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Journalists Debate Impact of Potential Koch Takeover of Tribune Newspapers

What would happen if David and Charles Koch, the conservative billionaire brothers, bought the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and other leading newspapers from the Tribune Co.?

Concerned about the likelihood of the Kochs purchasing some of the largest and most influential newspapers in the nation from the financially troubled Tribune Co., The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America organized a very spirited debate at the National Press Club in Washington on June 26.

“The fear is that the Kochs are motivated to use the newspapers to further their overt conservative agenda. Credible news will suffer. This is of special concern as virtually every city in America, with just a handful of exceptions, is now a one-newspaper town,” Guild President Bernie Lunzer said in a statement at the event, attended by about 60 journalists, Guild members and members of the public.  

Lunzer noted that in just 2011 and 2012, more than 6,000 journalists and other newspaper employees were laid off or accepted buyouts. “With the appearance on the scene of the Koch brothers, many people and organizations are raising new concerns.”

The Tribune Co., which recently emerged from bankruptcy, has indicated plans to sell its eight regional daily newspapers, including the LA Times and Chicago Tribune. Charles Koch recently confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that his company, Koch Industries Inc., is interested in acquiring newspapers. The Koch brothers have a long history of funding extreme groups and organizations that oppose government and regulations and want to dismantle labor unions and remove such social safety nets as Social Security and Medicare.

John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for The Nation, said the interest of the Kochs in the Tribune newspapers has opened up a dialogue about news coverage in large cities.

“When newspapers are bought, they are not made better. They are ransacked.” Instead of selling newspapers to the highest bidder, what is needed is to find a new model—such as foundations or non-profit organizations—to fund newspapers, he said.

“We are seeing the United States kick steadily down the list of countries with a free press,” Nichols added.

Tia Lessin, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and the director/producer of "Citizen Koch," a documentary originally intended for broadcast on public television, said the “Kochs very explicitly have a mission to influence public policy.”

She said support for her documentary was withdrawn because David Koch is a major donor and on the board of WGBH and WNET. “If the question is will David and Charles Koch influence how news is covered, I think the answer is 'yes'.”

She explained that Independent Television Service, an affiliate of the Public Broadcasting Services, asked her to remove the name “Koch” from the title of the film and scrub “Koch” from the body of the film, and ultimately decided to withdraw its support for her documentary because David Koch dangled a seven-figure donation to WNET and ITVS.

Lena Williams, a retired writer and Guild leader from The New York Times, expressed concern about past efforts by the Kochs to end collective bargaining.

“We are at a state where unions are being disbanded, being assaulted. There are a lot of reporters who wouldn’t be employed today were it not for unions.”

Williams said if the Kochs bought the Tribune newspapers, it likely would lead to changes in coverage. “You would like to think in an ideal world that the Koch brothers would not try to influence reporters. But that’s in an ideal world.” Reporters worried about losing their jobs or their beats inevitably would yield to pressure from the publisher to cover stories the publisher wants to see.

Christopher Assaf, a video editor at The Baltimore Sun, and also the paper’s Guild leader, said employees of The Sun have been through a lot already with the Tribune being in bankruptcy for four years, and will work with whomever is the new owner of the newspaper. But he said if the Kochs become its new owner and attempt to make it a mouthpiece for their causes, it will lose its credibility with readers.

“We have goodwill, and we have credibility,” Assaf said. If the Kochs buy it and influence its coverage, the newspaper “may become a mouthpiece, a national mouthpiece, but it will lose that credibility. Credibility plays a large part in what a newspaper does, and we have to protect that.”

Lessen said one of the reasons the Kochs are attacking labor unions is not just financial but because unions are a significant way for ordinary people to participate in the political process.

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