated by current Tribune executives); local L. A. billionaires (Ron Burkle, Eli Broad and David Geffen in separate deals); and Sam Zell (the Chicago billionaire real- estate developer).

In addition, the newsroom has been roiled by slashes in personnel – more than 20% since Tribune acquired the Times in 2000. They have also run through several publishers and editors. The latest executive heads to roll were publisher Jeffrey Johnson and editor Dean Baquet, who were both cut loose because they balked at firing even more news staffers. Before his dismissal, Johnson wisely cautioned that, “Newspapers can’t cut their way into the future.” Unfortunately for Johnson, Chicago responded by cutting him. More recently we’ve been forced to sit through the embarrassing departure of the editorial editor, Andres Martinez, amidst a newsroom soap opera that included a Hollywood producer and his publicist, whom Martinez was linked to romantically.
Contine reading

Shareholders Are Killing Newspapers

This week’s episode of PBS’ “News War,” includes remarks by the vice-chairman of Ariel Capital Management, the fifth largest investor in the Tribune Company, which owns 23 television stations and 11 newspapers. Charles Bobrinskoy’s comments present a picture-perfect illustration of everything that’s wrong with the newspaper business. Here are some examples of why stock pickers (never a particularly reliable bunch) should not be allowed to shape the future of media:

“People want to read about what’s going on in their own communities, and the Web usually can’t provide that. The Web can tell you what’s going on in Iraq; the Web can tell you what’s going on in Washington, D.C. It can’t tell you what’s going on in Des Moines if you live in Des Moines.”
Somebody ought to tell Bobrinskoy about Iowa Blogs. In fact, Bobrinskoy could use a remedial course in Internet 101. While the newspaper’s intended audience is much more narrowly focused than the worldwide scope of the net, that audience is no less interested in the world outside the city limits than it is in the affairs of city hall. Just because the web has a global reach doesn’t mean it cannot serve a community. Conversely, just because a newspaper has a local audience doesn’t mean it should ignore the rest of the globe. But that is exactly what Bobrinskoy proposes:

“Readers care about the local entertainment industry, which they don’t do a very good job of covering in the L.A. Times. They care about things like fashion, which The New York Times does a very good job of covering; the L.A. Times doesn’t. They should care about issues like immigration.”
Thanks for telling us what we should care about. Bobrinskoy goes on to make some remarkably contradictory comments about what makes a paper successful. He rebukes the L. A. Times for not being to local enough, then complains that, “The paper, in hindsight, probably could have used a little bit more management out of Chicago.” Continuing to bash the Times for its global perspective, Bobrinskoy advocates reductions in news staff and the elimination of foreign bureaus:

“It’s trying to report on why Bush went to war in Iraq instead of what’s going on in Southern California” [… and …] “the L.A. Times could focus on providing news, better news, investigative news on what’s happening in L.A. City Hall and be more focused and provide a better, higher-quality news product. And allow CNN and Fox to cover Istanbul. And then we’d all be better off. The shareholders would make a better return, and my news coverage would be better.”
I’m sure the shareholders would be quite happy if we were to divvy up news coverage so that the Times would get L. A., give Western Europe to CNN, the Middle East to Fox, Asia to Reuters, etc. Every news organization would have a geographic monopoly and consumers would get a single, unchallenged view of world affairs. This plan would, to the delight of shareholders, eliminate competition in both the financial markets as well as the marketplace of ideas. But this plan completely ignores the fact that most original reporting (estimated to be as much as 80%) is currently is done by newspapers, not CNN or, God forbid, Fox. Surprisingly, Bobrinskoy feels the need to go further and insult every reader of the L. A. Times and, in fact, every consumer of local newspapers:

“Do we really need the L.A. Times devoting the resources it has to [international events]” [… and …] “We’re saying there’s a role for probably three national newspapers — The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today. Each has its own niche; all three are national newspapers. We don’t think there’s any demand for a fourth. The L.A. Times is trying to be that fourth.”
I’m going to let Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times answer that:

“…the idea that the L.A. Times is going to say to readers, ‘Buy the L.A. Times, we will tell you what’s going on with the traffic and the schools and the cops and the local stuff, and if you want to know what’s going on in Iraq, go buy The New York Times,’ that doesn’t sound like a terribly sound business approach either. And if I were a Los Angelino, I would be a little insulted by that. Why are the two mutually exclusive?”

