Thursday, November 30, 2017

Roll Over, Henry Luce — The Koch Brothers Are Going Create The Print Equivalent of Faux News

In 2013, David and Charles Koch poked their philanthropic nose into the virtual tent of the Rawls College of Business at Texas Technique University (commonly known as "Texas Tech" with no period). Their donations of several million dollars funded the establishment of the Free Market Institute. The Koch brothers also have gained influence at both George Mason University (VA) and Florida State University as well. Of course, the purchase of Time, Inc. is another matter altogether. If this is a (fair & balanced) alarm at the conversion of a major print publication into a propaganda-machine, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Can Time Inc. Survive The Kochs?
By Jane Mayer

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Time magazine’s cover story from its November 6th issue was a point of pride in its twelve-person Washington bureau. It featured three swinging wrecking balls emblazoned with Donald Trump’s face and a tough-minded, fact-laden investigative report on three Trump Cabinet secretaries who were systematically dismantling protective regulations in their respective government agencies. The section on Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, was particularly critical, opening with a story from a mother from Minnesota whose eight-month-old baby appeared to have suffered brain damage from a pesticide that Pruitt’s EPA had recently removed from the list of banned chemicals after meeting with executives from the company that manufactures it. (An EPA spokesperson told Time that the conversation was brief and that the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, was not discussed.)

The sale of Time Inc. earlier this week, to the Meredith Corporation—a deal made possible by an infusion of six hundred and fifty million dollars from Koch Industries’ private-equity arm—has called into question whether such independent, accountability journalism from the media company will continue. For decades, Charles and David Koch have spent a staggering amount of money from their family’s private oil, gas, and chemical fortune to attack government regulations—particularly concerning the environment, where their company has a history of record-breaking violations. The brothers even helped sponsor Pruitt’s political career. As the New York Times reported, political operatives working for the Kochs also wrote the early blueprint for the Trump Administration’s rollback of Obama-era regulations, a corporate wish list called, “A Roadmap to Repeal.” And, as I reported, Pruitt placed Patrick Traylor, a lawyer for Koch Industries and other fossil-fuel companies, in charge of the EPA’s enforcement of key anti-pollution laws. In other words, the Kochs are directly invested in promoting policies and politicians that the publications they now partly own would ordinarily cover.

Despite their long and deep involvement in trying to align American politics with their conservative libertarian views, spokesmen for the Kochs insist that the multibillionaire brothers have no plans to play any role in running or shaping the editorial content of the Time Inc. publications. In addition to Time magazine, the company publishes Fortune, People, Sports Illustrated, Money, and several other previously iconic national weeklies. Instead, spokesmen for the Kochs and for Meredith say that the brothers intend to act merely as “passive” investors. They and their underlings will have no seat on the merged company’s board of directors, and play no managerial role other than meeting on a quarterly basis with senior management to discuss “financial and strategic matters.” According to an eighty-page agreement on the merger filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Kochs do, however, reserve the right to send an emissary to attend board meetings if Meredith fails to make good on its hefty 8.5-per-cent interest payments to the Kochs. But the brothers’ motive for financing such a large chunk of the $2.8 billion merger, according to those close to the deal, is purely financial, akin to the role that Carlos Slim HelĂș, the Mexican telecom tycoon, has played at the Times, where he is the single largest investor.

Those familiar with the Kochs’ history, however, have reason to be skeptical about their professed passivity. Charles Koch, in particular, is known for the unusually tight control he exerts over Koch Industries, the second-largest private company in the US, and also over his and his brother’s political and philanthropic ventures. As I wrote in my book Dark Money [link below], a former political partner of the Koch brothers, Murray Rothbard, once testified that Charles “cannot tolerate dissent” and will “go to any end to acquire/retain control.” His brother David, meanwhile, has been quoted saying that “if we’re going to give a lot of money, we will make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent.”

This year, among the Kochs’ aims is to spend a projected four hundred million dollars in contributions from themselves and a small group of allied conservative donors they have assembled, to insure Republican victories in the 2018 midterm elections. Ordinarily, political reporters for Time magazine would chronicle this blatant attempt by the Kochs and their allies to buy political influence in the coming election cycle. Will they feel as free to do so now?

