Fear, Loathing, and More Fear in the Fourth Estate

There was an editorial in from Tuesday’s Washington Post which caught my eye: “What Would the Koch Brothers do to the Los Angeles Times?”  As many of you know, The Koch Brothers are looking into buying the Tribune Company and its newspaper chain, which locally includes our very own Baltimore Sun.

My first thought as to what the Koch Brothers would do would be “make money” since they are private businessmen looking to buy a private business. But Harold Meyerson, the author of the piece, of course goes straight for paranoia:

Being human beings, all newspaper owners have politics of their own. Since the 19th century, however, most haven’t gone into business primarily to advance a political perspective. Profit, professional and civic pride, and recognition have largely motivated them. It’s hard to see how any of these factored into the Koch brothers’ calculations. 

In their very-brief no-comment on the sale rumors, the Kochs took care to note, “We respect the independence of the journalist institutions” owned by Tribune, but the staffs at those papers fear that, once Kochified, the papers would quickly turn into print versions of Fox News. A recent informal poll that one L.A. Times writer conducted of his colleagues showed that almost all planned to exit if the Kochs took control (and that included sportswriters and arts writers). Those who stayed would have to grapple with how to cover politics and elections in which their paper’s owners played a leading role. It’s also unclear who in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s most liberal cities, would actually want to read such a paper, but then the Kochs don’t appear to view this as a money-making venture.

There is a lot you can pick up from those two paragraphs. One, of course, is the tried and true tradition of newspapers having an editorial slant, particularly on the opinion pages. The divide between those who watch Fox and those who watch MSNBC is as old as newspaper publishing, when each party had their own news organs in majors cities in the mid-19th century. 
The other major aspect of this, of course, is the idea that “almost all” L.A. Times writers would choose to leave the paper if the Koch Brothers took over. Why is that? Invariably, it comes down to two things. One, of course, is politics. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that reporters have a liberal bias and the idea of working for owners who actually have a conservative bias might be a bridge too far for some. But there’s an alternative theory, too.
When you’re involved in politics, one of the first things you have to start learning about is media. Not just the idea of communicating one’s message to the public, but also how to get free and earned media from the press, particularly the local press who will do most of the coverage of your campaign. Often times at papers, even “big-city” papers like the Sun, reporters will often take a press release or a series of talking points and regurgitate it onto the their broadsheets uncontested. Reporters, in many cases, are lazy. It’s a laziness that has been brought about by an institutionalization of liberal thought among reporters and editorial writers, cuts in experience reporters brought about by ownership to survive in a dying industry, and the dying industry reducing competition among newspapers. Just look at here in Baltimore, where the Sun is the only major dead-tree newspaper. While the market is ably served by online based writers such as Bryan Sears with Patch and the gang over at MarylandReporter.com, there is just NO competition for the eyeballs of newspaper readers.
And that’s what reporters fear. They fear that the Koch Brothers would destroy the paradigm.
The Koch’s, if they are successful in their takeover of the Tribune Newspapers would bring about a fundamental sea change in the way that those eight newspapers are run. Obviously, there would be a night and day difference in the editorial bias of the opinion pages of their papers, but I also have a feeling that the Koch’s impact on the paper would flow down to the newsroom as well. I’m not saying that a conservative tilt would overtake the newspaper overnight or at all. But I do have a hunch that the basic reporting done by many reporters, what I did refer to as “laziness” earlier in this story would be replaced by a much more competitive, market driven system where reporters who are willing to dig, willing to work, and willing to hustle are rewarded moreso than just advancing up the food chain based on seniority. The introduction of a more capitalistic newsroom from the perspective not of the bottom line but the idea of competition among peers would reinvigorate those newsrooms and provide the spark for better, more in-depth journalism.
And speaking as a Baltimore Sun reader, we could certainly use that. There are several fine reporters for the Sun, and I do enjoy their sports section tremendously. But the Maryland section could always use additional backup. And that’s a good thing. The Sun far too often has reported stories in a manner that were not always particularly critical of Democratic administrations, and we all remember the running feud the paper and its reporters had with the Ehrlich Administration ten years ago. More in depth reporting on issues and news stories coming out of City Hall and the State House would be a tremendous improvement to our state as a bulwark against the Democratic machine, and would provide a real check and balanced against unmitigated Democratic hegemony. A more robust, reality-based editorial page would actually understand economics and understand the impact of government on taxpayers as opposed to producing poorly thought out strawman arguments in support of the Democratic regime. 
For Marylanders, Koch ownership of the Baltimore Sun would be a boon to our state.
I can understand the feeling of long-time reporters, those who have grown up with this being the only way it is. I can understand their fear and loathing of the Koch Brothers; loathing their conservative ideas while fearing the different ways that they may shakeup the newspaper industry. But I can see nothing but positives coming from such a takeover. It isn’t because of the politics of the Kochs, which obviously are more in line with mine. But the idea that ownership that understands capitalism may take over the ownership of several big city newspapers is a boon to free-thinking, a boon to good reporting, and an asset to those who wish to continue to bring sunshine to our government.

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