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”

Out-sourcing the job of muzzling the media

A comment posted to London’s Guardian newspaper said it best: “Censorship, like everything else in the West, has been privatized.”  The writer, somebody called “edensasp,” was referring to news that Wikileaks—the online whistleblower that has been embarrassing governments and corporations worldwide by disclosing their secrets–was suspending operations.

Why? Had its leader, the mercurial Julian Assange, been indicted? Had the black choppers swooped in and taken him out? No, nothing that cinematic. It was the bankers. A handful of big money handlers decided they wouldn’t process donations to Wikileaks, it had exhausted its reserves, and it was going broke.

The fund cutoff started in December 2010. That’s when Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union, Amazon and Bank of America discovered their patriotic duty.

At the time, five of the world’s top news organizations—The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde and Der Spiegel—had begun publishing articles based on a remarkable trove of U.S. State Department cables shared with them by Wikileaks. The organizations had spent months sifting from among the documents, eliminating those they thought might cause needless harm. They then launched a barrage of articles derived from candid reports from U.S. diplomats that exposed official lies, both our country’s and dozens of others’.

But official lies have their supporters too, and there was a huge fuss. Because the secret cables were American—even if the people whom the secrecy protected often were not—U.S. politicians led the charge against Wikileaks. Assange was denounced as “a high-tech terrorist,” law-makers demanded his head, and Attorney General Eric Holder launched a criminal investigation of his operation.

And so the money-handlers were stirred to action. Within days Wikileaks was under a financial stranglehold, and it now says its revenues dropped from Continue reading “Out-sourcing the job of muzzling the media”