Billionaires' pursuit of newspapers raises questions of ethics and integrity
For beleaguered print journalists, the fantasy of benevolent billionaires — willing to run newspapers as a public trust, free of the pressures associated with profit and quarterly growth — has become an attractive fantasy. They have also had some encouraging signs in that regard, from Warren Buffet playing up the value of newspapers to moguls like David Geffen and Eli Broad expressing an interest in supporting journalism.
Then there’s the down side — and the prospect a billionaire willing to invest, and very possibly not make or even lose money, might want something in return for their largess.
Rupert Murdoch, of course, has long used his publishing assets to push his ideological point of view, as well as needle rivals. Haim Saban discussed wanting to buy the New York Times principally to help focus the paper’s coverage of Israel, which he felt was unfair.
Now many journalists are likely experiencing a collective shudder over reports the Koch brothers — extremely influential conservative donors — are kicking the tires of the Los Angeles Times, as Tribune explores various options as the company digs its way out of bankruptcy.
As the New York Times reported last summer, using the San Diego Union-Tribune as an example — “There is a growing worry that the falling value and failing business models of many American newspapers could lead to a situation where moneyed interests buy papers and use them to prosecute a political and commercial agenda.”
The Kochs have never been bashful about using their money to advance their political aims — including an unsettling warning to employees about the importance of voting Republican — just (as any conservative pundit will quickly point out, seeking to balance the scales) liberal George Soros does.
Notably, the Times has a fascinating history of having championed the politics of its ultra-conservative ruling family in its early days, before Otis Chandler took the reins of the paper a little more than 50 years ago and steered it in a different direction. It’s also worth noting trying to introduce a conservative editorial slant in today’s California — among the bluest of blue states — would be a questionable decision, simply from a business standpoint.
Still, if the price of newspapers surviving is dispensing with notions of fairness and objectivity journalists hold dear — and letting ideology blatantly ooze beyond the editorial page — then the white knights would definitely come with a darker plume. And in that context one has to ask, survival at what cost?