A Koch Brothers Stewardship of the Times Tribune?

As long as journalism exists as it does in the present, we as citizens are left with old, incomplete and subjective institutions to inform us about a new, complex and changing world.
07/21/2013 04:48 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2013

A recent article in the New York Times gave us an update on the state of the Tribune Company, the storied Chicago-based news conglomerate. The Tribune Company, the corporation that owns the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, is currently $3.8 billion in debt; executives are considering selling off some of its branches to recover.

Among the prominent bidders, New York Times reported, are Charles and David Koch, the libertarian philanthropists and major sponsors of the Tea Party movement. Many have written that, despite their charitable and often commendable endeavors, the Koch brothers' history of information distortion -- funding narrow-interest research directives, smearing evidence of climate change, and harassing opposing journalists and public figures -- would make them poor stewards of an open, free media. I don't quite agree, but I'll get to that later.

The potential sale worried my brother, Lucas Spangher, enough to call Bruce Karsh, president of Oaktree Capital Management and trustee at Spangher's alma mater, Duke University. As Oaktree Capital is Tribune Company's largest debt holder, Mr. Karsh is hugely influential in the sale; he has thus become a focus of a student movement urging him to reconsider, as an educator, the potential consequences of the sale. Spangher's 40-minute conversation with Karsh and a following Duke student newspaper editorial were picked up by conservative blogger Eric Owens; Mr. Owens' story quickly spread, and the students widely ridiculed throughout the conservative blogosphere.

My first reaction upon reading Owen's article was one of disgust. He snidely dismisses his opponents, mouthing ad-hominem attacks and buzz phrases rather than reasoned arguments. If I were a conservative, he wouldn't have told me anything I didn't already know; if I were a liberal, he wouldn't have said anything I wanted to hear. Of course, it seems obvious to all of us on the left that a Koch stewardship of the Times Tribune would be much the same.

However, I must admit, we liberals often don't look too great either. As much as I find figures like Rachel Maddow or Keith Olberman enjoyable to watch and capable of good moments, they are often full of the same snide commentary and derisive character-stereotyping as Owens.

Its not just the blogs and the sitcoms that are biased and often uninformative. From subtle newsroom emphasis and selective coverage patterns at the Wall Street Journal to pointed stories at the New York Times (not to mention the recent shuttering of its environmental blog), media bias is real and systemic. By virtue of existing in an open market, commercial media must tailor rhetoric; as long as newspapers compete for readership, exist under politically passionately owners and search for corporate advertisers, journalistic integrity -- in a blog or otherwise -- is necessarily limited.

So, my real problem is not with the Koch brothers' bid: no matter which way the sale goes -- even if Bill Nye, by some duex ex machina, emerges from the ether to snatch the goblet--it will result in either a paper I pick up to confirm my beliefs, or one I stop reading.

The American public can no longer tolerate such a situation. In the midst of the "Internet Age", we are ironically faced with a serious information deficit. Although we face some of the largest challenges in generations -- climate change, overpopulation, global restructuring -- that demand the most creative solutions from every school of thought and walk of life, our divided consciousness has produced a political system that is flatly unable to act. Although we have access to more information and have more opportunities then ever before -- personal, social and communal -- we are faced with larger and more obscure corporate structures, more rapid economic/social/political changes and more complex and unpredictable global events. To navigate this new era while protecting our interests and the interests of our posterity, we absolutely need an accurate and complete news source.

Some claim that the democratization of media is already solving this. The Arab Spring, after all, was driven by social media. I disagree. Although more numerous news sources exist, consumers still tend to favor larger, better marketed sources. Furthermore, as long as the truth is deeper and more complex than self-evident soundbites, amateur commentary can only serve to embellish pre-existent beliefs; trained journalists with investigative talent are ultimately essential.

Others claim that non-profits can fill this gap. InsideClimateNews.org, after all, surprised us with excellent reporting on the Arkansas' recent Exxon oil spill, garnering wide-spread applause and winning a Pulitzer. I'm still unconvinced. How many other commendable non-profits did the Pulitzer committee miss, and for how long, even, will InsideClimateNews exist in the public consciousness before descending again into the shadow of its better-funded, better-staffed and professionally-marketed rivals?

The only solution is, it seems to me, to demand a federally-financed, independent news source. Only the government has the resources to create a prestigious, well-funded, non-market media source. And by "well-funded," I'm not including NPR or PBS, which only get a fraction of their financing from public funds and get the rest from corporate and private investment. I'm talking near-fully funded media sources, as many European countries already have. Lets call it the U.S. Journalist and Investigative Services (USJIS). Many say that federal financing would reduce journalistic independence, and that government corruption would go unreported. Could a Snowden scandal happen with the USJIS? Would the USJIS not simply follow the propagandist path of other state-run medias? Well-designed institution would make it impossible. Lets put USJIS' administrative offices as far away as necessary from Washington D.C.; lets mandate no politician-administrator interaction. Lets make federal funding continual, as in Europe, taking USJIS out of Congressional control. After all, if political bodies like the Supreme Court or the Federal Reserve can wield tangible power independently and often at odds with Congressional policy, surely an intangible power like the USJIS can be kept separate. Could the USJIS be more complete and objective than any large media company? US institutions like the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Center of Disease Control (CDC) are standards of excellence and objective research. Even the Pentagon maintains a well-researched and substantively complete list of the top national security threats, including climate change. Clearly, government institutions have already proven capable of objective research at the highest standards.

So while a Koch stewardship of the Tribune Company does indeed represent another disturbing instance of political passions steering our media, it is neither new nor avoidable. This news, to me, is not crushing, just as news of Donald Trump failing to acquire the New York Times is not lifting. As long as journalism exists as it does in the present, we as citizens are left with old, incomplete and subjective institutions to inform us about a new, complex and changing world.