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Sean P. Means: The Kochs and the chilling effect of money on media

Published May 23, 2013 9:11 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

What's worse? A journalistic voice being forced to speak in the voice of a corporate owner? Or a media voice squelching itself first, fearing what that corporate owner might do with his wealth?

Both scenarios have been talked about in media circles in recent weeks — with both centering on Charles and David Koch (pronounced "coke"), the billionaire industrial giants who give a lot of financial support to libertarian and right-wing causes.

People who observe the newspaper industry have watched, with a mix of dread and fascination, the possibility that Koch Industries might bid to buy the eight regional newspapers of the Tribune Company. The proposed sale would include two of America's 10 largest newspapers — The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune — as well as the major papers in Baltimore, Orlando and Hartford, Conn., among others.

Defenders of independent journalism — particularly those in the cities affected — are concerned that if the Koch brothers bought those newspapers, they would use them to espouse their political beliefs.

What are those beliefs? According to a 2010 article written by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, the Kochs "believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers' corporate interests."

Mayer went on to note that the Kochs have put their money behind groups that have fought regulation based on climate change, as well as campaigns against President Barack Obama's health-care reform and economic stimulus program. The Kochs are also credited with providing the seed money for Americans for Prosperity, one of the leading lights behind the Tea Party movement. (Mayer reported that the Kochs denied in 2009 that they had direct links to any Tea Party group.)

Others in journalism have countered that if the Kochs become newspaper publishers, they will be scarcely different from the rich people who own media outlets in many cities around the country. Some owners exercise tight control over a paper's political bent (e.g., Rupert Murdoch with Fox News and The New York Post), some stay out of it altogether and others exert their influence only on major issues (like endorsing a presidential candidate).

Still other experts speculate the Kochs won't buy the papers because, as Rich Edmonds of the nonprofit Poynter Institute wrote this week, "it would be a bad business move, running a high risk of alienating news staff, readers and advertisers."

Whether the Kochs buy any newspapers or not, the chilling effect of the brothers' money may have led to some disconcerting actions at one PBS station.

In this week's New Yorker, Mayer wrote about how the makers of two documentaries faced pressure to change their works — because officials at WNET, New York's public-television station, were trying to curry favor with David Koch, who was on WNET's board of trustees.

One film was "Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream," a look at income inequality in America directed by Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of "Taxi to the Dark Side." Gibney used one of New York's most expensive apartment buildings as the symbolic centerpiece of American wealth. The building is where David Koch lives.

Despite concerns from WNET officials (culminating, according to Mayer, in a personal call from the station's president to David Koch), the station didn't alter Gibney's documentary when it aired last fall. However, WNET did follow the movie with a roundtable discussion featuring rebuttals to the film, including the unedited text of a written denunciation from a Koch Industries spokeswoman.

Mayer reported that the results weren't the same for another film about the Koch brothers.

The documentary "Citizen Koch" premiered, in unfinished form, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City this January. It chronicled the events surrounding the 2010 election and first actions of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — a Republican who counted the Kochs among his biggest donors.

Before "Citizen Koch" played at Sundance, filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal had been working closely with Independent Television Service (ITVS), the San Francisco-based public-broadcasting company that funds and distributes independent films. (ITVS provides programming for PBS' "Independent Lens" series, which is where Gibney's "Park Avenue" aired.)

Mayer reported that, according to records kept by Lessin and Deal, ITVS recommended "Citizen Koch" receive $150,000 in funding and that negotiations toward a contract were progressing. Then "Park Avenue" aired, and officials at ITVS became concerned, according to Mayer, that WNET would never air the film because of the Koch connection.

ITVS downplayed its involvement when "Citizen Koch" screened at Sundance. And, last month, ITVS dropped the project.

"We were in shock," Lessin told Mayer. "We had a deal."

(By the way, WNET's apparent acquiescence to the Kochs may have been in vain. On May 16, Mayer reported, the WNET board accepted David Koch's resignation as a trustee.)

In a statement on the "Citizen Koch" website, Lessin and Deal wrote that they went public with their dispute with ITVS "hoping that, like the film itself, it will spark conversation about how power wielded by high-dollar political donors like Charles and David Koch distorts the public dialogue."

That hope may be optimistic. Most cynical journalists (which is to say, most journalists) can quote a New Yorker writer of another era, A.J. Liebling, who famously warned that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.