Tribune Company’s moves to sell its newspapers—a string that includes the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune—has reportedly sparked the interest of a number of heavyweight financiers. These include familiar media moguls like Warren Buffett and Rupert Murdoch. But heads turned when another pair of possible bidders emerged early in March: the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
The Koch brothers, of course, are best known for funding conservative causes and conservative politicians. Unlike Buffett, who has purchased 63 newspapers in the last 15 months, and Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post among many others in Britain and Australia, the brothers don’t have much of a track record of media ownership.
As news of their interest in the Tribune newspapers spread, Koch Companies spokeswoman Missy Cohlmia declined as a matter of policy to confirm or deny a bid. At the same time, though, she sought to dispel concerns that the Koch brothers would seek to transform Tribune newspapers into an arm of the broad network of conservative opinion and policy shops whose activities they underwrite. “We respect the independence of the journalistic institutions referenced in today’s news stories,” Cohlmia said in a brief statement to CJR.
That didn’t stop some observers from worrying out loud, particularly on the left, about the political orientation of those papers, particularly their editorial pages. “You thought Rupert Murdoch was bad? Just wait till you meet the Kochtopus,” wrote J. Gibson on Daily Kos. In fact, there are no apples-to-apples comparisons to help predict whether the Koch brothers would insist on editorial pages at Tribune papers that match their views. Mainstream media outlets tend to have their own news cultures, and can be slow to change their spots. Anyway, the Koch brothers don’t own any.
Still, some clues to the brothers’ media priorities emerge from their biggest journalism investment to date: years of substantial and undisclosed donations to an ambitious, right-leaning investigative nonprofit focused on state and regional issues. The outlet, called the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, was founded in 2009, as it’s About page explains,
to help fill the void created as the nation’s newspapers cut back on their statehouse news coverage and investigative reporting in the wake of falling circulation and revenues. We look at the bigger picture, provide analysis that’s often missing from modern news stories, and do more than provide “he-said, she-said” reports from the state Capitol.
In 2011, fully 95 percent of the Franklin Center’s revenues came from a charity called Donors Trust, whose top contributors were the Koch brothers. (CJR first profiled the Franklin Center last September.)
The Franklin Center, in turn, created a website of state-based reporting, called Watchdog.org—fed by “a network of journalists reporting on state and local governments.” The Watchdog.org site serves as a hub for stories from Watchdog outlets in 23 states.
What kind of stories?
Here are the headlines featured on Watchdog’s national page on a random Thursday (March 28): What really makes Roger Ailes run? (A rumination inspired by Zev Chafet’s new book. Roger Ailes, Off Camera); The East is red ink: Obama’s China solar model fails; Your taxes help promote the world’s most hated dictators; National GOP boss: Message isn’t broken, but delivery needs some work. Each of the 23 states, meanwhile, gets its own page, with multiple pieces about government. Here are headlines from a random pick, Florida’s top three entries on March 28: Florida Tea Party welcomes gun manufacturers; Pension reform gets too real for Florida Senate Republicans; Florida teachers unions block efforts to reform failing schools.
Like other outlets, Watchdog mixes substantive accountability stories, which mostly focus on misuse of public monies, with analysis, such as Roger Ailes: More Complex than His Critics Would Like to Believe.
“All publications have a mission and a voice,” states the Center’s website. “We are unabashed in ours: to spotlight waste, fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars by state and local governments. We conform to the Society of Professional Journalists standards, follow AP style and are not partisan or political.”
The Franklin Center’s Vice President of Journalism, Steven Greenhut, told CJR that its donors play no role in shaping its coverage. When we sent Greenhut a list of questions for this piece, Greenhut responded in depth—and promptly published his answers in a strongly worded piece disputing any notion that conservative donors taint Watchdog’s coverage. Greenhut urged CJR to examine the Center’s reporting rather than its funders. (He and other Watchdog reporters noted that CJR insists it is unbiased while also relying on donor funding. He could have pointed out that CJR’s donors include George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.)