“Everyone who has worked in journalism knows that even if you never see the rich and powerful owner of your publication, and you have the most powerful, independent editors, it inevitably has an effect on what you write, or on what you leave out. You just don’t do a terrible story on yourself,” Emily Bell, a professor of professional practice at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, told me. Bell said that she doubts that the Kochs have put six hundred and fifty million dollars into the purchase of a media company saddled with ailing print publications only for financial reasons. “It can’t just be the return on investment, because, if so, you’re in the wrong asset class,” she said. But even if that is their intent, she argued, they will end up exerting cultural and political influence because “investments in media companies are different from any other kind of investment. Media companies affect the broader cultural life.”

The Kochs’ ownership stake in a mainstream media company may affect not just how the public thinks about politics but how it thinks about the Kochs. For decades, the brothers have been regarded as fonts of fringe ideas, so much so that William F. Buckley, Jr., who famously tried to purge the conservative movement of its more embarrassing followers, once dismissed their extreme libertarianism as “anarcho-totalitarianism.” For years, the Kochs eschewed press coverage, following their father’s admonition that “it’s when the whale spouts that he gets harpooned.” But in recent years they and their company have spent a fortune on advertising and public relations aimed at improving their reputations. Becoming press barons, even if passive ones, may burnish their images more effectively.

Bell suggested that media investments often “confer the perception of influence on their owners,” and also an aura of public-spiritedness. She pointed out that for Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, buying the Washington Post “was a tiny investment for him, but it’s transformed his profile because nothing pleases journalists like someone investing in journalism.”

Despite the reassurances from those close to the deal that the Kochs have no plans to use the media platform to proselytize, many of the liberal activists who closely track them remain suspicious. “There is zero chance that the Koch brothers are going to keep their hands off the content of these magazines,” Mary Bottari, the deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit that documents right-wing and corporate influence-buying, told me. “When they donated nearly three million dollars to Florida State University, they wrote a contract giving them control over hiring decisions in the economics department,” she said. (Donations were made between 2007 and 2015.) “The entire point of the purchase is to infuse the mainstream media with their extreme views.”

Scott Peterson, the executive director of Checks and Balances Project, an environmental watchdog group, agreed. “Acquiring a major media platform is all part of their repositioning campaign,” he argued. “The Kochs want to be thought of as free-market philosophers, not protectors of a fossil-fuel empire.”

Although the Kochs have flirted with other media purchases in the past—including taking a close look before deciding not to buy what was then called the Tribune Company, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, a few years ago—their relationship with reporters who have covered them has hardly been a love story. Their corporate Web site used to feature a section called “KochFacts” that attacked reporters whose stories they disliked, including my own. The Kochs also hired private investigators to discredit critics, including investigative reporters such as myself, as was discussed here. In 2012, the Kochs paid for Facebook ads attacking what they called the “deceptions” of David Sassoon, the founder and publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site InsideClimate News, because the Kochs took umbrage at his site’s coverage of their controversial Canadian oil interests. The attack ads featured a mugshot of Sassoon, personalizing the public-relations battle in a manner usually reserved for gutter political campaigns. After showing such contempt for the press, it’s not surprising that the Kochs’ vows to respect independent journalism have struck some as unconvincing.

Ironically, though, reporters at Time Inc. may end up having more to fear from the Meredith Corp. than from the Kochs. According to the Daily Beast, the real role of the Kochs’ investment may be to enable Meredith to sell off the publications it previously expressed little interest in, including Time magazine, to others. One person who has in the past expressed interest in the Time Inc. publications is David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media, Inc., which owns the unabashedly pro-Trump tabloid the National Enquirer. Last July, Pecker told my colleague Jeffrey Toobin that he wished he could buy Time Inc., and was in search of a deep-pocketed partner to help. As pockets go in America today, very few are deeper than those of Charles and David Koch, who, together, according to Forbes, are worth an estimated $96.6 billion. # # #

[Jane Mayer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine since 1995. Mayer is a graduate of Yale University (BA, history), where she was a stringer for Time magazine. Mayer has also contributed to the New York Review of Books and American Prospect and co-authored or written four books—Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas (1994) (written with Jill Abramson), a study of the controversy-laden nomination and appointment of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court, and Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988 (1989) (written with Doyle McManus), an account of Ronald Reagan's second term in the White House. Mayer's third book is The Dark Side (2008) — addressing the origins, legal justifications, and possible war crimes liability of the use of interrogation techniques to break down detainees' resistance and the subsequent deaths of detainees under such interrogation as applied by the CIA — was a finalist for the National Book Awards. Her most recent book is Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016). Mayer is the granddaughter of the late historian and biographer Allan Nevins.]

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