As public interest groups, progressive orgs and Writers Guild of America, East members rallied on Wednesday against the prospect that conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch would buy Tribune Co. or the Los Angeles Times, the official word is that such a scenario is “premature.”
According to sources, the company has yet to field any bids. But the noise that has been drummed up in recent weeks is aimed at nipping in the bud any bid by the progressive movement’s favorite boogeymen, and perhaps at encouraging civic-minded leaders to organize an effort to make a lofty play for the Times.
“This is really about the Tribune Co. board of directors deciding that it is not in the best interest of shareholders to sell to the ideologically driven Koch Brothers, which would end journalism at the fourth largest newspaper in the country,” said Rick Jacobs, the founder of the Courage Campaign, who was at the protest at the Times headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. “The only possible reason the Koch brothers have at buying the times is to use it for political purposes.”
Activists from the Save Our News Coalition protested in front of the Los Angeles Times building, in New York at the headquarters of Tribune Co. investor Angelo. Gordon & Co., and in other cities where the Tribune Co. has holdings. A petition with some 500,000 signatures, objecting to such a sale, was delivered to the Times Spring Street headquarters, said Jacobs, whose org was joined by other groups like Common Cause, the SEIU and Greenpeace. Their objections stem from the support that the Kochs have given to right-leaning causes, including a diminishment of collective bargaining rights, and fears that they will transform the Times or other properties into publications espousing their points of view.
According to sources, the Tribune Co. has not sent out materials for any prospective sale. Earlier this month, Tribune Co. CEO Peter Ligouri sent a memo to employees in which he said that, while there have been a number of names floated as possible suitors, “from the get-go, such speculation has been and is premature. A sale transaction is only one of our possible strategic options, and there are many others.”
The Koch brothers have not confirmed — or denied — whether they are exploring a bid or seriously considering it. There also have been rumors that they would help finance a bid by an existing newspaper publisher, like one by another conservative, Doug Manchester, owner of the San Diego Union-Tribune. If the company is put on the block, there is some expectation that Tribune Co. would st least seek to sell its publishing assets in one piece.
Via spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia, the Koch Cos. released a statement in which it said that the “protests are about pure speculation in the media,” and that “we encourage people to learn the truth about Koch Industries. We are a diversified U.S.-based manufacturer with nearly 50,000 employees in the U.S. Aboud 30 percent of our employees are represented by a union. We support voluntary associations, and where employees choose, we recognize their rights to be represented by a union and bargain collectively.”
The company has not confirmed or denied whether a bid will be submitted, noting that they are “constantly exploring profitable opportunities in many industries and sectors. So it is natural that our name would come up in connection with this rumor.” They added that “we respect the independence of the journalistic institutions referenced in the news stories, but it is our long-standing policy not to comment on deals or rumors of deals we may or may not be exploring.”
Just the mere prospect that the Koch Bros. would put in a bid has been enough to stir not just various labor and activist groups, but civic leaders. As reports swirled that Tribune Co.’s owners were “on a mission to monetize” the company, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl introduced a motion urging that the paper “maintain the highest commitment to professional and objective journalism.” Writers for the Times have privately groused over a possible sale to the Koch Bros., and quip that they are even rooting for News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, to win the bidding if it came down to the two.
On Monday, Murdoch told analysts that his company would consider U.S. newspaper acquisitions if the “price is right,” but he said that they were “pretty unlikely” given current FCC rules on ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same market.
For critics of the Kochs, an alternative is that the Times be restored to local ownership, perhaps by an investment group made up of civic philanthropists who could even turn the paper into a nonprofit. Names floated include Austin Beutner, a former Los Angeles deputy mayor and co-founder of Evercore Partners, and Eli Broad, the homebuilder turned arts and education patron.
It’s unclear how serious either is in making such a bid, particularly if the price escalates in among a number of suitors, or if Tribune insists on not splitting up its assets. Beutner was unavailable for comment, and a spokeswoman for Broad did not respond to requests for comment.
In the meantime, protests are expected to continue, in the name of racheting up pressure on key owners of Tribune.
The WGAE lent its name to the protests in part because of a recent New Yorker story that noted the efforts by public broadcasting station WNET-TV to appease David Koch, a major benefactor to the station, when it aired a documentary critical of him, “Park Avenue.”
New Yorker writer Jane Mayer reported that the makers of another documentary, “Citizen Koch,” suspected that, after initial expressions of support, their project also was pulled for funding by ITVS over fears of offending a major donor. The PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote earlier this week that while circumstances over what happened to “Citizen Koch” are somewhat murky, there was “no evidence” that Koch “sought to censor” the firm.
In a statement, WGAE President Michael Winship said that they noted “with considerable alarm” the difficulties faced by the filmmakers of “Citizen Koch,” and that the “Kochs have already demonstrated their inclination to use their enormous wealth to silence independent journalism.”