The Los Angeles Times Earthquake
There are moments in the life of a good progressive when ordinary measures are deemed inadequate to the task at hand—when drastic action is required to contain a mounting crisis. At such moments our good progressives don’t whine or panic, fret or dither. They roll up their sleeves, spit on their hands, and hold a conference.
And so it was in April, in Los Angeles, when a band of pristinely liberal media critics gathered in the basement of the decommissioned chapel of the pristinely liberal Occidental College (Barack Obama, class of ’82) to tug their chins at a coming cataclysm. News reports had revealed that the owners of the local newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, were considering the possibility of selling the paper (along with the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and several others) to Charles and David Koch.
If you don’t know who the Koch brothers are, you can scarcely imagine the alarm that seized Common Cause, Media Matters, and the other groups that underwrote the “media reform summit.” (Title: “Good Grief: Who’s Going to Cover LA News Now?”) But of course you do know who the Kochs are. Everyone who follows American politics knows of them, so large is their presence in the progressive imagination and thus in the world that the mainstream press presents to the rest of us. Charles and David Koch have heaved shovelfuls of their fortune at countless organizations and candidates who share their belief in free markets, the less regulated the better. Some estimates put their political expenditures last year alone at $60 million.
Maybe, to men who have just dropped $60 million to elect Mitt Romney and other Republicans to national office, the $600 million or more required to buy the Times and the Trib and other wheezing wrecks of a dying industry looks like an excellent investment, at least by comparison. The odds are against it, however. The Times turns a small annual profit, but it is a ghostly apparition of the fat slab of newsprint that once fell with a dull thump on the stoop of every bungalow and ranch house from Glendale to Long Beach. In its dilapidation, the Times represents the newspaper business in microcosm, its newsroom staff reduced by two-thirds, its ad sales half of what they were only a decade ago, its digital operation tentative and wobbly, its future filled with every kind of ominous forewarning. You might as well invest in a chain of wheelwright franchises.
The panelists at Occidental reasonably concluded from this that money is the last thing the Kochs want from the Times. What they do want was almost too horrible to contemplate: As one panelist, a writer for the Huffington Post, poetically put it, the entire city was “quivering” at the thought of a Koch-owned Times. (“Quivering” is a powerful metaphor in a community perched astride the San Andreas Fault.) The Kochs, all the progressives concluded, are hoping to create a new propaganda machine that might capture the minds of the citizenry. It’s happened before. Another panelist, a host on the leftist radio station KPFK, pointed to the Inland Empire, the vast farming region in the middle of the state and the last reliably Republican constituency in California. You know why it’s Republican?
“It used to be held by Democratic congresspeople,” the panelist explained. “But then the fairness doctrine went away and Limbaugh and Fox News emerged and hit the ground running. The fact that people in the Inland Empire have to drive two hours a day made them captives of Rush Limbaugh. It has turned the politics of the Inland Empire far to the right.”
So far no strategy has emerged to stop the Kochs from hypnotizing Los Angeles as Limbaugh has done to the drooling motorists of the Inland Empire. The final hope is a consortium of local liberals, led by the philanthropist and Democratic fundraiser Eli Broad, who have expressed interest in buying the paper and placing it in a nonprofit trust. It’s unlikely they could match a bid made by the billionaire Kochs, so the only tools left to the left are rhetorical. The Newspaper Guild issued a statement “asking that the Koch brothers not be allowed to buy” the Times. The Los Angeles City Council is entertaining an anti-Koch resolution that seems to have been written by an ESL student: “We cannot support the sale of the Times to entities who Times readers would view as a political transaction first and foremost, turning L.A.’s metropolitan daily into an ideological mouthpiece…”
The progressive case against the Kochs isn’t any more coherent than the rhetoric. It’s odd to go all weepy about the encroaching corruptions of money at the Times, a newspaper operated for more than a century by rapacious capitalists who have ruthlessly knee-capped any competitor threatening their de facto monopoly on one of the world’s juiciest markets. The progressives praise the efforts of Broad and his comrades for their ambition to place the newspaper on a nonprofit footing, because profit-seeking cripples the fearless gathering of news. Then they condemn the Kochs because the brothers might not care if the paper turns a profit. The anti-Koch forces extol the benefits of local owners, who in the progressive view are somehow purer than faraway owners like the Kochs, without ties to the city. Yet history shows—really, you could look it up—that local owners are much more likely to yield to compromising pressures from a community’s rich and powerful.
At bottom, of course, the case against the Kochs has nothing to do with profit or even news-gathering. It’s about the preservation of a special kind of monopoly—a uniformity in the assumptions and prejudices that guide the city’s ruling class, especially its scribblers. Much of the hostility is based on a simplification of the Kochs’ views. As Reason’s Matt Welch and Jack Shafer, of Reuters, both pointed out, the Kochs are more accurately described as libertarians than conservatives. They show no interest in the social issues that preoccupy large parts of the conservative coalition—David, for example, has cheerfully proclaimed his support for gay marriage. They are deregulators and free marketers all the way down. They’ve aligned themselves with the Republican Party for a reason that no progressive can acknowledge: Of the two parties, Republicans are far more ideologically diverse. The GOP tolerates libertarian views of the social issues much more easily than the Democrats abide libertarian views of economic life.
Even so, the progressive Angelenos terrified of opening up their journalism to ideological diversity are right to worry about the Kochs. By the light of conventional California progressivism, they are radical indeed. At the Occidental summit, the only participant who seemed at all unworried by the possibility of a Koch-owned Times was another genuine radical, the veteran journalist Robert Scheer, a self-described neo-Marxist.
“Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about the Koch brothers,” Scheer said. There are good guys and bad guys in American journalism, he acknowledged—so-called progressives versus the reactionaries. “But the good guys have been plenty bad enough.” What, he asked rhetorically, had the Los Angeles Times (or the New York Times, for that matter) done to take on Goldman Sachs, the Federal Reserve, the multinational corporations who “are sacrificing the workers and reordering the world economy”? Had the Times lifted a finger to keep Jeff Immelt, the “progressive” and unscrupulous chairman of General Electric, off the president’s board of economic advisers?
Scheer is a man who follows his progressivism straight to its discomfiting conclusions. As I write, however, with the Kochs’ reportedly poring over the Times’s financial books in anticipation of placing a bid, Scheer’s own radical insights have done nothing to ease the jitters of the Angeleno elite. They look as worried as ever. The cataclysm still looms. Before the Kochs arrive, there will be a need for many, many more conferences.