Progressives, liberals and maybe even a lot of centrists are shivering at the news that Charles and David Koch may buy part of the Tribune Company, including the largest newspapers in the second and third largest cities in America.
The Kochs, of course, are the right-wing financiers of the Tea Party and of a number of “thinkless tanks” that work against environmental regulations, unions, action on global warming and fair taxation policies. These guys are as far right as can be and seem to have an open pocketbook for promoting wacky right-wing notions and dangerous lies.
The fear shared by those left of Attila the Hun is that the Kochs will infuse politics into the reporting and editorials of The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Hartford Courant. Additionally, throughout modern history, with right-wing politics has usually come a dumbing down and sensationalizing of the rest of a newspaper.
We already see what right-wing politics has done to the media outlets part of the Murdoch empire. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that both the Wall Street Journal and Fox TV News distort news and opinion on global warming. Fox TV News recently all but ignored the gun debate in Congress, knowing that 90% of all Americans, including an overwhelming majority of their viewers, were in favor of the background checks that the ultra-right Fox dislike. Fox, of course, was among the first media outlets to practice “Matt Drudge journalism,” which consists of quoting a known liar who is lying so that the lie can be presented in the context of news.
The potential sale of the Los Angeles Times represents a particularly tragic case, since it was once a right-wing rag that under Otis Chandler in the 1960’s and 1970’s grew into one of the most distinguished and well-respected newspapers across the country. But all these newspapers are centrist and under the Koch’s regime they would all take a sharp turn right.
But let’s face it. Nothing has really changed. Rich folk have always been the only ones who could afford to publish newspapers. The Chandlers, who owned the Los Angeles Times were loaded. So was Rupert Murdoch’s father. So were and are the Sulzbergers, who own the New York Times and the Pulliams, who owned the Arizona Republic and Indiana Star (and also produced that apotheosis of mediocrity, former Vice President Dan Quayle). The Mellon scion who funded the silly investigations into President Clinton’s business dealings in the 1990’s owns the Pittsburgh/Greensburg Tribune-Review and many other newspapers in western Pennsylvania.
While there are rich folk who look beyond their own greed, most will support the status quo that is treating them so well, even if that status quo is unfair to many or causes many to suffer. So much of the left-right divide centers around issues of economic equity—minimum wage, government support of education and health care, unionization, government pension plans and even safety regulations. It makes sense that many of those with money will not want to share it, even if they made their bucks in large part because of an extensive civil, economic and physical infrastructure. It’s because only the people with lots of money can afford to own newspapers that since the birth of the printing press, most non-government controlled media has been centrist or listed right (in the context of each era).
One early hope of the Internet was that it would level the playing field. While it is true that the Internet enables people of all opinions to shout out, the sheer number of voices gives added clout to the Internet screeners such as Yahoo! and Google, which favor mainstream and right-wing media in their algorithms. Those algorithms are subject to manipulation, which takes money, which only the big media has. Thus, while the Internet theoretically levels the playing field, the net effect is to extend the dominance of big media owned by rich folk.
The replacement of large families by large corporations as media owners does not change the situation much, since single individuals or families can so easily control a corporation with as little as five percent of the voting stick.
Let’s face it. The rich will always be able to own the news. But the rich are not one unified monolithic group, but rather comprise a mosaic of opinions. If we can’t prevent media ownership from being dominated by the wealthy, we can at least spread ownership around, so we can achieve as large a diversity of ownership as possible. If we want a free market of ideas, we have to limit the number of media properties owned by any individual or corporation.
The trend over the past 30 years has been to loosen regulations on ownership of media properties, which leads to greater consolidation. We should instead be moving in the opposite direction. I would propose that no company, individual or trust be allowed to own more than one print or broadcast media property in any given state and no more than five in all, plus one website per print/broadcast property.
Today, loosening regulations is leading to a loss of freedom speech and freedom of the press. Greater regulation will stem that tide.