October 27, 2013

The Koch Brothers and the Media

This is the transcript of a presentation I gave at the Oak Park Main Library in Oak Park, Illinois, on October 27, 2013

In this presentation, I would like to answer two main questions: One, what is the present American media footprint of the Koch brothers? Two, what would have happened if the reported Koch buyout of the Tribune's newspapers had been completed?

To help answer both questions, I will invoke the "propaganda model" -- the institutional analysis of the political economy of the media, as described by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book "Manufacturing Consent". The model posits five filters that are connected with what the media report as news; those five filters can be described as funding, sourcing, negative feedback (what's called flak), ideology, and ownership.

This model serves as a useful framework to determine the American media footprint of the Koch brothers. The first filter, funding: The funding resources of the Kochs -- who have a combined net worth estimated by Forbes to be around $50 billion dollars -- are considerable. A cursory review of the business press during even numbered years reveals reports of large TV ad buys from Koch-connected organizations: $6 million here, $3 million there, another $28 million there... I emphasize even numbered years because American elections routinely fall on even numbered years, and the purchasing of electoral ads is one of the few remaining viable sources of money keeping broadcast commercial radio and TV afloat, even profitable. But outside of elections, the Kochs have plenty of businesses willing and eager to buy ad time, given their vast holdings in oil, gas, refining, chemicals, fertilizers, paper and forest products, and whose commercial brands include names like Brawny, Angel Soft, Dixie, and Stainmaster Carpet. I have not been able to find how much commercial ads the Kochs regularly buy; those details have yet to be compiled, but it's not a stretch to say that it is noticeable. Certainly commercial media would be wise not to cross the Kochs' path, lest that funding stream get reduced.

The second filter: Sourcing -- On this score the Kochs are grandmasters, having poured in tens of millions of dollars in the establishment of think tanks, most notably the Cato Institute which was founded in 1974 by Charles Koch and was originally named "The Charles Koch Foundation" until it was renamed as Cato in 1977. The Kochs in 2012 poured upwards of $29 million into such think tanks, which provide what sources provide -- the ideas, commentators, and soundbites for coverage in an underfunded and overworked media establishment.

The third filter: Flak -- An arsenal of astroturf groups like the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity and the Koch-funded Americans for Tax Reform (run by Grover Norquist) offer supposed "grassroots" support for the ideas of those "think tanks". Millions more Koch dollars are poured into such initiatives which, when opposed by a comparatively paltry funding base for any opposition, gives marked heft to those same ideas.

The fourth filter: Ideology -- One of the most dominant ideologies in the present day, as noted by propaganda model co-founder Edward Herman, is that of "the free market". As to free markets, the Kochs have long been advocates of a libertarian free-market ideology. In fact, David Koch himself was the Vice- Presidential candidate on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980.

I should mention that the lines I'm drawing among these filters are fluid; some entities can be classified in multiple filters. Flak groups like Americans for Prosperity themselves provide a great deal of funding in the form of massive TV ad buys. The think tanks themselves incessantly echo the ideology that help keep supposedly neutral journalists in line. But this analysis helps with understanding the considerable footprint of the Koch brothers in American media.

There's one piece that's missing from this puzzle: the fifth and final filter, ownership. It's a missing piece that even folks on the right have noted -- The New York Times quoted one conservative activist who said, "A running joke among conservatives as we watched the G.O.P establishment spend $500 million on ineffectual TV ads [in the 2012 elections] is 'Why don't you just buy NBC?'"

In April 2013 the L.A Weekly and the New York Times reported that the Koch brothers were planning to get into the ownership game, with an envisioned buyout of the Tribune Company's eight newspapers. On this matter, it should be noted that the very reason the Tribune put its newspapers up for sale is directly traceable to the efforts of media reform activists, including me, to block a series of key FCC policies in 2003 that would have dramatically escalated media concentration in America in a matter of months AND which the Tribune was gambling its very future on. When activists blocked those policies, the Tribune had no Plan B and that led to a sequence of events that resulted in, among other things, a bankruptcy and breakup of the Tribune and a planned selloff of its remaining newspapers. The market value of newspapers across America has plummeted to as little as a tenth of their previous value even just six years ago, thus making it trivial, from the perspective of the multi-billion-dollar spreadsheets of the Kochs, to buy out a newspaper chain or two.

Why did the Kochs back off? To be sure, there was considerable flak against the deal once it was announced, which engendered protests by groups that previously had little skin in media issues. But most critically, the Kochs probably determined that they wouldn't have been able to complete the deal. A consortium of public pension funds controlled by public sector labor unions held considerable stock in two of the three stakeholder firms controlling the Tribune, Oaktree Capital and Angelo Gordon & Co., who took co-ownership of the Tribune during its bankruptcy proceedings. In effect, a transfer of the Tribune's newspapers to the Koch brothers would have to be approved by a bunch of public sector workers, a great many of them unionized, including teachers, fire fighters, and municipal employees in California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Illinois. If word were to spread, these firms would flex their muscle and veto the sale before it faced the rubber-stamps of the FCC and FTC.

As to the second question I posed in this presentation: What would have happened if the reported Koch buyout of the Tribune's newspapers had somehow been completed? The Tribune would have been able to complete the Grand Slam of the Propaganda Model by filling the last hole in the model -- ownership. It would have owned some of the largest and most influential newspapers in America. As much of a footprint as the internet has made in our media ecosphere, the fact remains that very little original news about the world actually is generated by internet-only publications. Most of the news is generated by what's left of our journalism, and that means newspapers like those owned by the Tribune actually still hold considerable heft.

That heft, as research has shown, is less about what news media telling you what to think, and more of what news media tell you what to think about. The Koch brothers would like you to ignore the social, political, economic, and environmental calamities of our time (escalated to no small extent by the very things that have made the Koch brothers rich), but those calamities will be increasingly hard to dodge and harder to explain away under the increasingly- discredited ideology of "free markets". The Koch brothers would look even more out-of-touch, but in the meantime as the world goes to hell their coverage -- or lack thereof -- certainly wouldn't help at a time when we need every little bit.

But the Kochs won't buy the Tribune's newspapers, at least in the short term. The Kochs are instead stuck in neutral with their vast sums of money, army of think tanks, influential astroturf groups, and an ideology that holds sway for the moment but is increasingly becoming dismoored. (Like the quote about Muhammad Ali after he lost his crown: "What did the man say? 'Loser and still champion.'") What do we do about the Kochs? That's a huge topic for a separate speech or even for someone to build a career around, but let me offer this advice: We can't be afraid to think big, to offer sweeping bold proposals; we're in historically uncharted times, at a time when today's idea could be tomorrow's reality, for better or for worse. For example, I've been blogging lately about one such bold proposal -- to abolish the markets that fuel corporations like Koch Industries and replace them with a concrete vision of democratic planning. Time prevents me from elaborating on this now (we can discuss it in Q&A;), but it is a discussion that I feel is long overdue. Thank you.