They are not mutually exclusive, and I am insulted. We can only hope that the views of investment bankers like Bobrinskoy are rejected for the low-brow, short-term stupidity they represent. His logic is flawed and dangerous and only accelerates the rapid concentration of media voices into small groups of powerful, multinational corporations whose loyalties are bound to owners and shareholders, rather than to consumers and citizens.

The Shame Of The L. A. Times

An editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times argues that the O. J. Simpson mock-fession calamity is proof that media companies should be allowed to grow ever larger, unregulated, and unimpeded by the public interest. While this may be the most perversely distorted logic of the century, it is also appallingly insensitive and overtly self-serving.

The editors at the Times are so obsessed with securing for themselves the ability to buy more TV stations and newspapers, and to expand their monopolistic ambitions, that they would exploit the controversy surrounding this double murderer to make their case. Their argument is based on the contention that when independent affiliates exercise discretion with regard to which network programs they will carry, they are engaging in censorship. That may be true in some cases, but the Times can’t recognize which is which:

“…most times when local TV stations pass on network programming it is not for high-minded, public-interest reasons. More typically, they do so out of economic interest (to sell more local ads) or because they want to avoid putting on programs they consider offensive.”

The truth is that when stations pass on programming it is never for high-minded reasons, it is always out of economic interest (the same motivations as the networks). They only avoid offensive programming because of its potential impact on ad revenue. That is, in fact, the reason for the cancellation of the Simpson program. Fox made a calculated decision that airing the show would cost them too much money as they were unable to get advertisers to sponsor it. There was nothing high-minded about it.

But isn’t that what a free market is all about? That’s precisely the reason that local stations ought to have discretion in what they choose to air. The Times correctly points out that many local stations are not managed locally, but by station groups with distant headquarters. However, instead of advocating more local ownership, the Times suggests regulatory relief to give the networks greater clout. However, the networks will only exacerbate the problem and localism will suffer accordingly.

This is not the first time that the Times has used its own pages to promote the economic interests of its parent, The Tribune Company, but it is the first time it has used such convoluted logic that feeds on the scandalous exploitation of such lurid tabloid fare. This is a repulsive attempt at persuasion via negative association and the Times editors should be ashamed.

The Times’ readers should join the Subscriber Revolt.

The Last Straw At The Los Angeles Times

The Wall Street Journal (via L.A. Observed) just reported that the Los Angeles Times has fired its editor, Dean Baquet. The Times parent, Tribune Company, has been on a mission to eviscerate what remains of the paper by slashing personnel. A month ago they fired the publisher, Jeff Johnson, for refusing to go along with the cuts. Baquet tenuously agreed to stay on in the hopes that he could forestall any further newsroom terminations.

The new publisher, David Hiller, made the announcement after the news was leaked to the Journal. This smells like an attempt to lose the story in the thick of election night madness. But this story is only going to grow. After the Johnson firing, three top editors (Doug Frantz, Leo Wolinsky, and John Montorio) promised to resign if management pushed Baquet out as well. We’ll see if they are true to their words.

Baquet will be replaced by James O’Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, where Hiller had come from. Obviously they are stuffing the deck with ringers from the home office, probably with the intent to sell the hollowed-out shell of a newspaper to another hack conglomerate. It’s unclear what they will have to offer a buyer without an editorial staff.

They won’t have much of a subscriber base either. For the six-month period ending September 2006, the Times circulation delined 8%, the largest drop in the industry. And they are about to lose even more. Aside from me, there is already a Subscriber Revolt site set up to put the paper on notice. Here is an excerpt of the letter you can send via this site:

“I am a Los Angeles Times reader who has watched with dismay the attempts of the Tribune Co. to squeeze ever-higher profits from my newspaper by slashing its ability to gather and publish news…..The Times is our irreplaceable civic resource, and I will not sit back as you dismantle it.”

The letter includes an explicit threat to cancel by December 31, if Baquet is not reinstated and other remedial steps are not taken. I’m not sure I can wait that long.

This paper can be saved if Tribune would sell it to local operators. There has been interest from folks like Eli Broad, Ron Burkle and David Geffen. Any one of them would be an improvement over Tribune. An even better plan would be for an academic institution to purchase the paper and run it as a not-prifit. But it will never be worth a damn if Tribune is allowed to carry out its destructive and short-sighted agenda.

And we can stop them: Subscriber Revolt