Undue Influence

May 27th, 2013 · 1 Comment · journalism, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

American colleges have become polarizing institutions,” read the headline on the Albuquerque Journal’s May 23 Op-Ed page. Such a claim, which was polarizing in itself, merited a glance to see who wrote it. It wasn’t labeled as written by a think tank researcher, but rather as by “Kevin Hassett, Los Angeles Times.”

This surprise led to the question: Had a Times writer, his paper under threat of purchase by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, already started doing some ingratiating research for the “anti-liberal” cause?

The premise of Hassett’s lengthy Op-Ed piece was that Republican officials were being denied opportunities to deliver commencement speeches. Reading further to find facts backing up that claim, the reader found that Hassett came up with “three identifiably conservative speakers at the top 50 colleges and 12 at the top 100 universities, compared with 69 identifiably liberal speakers.”

Now, in this reader’s view, overtly partisan public figures – regardless of party – generally should not be delivering commencements to young people setting out into the world.

Hassett noted that “student protests disrupted” presentations by Karl Rove at the University Massachusetts and Rand Paul at Howard University. Why is that surprising, considering Rove’s heavy handedness in politics? And The New York Times’ Charles Blow gave a scathing review of Paul’s speech at Howard, saying Paul’s focus was to portray Republicans as friends of the African-American, but instead he delivered a disingenuous “dud”.

Commencement speeches are supposed to offer advice, not pitch a party or ideology. Hosting a partisan speaker is as inappropriate as having an overtly Christian commencement speaker at a public school.

It also seemed odd that a reporter would spend so much time researching such a topic, but this reader still didn’t catch on until near the Op-Ed’s end, when Hassett arrived at this unsubstantiated conclusion:

There is no question that a primary objective of today’s academic institutions, which allow conservatives to be shouted down if they were invited at all, is not to educate students but rather to educate reliable Democratic votes.

Educate reliable Democratic votes? Now the story had veered deep into partisan rhetoric, and I should have known better. All was explained in the end-of-story bio on the author, which said:

Kevin Hassett is director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

The Journal should have listed him upfront as “Kevin Hassett, American Enterprise Institute”, not “Kevin Hassett, Los Angeles Times”. Waiting to the end to reveal AEI’s involvement was misleading.

Deception aside, the reporter-or-ideologue exercise is worth noting, considering that Charles and David Koch are mulling whether to put in a bid to buy the Tribune Company’s eight regional newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Orlando Sentinel and The Hartford Courant.

According to a New York Times’ story that appeared in April:

The papers, valued at roughly $623 million, would be a financially diminutive deal for Koch Industries, the energy and manufacturing conglomerate based in Wichita, Kan., with annual revenue of about $115 billion.

Politically, however, the papers could serve as a broader platform for the Kochs’ laissez-faire ideas. The Los Angeles Times is the fourth-largest paper in the country, and The Tribune is No. 9, and others are in several battleground states, including two of the largest newspapers in Florida, The Orlando Sentinel and The Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. A deal could include Hoy, the second-largest Spanish-language daily newspaper, which speaks to the pivotal Hispanic demographic.

Soon after the news broke, a real Los Angeles Times staffer, political cartoonist David Horsey, wrote despairingly that he hoped readers would protest, saying:

The Kochs hate government regulation and taxes and they love tea party Republicans. Over the years, they have dumped millions of dollars into think tanks, magazines, political action committees, candidates and attack ads – all of them staunchly conservative.

Having fallen short of their objective of crushing Democrats and liberalism, they now apparently believe a necessary component in their strategy is ownership of a few major newspapers. It is doubtful they want to merely have a voice on the editorial pages, as has always been a publisher’s prerogative. It is far more likely they hope to create print versions of Fox News.

Since then, there have been protests – both in front of the Times’ offices and of those at the Chicago Tribune. Online petitions have gathered thousands of signatures, urging the bank and two hedge funds that own the L.A. Times (through bankruptcy) not to sell to the Kochs.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that public employee unions, leaders of the California State Legislature and liberal advocacy groups were “moving to block the sale”:

A liberal advocacy group, the Courage Campaign, bought advertisements to run in The Los Angeles Times . . . urging readers to cancel their subscriptions if the Tribune Company agrees to sell the newspaper to “the right-wing Koch Brothers.” More than 1,000 people have pledged to cancel their subscriptions, said Rick Jacobs, the head of the campaign, while 110,000 have signed petitions opposing the sale.

“The LAT has a long and storied past of publishers taking it in various directions,” Mr. Jacobs said in an e-mail. “The Kochs are much more likely to end journalism as we know it. They are likely to stop coverage of climate change or skew it. They will almost certainly change the way the LAT covers state politics, especially ballot measures.”