Just to be clear, it is indeed Watchdog’s journalism that we would like to take a glance at in this article. Greenhut’s understandable defense of the Franklin Center’s independence (which we don’t question) does not change the lessons that its approach may offer about the Koch brothers’ journalistic priorities. In light of their potential bid to purchase several of the country’s flagship newspapers, it’s worth taking a look at what the Center tells us about the Koch brothers vision of straight, issues-oriented journalism.
Two aspects of the Franklin Center’s approach stand out as particularly relevant.
One is its hardnosed focus on ferreting out government waste. Franklin Center investigations have examined subsidies to sporting goods chains that run into the billions, high salaries for employees of federal renewable energy programs, and phony disability pensions paid out to New Jersey police officers. While mainstream newspapers also dig into misuse of public funds—Tribune Company’s biggest paper, the Los Angeles Times, for example, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for exposing self-dealing public officials in the California city of Bell—the Franklin Center’s tough everyday scrutiny of government spending offers a clear vision.
A second tendency of the Franklin Center is to occasionally blur reporting and opinion and to go beyond the facts of its findings.
For example, Watchdog.org’s March 12 investigation of the liberal Tides Foundation, for example, headlined Lefty clearinghouse funnels federal cash to militants, alleged in its first sentence that Tides bankrolls “Islamic militant organizations.” Despite the severity of its allegation, the article does not name the militant organizations in question nor offer any evidence that federal funds were provided to such an organization. In fact, the story never returns to the charge.
In response to CJR’s questions, Greenhut said the article was referring to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties advocacy group. He wrote that CAIR was included as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a 2007 Justice Department case against Hamas supporters, and that the founder of its Texas chapter is in jail on terror finance charges. He said that “all money is fungible” and therefore federal money was effectively supporting the group.
A Washington Post fact-check of allegations that CAIR was a terrorist group made by Republican members of Congress found that CAIR was one of 250 groups listed as “unindicted co-conspirators” by the Justice Department in an effort to compel them to produce evidence at a trial. The Post called references to the “unindicted co-conspirator” charge “one of those true facts that ultimately gives a false impression” when it is used to suggested that CAIR is a militant or terrorist organization.
“The allegation that they are sympathizing with terrorists, or use terrorist means, I haven’t seen substantiated in any way,” said Jeffrey Martini, an expert on Islamic movements at the RAND Corporation. “From what I’ve seen of their activities they’re actually on the other side. They’re trying to disavow the use of violence.” Martini said that characterizing the group as militant based on the conviction of a single member would be akin to calling the Democratic or Republican parties criminal organizations on the basis of convictions against individual lawmakers.
Watchdog.org also mixes its reporting with high-decibel commentary—such as Greenhut’s recent column denouncing warnings about sequestration cuts as the government’s “latest strategy scam for more dollars.” The site does not distinguish between straight news and opinion in terms of presentation on the home page, although it does archive them in different categories.
If the Koch brothers did procure Tribune Company, or even one of its big guns, like the Los Angeles Times, what is the connection between ownership and point of view? That’s a hard one. Bob Davis, the president of the Association of Opinion Journalists, said that it is traditionally frowned upon for newspaper owners to influence their paper’s news coverage. But he said there are a wide variety of arrangements by which owners can legitimately influence the editorial page. A blog post in the LA Weekly, filed after the writer spoke to a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board, suggested that the Kochs might team up in bidding for the paper with Doug Manchester, owner of the former San Diego Union-Tribune, known now as U-T San Diego. LA Weekly wrote that Manchester changed the editorial page of that paper to match his conservative beliefs.
Davis said he does not know the particulars of the Kochs’ interest in the Tribune newspapers, but that “at first blush, it would be a safe assumption” that the editorial pages would be likely to change if they purchased it.
As the process of the sale of Tribune Company newspapers unfolds, reporters both within the company and outside it might want to keep a close eye on who the new owners will be, and on what their track record tells us about their vision for American media. Readers too.