When ideological warriors join the news business: The Koch conundrum

News and opinion parted company fairly late in the history of journalism, a split usually dated to the mid-19th century advent of steam-powered presses, paper mass-produced from wood pulp, and a revenue model based on consumer advertising.

Together, those developments meant size mattered. And big circulation was easier to achieve if news was presented without ideological topspin, so that people of different beliefs could read the same accounts without having their feathers ruffled.

Until then, political alignment had been a driver of newspaper journalism, and it has remained integral to magazines, documentaries and other media. But for the burgeoning metro press, opinion came to be deplored as an impurity, an ideological contaminant—and the language of ethics was thus hitched to the wagon of commercial calculation, not for the last time.

Still, keeping opinion from sullying fact is a duty U.S. journalists take seriously, to a degree that civilians find surprising. Reporters are trained in a discipline that encourages them to present current realities in ways that keep their own opinions out of sight and, they hope, out of the reader’s mind.

True, there’s a bogus element to this. Stories can’t be told, or even conceived, without judgments about what matters, and those judgments reflect the values of individuals and of the institutions they operate in. So even if, in the traditional paper, the newsroom chief and the opinions editor didn’t compare notes, they did breathe the same air and, ultimately, were held to the standards of the same bosses and owners.

Still, the success of a news organization depended in part on its reputation for independence—from the town fathers, from its advertisers, even from its owners.

That brings us to the media ownership issue of the moment: the possibility that Charles and David Koch, reputedly the country’s most open-handed funders of libertarian causes, will buy all or part of the Tribune Co. Along with 23 broadcast and online properties, Tribune has eight regional newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times (the country’s fourth-biggest paper), Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Hartford Courant and Hoy, the No. 2 U.S. Spanish-language sheet.

The brothers are estimated to be worth $34 billion each, making them the fifth- and sixth-richest men on earth. Their privately held Koch Industries is primarily in energy and chemicals, and its holdings range from pipelines to manufacture.

The Koches are intensely active in the public sphere as warriors for the libertarian cause, having endowed university chairs for free marketeers, given generously to the Cato Institute, the prestigious Beltway think tank, and bankrolled Americans for Prosperity, which helped create Tea Party-related groups. They also contributed to the campaign in Wisconsin against Continue reading “When ideological warriors join the news business: The Koch conundrum”