Media Activists Organize to Stop Koch Brothers' Takeover of Tribune Newspapers

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Posted May 22, 2013

Interview with Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy with the media democracy group Free Press, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Multi-billionaires Charles and David Koch make their money by exploiting fossil fuels. They have funded all manner of conservative and right-wing political efforts and candidates, including organizations and individuals who deny the reality of human-caused climate disruption. Now the brothers are setting their sights on buying some of the most influential newspapers in the country. The Kochs have expressed interest in the bankrupt Tribune Company, which is looking for a buyer for the eight newspapers it owns: the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant, and four others in Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

According to news reports, the Koch brothers are the top contenders to make the purchase, which could be consummated in the next few months. But that outcome is being opposed by a coalition of media activists, environmentalists and grassroots community groups, all of whom see a Koch Brothers purchase of the Tribune company as a disaster.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy with Free Press, a media reform and pro-democracy organization that is one of several groups opposing a Koch Brothers takeover of the Tribune newspapers. Here, he explains what's at stake and how people are coming together to try to stop the Koch’s media grab.

TIMOTHY KARR: I think the Tribune Company is in pretty dire circumstances. They went through a bankruptcy proceeding recently, and the majority shareholders are now looking at ways they can hand off parts of the company they think are least profitable. The Tribune Company, people might know, not only publishes newspapers – 8 newspapers in fairly significant cities around the country – but it is also in the business of TV broadcasting, which is much more profitable. So they want to calve off, to separate those 8 newspapers, and sell them for, I've heard, between $600 million and $700 million.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you know if other entities are also interested in buying the Tribune papers?

TIMOTHY KARR: Well, we only know what we've read in several media reports. The LA Weekly and the New York Times have reported that the Kochs are at the top of a fairly short list of prospective buyers of the Tribune Company newspapers. And there's been interest expressed by a number of parties; in some cases, parties have wanted to purchase just one or two of the newspapers. There's a possible coalition of investors in Los Angeles that are interested in buying the LA Times, for example. But it's in the interest of the Tribune Company to sell all eight newspapers as a single package, and the only investor who's indicated – according to these news reports – an interest in all eight papers are the Koch Brothers, through their company, Koch Energy, and Koch Enterprises.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Tim Karr, it's an interesting kind of coalition where you have some media activists and some political types who are opposed to a Koch buy-out, and also a real grassroots element, like there was a big demonstration of grassroots folks in Chicago who were saying that the Kochs taking over the Tribune would be really detrimental to their lives. Is that happening in other cities as well?

TIMOTHY KARR: It has, and there have been recent protests in L.A., there have been protests in Chicago. There's a national day of action scheduled for later this month, on May 29, that will involve actions in cities around the country. While the Kochs are known for a specific brand of right-wing ideology, this is really about journalism. This is about what it is that a newspaper should represent for a community. And the problem that organizations like Free Press see with the Kochs is that they do have a track record of attacking journalism. They do have a track record of supporting organizations that have misled the public on key issues, like the science of global warming. And that their intentions for owning these newspapers are not to better serve those communities, but to further spread this misinformation, and that's not good for journalism. They don't really have an interest in supporting the kind of hard-hitting journalism these communities need. And we have seen over the last several decades that thousands and thousands of journalists have lost their jobs, whether working in newspaper newsrooms or local TV stations, and the sort of ownership we need right now are not individuals who look to further decimate the news and undermine quality journalism, but people from those communities who are willing to invest in keeping journalists on the job, as well as reporting on issues that are of concern to that community. And this is not just an argument about journalism; it's an argument about doing good business. Good business is serving your customers, and if your customers are readers in those communities, you need to put their needs first. And it's pretty clear from the readership of these communities that the Koch's political agenda doesn't align with their needs to get more local news and information that's willing to challenge powerful institutions, both corporations and powerful individuals in government.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are people talking about a boycott to try to prevent the Koch's takeover? People saying, we just won't buy these newspapers, and therefore they would lose value and therefore might not be so desirable for the Kochs to even buy them?

TIMOTHY KARR: Some of the groups that have been involved in the Koch protest include the Courage Campaign, which is based in California. And they have received thousands of pledges from people to unsubscribe from these newspapers should the ownership transfer to the Kochs. So yes, there is a kind of pre-emptive boycott that is already taking place. And you know, I think if it gets closer to a reality, we could also be looking at reaching out to some of the traditional advertisers for Tribune newspapers, whether they be the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune, and asking whether or not they'd be willing to pull their ads as a way to protest this transfer of ownership.

For more information on growing opposition to the Koch brothers takeover of the Tribune newspapers, visit Free Press at FreePress.net.

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