Jacobs’ claim about climate change is quite plausible, considering the Koch brothers’ role in building a network of climate denial think tanks, as was documented in February by The Guardian.

At the end of April, Huffington Post carried a story saying that half the L.A. Times staff members attending an in-house awards dinner raised their hands when asked if they would resign from the paper under Koch ownership.

Whether they would actually quit, given the economic realities and paucity of real newspapering jobs, is debatable. (And in this writer’s view, difficult as it might be, it would be preferable to see staffers remain at the paper – because they are experienced journalists – than see them surrender the Times to a new crop of reporters who might see no problem with spin or ignoring stories altogether.)

If the Koch brothers succeeded in buying the L.A. Times, for example, it is unlikely readers would see stories like “Koch Brothers Now at Heart of GOP Power, from the paper’s February 2011 archives:

Nine of the 12 new Republicans on the panel signed a pledge distributed by a Koch-founded advocacy group — Americans for Prosperity — to oppose the Obama administration’s proposal to regulate greenhouse gases. Of the six GOP freshman lawmakers on the panel, five benefited from the group’s separate advertising and grass-roots activity during the 2010 campaign.

Claiming an electoral mandate, Republicans on the committee have launched an agenda of the sort long backed by the Koch brothers. A top early goal: restricting the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Kochs’ core energy businesses.

Just this week, the New Yorker published a lengthy piece about PBS’ recent attempts to keep as a board member and benefactor David Koch, who since the 1980s has donated $23 million to the public television network. Jane Mayer wrote that:

When Koch joined the boards of WGBH and WNET, it seemed to mark an ideological inroad, enabling him to exert influence over a network with a prominent news operation. Meanwhile, the member stations, by having Koch as a trustee, were inoculating themselves against charges of liberal bias, and positioning themselves to receive substantial new donations.

As she noted:

PBS has long been a political target of conservatives. During the last Presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney recommended eliminating government funding for public broadcasting, he echoed critics such as Newt Gingrich, who, in 1995, called public television élitist—a “little sandbox for the rich.” Conservatives have said that the WNET host Bill Moyers exhibits a “very strident left-wing bias,” and have suggested that characters on “Sesame Street” and “Arthur” indoctrinate children with left-wing values, such as acceptance of homosexuality.

However, last November, PBS ran an independent film entitled “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream” that focused “on one of the most expensive apartment buildings in Manhattan—740 Park Avenue—portraying it as an emblem of concentrated wealth and contrasting the lives of its inhabitants with those of poor people living at the other end of Park Avenue, in the Bronx.”

“A large part of the film,” Mayer wrote, subjected the Kochs to “tough scrutiny.” Not only did its narrator describe David Koch as a “right-wing oil tycoon” whose company “had to pay what was then ‘the largest civil penalty in the E.P.A.’s history’ for its role in more than 30 oil spills in 2000.” It also included an interview with a former doorman, who, anticipating large tips from a building of multibillionaires, instead got the “going rate.” In a damning interview, the doorman said:

These guys are businessmen. They know what the going rate is—they’re not going to give you anything more than that.

The cheapest person over all was David Koch. We would load up his trucks—two vans, usually—every weekend, for the Hamptons . . . multiple guys, in and out, in and out, heavy bags. We would never get a tip from Mr. Koch. We would never get a smile from Mr. Koch. Fifty-dollar check for Christmas, too—yeah, I mean, a check! At least you could give us cash.

The bulk of Mayer’s New Yorker piece detailed how PBS attempted to placate Koch after the piece aired, most notably by essentially killing a separate piece by two other filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, whose deal for a film called “Citizen Koch” had essentially already been approved. From Mayer’s story:

Lessin and Deal say that they are registered with neither political party, but an early synopsis of their proposed film reflected the liberal view that the Citizens United ruling had endangered democracy by drowning out ordinary voters’ concerns in a surge of corporate cash. This stance is scarcely novel, but their narrative focus was original: working-class Republicans who felt betrayed by the Party’s attack on public-employee unions in Wisconsin. Virtually from the start, the Kochs had figured prominently in their proposal.

(A side note: It’s interesting that seeing the Citizens United ruling as a danger to democracy translates to holding a “liberal” view.)

Despite the killing of a second piece unfavorable to Koch, Mayer’s story revealed, in its final paragraph, that Koch resigned from WNET’s board of directors on May 16.

It was the result, an insider said, of his unwillingness to back a media organization that had so unsparingly covered its sponsor (Koch).

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Laura F. Sanchez

    “There is no question that a primary objective of today’s academic institutions, which allow conservatives to be shouted down if they were invited at all, is not to educate students but rather to educate reliable Democratic votes.”

    There is no question that a primary objective of today’s Albuquerque Journal, which buries “liberal” news if it prints it at all, is not to inform readers but rather to indoctrinate reliable Republican votes.

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