On Thursday, David and Charles Koch announced that they would not proceed with their interest in purchasing the Tribune Company newspapers. This will undoubtedly put to rest the fears of many who saw the Koch brothers as conservative billionaires intent on corrupting such hallowed institutions as the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. The exhale that comes with the Koch brothers’ announcement is likely with good reason, too. But what’s interesting is that there didn’t see to be the same extent of worry and distress when it was announced that Jeff Bezos had purchased the Washington Post.
Is there that much of a difference between one billionaire buying a newspaper and a pair of billionaire brothers buying a flock of papers? As long as a newspaper is privately owned and profit-driven, threat of ideological intrusion will always be present, regardless of the billionaire signing the checks.
When the Koch brothers’ ordeal with the Tribune Co. began four months ago, there were nearly outright protests voicing opposition to the mere possibility of purchase. There was nearly a universal consensus that a Koch-owned Tribune Co. would be a rotten thing for the newspaper industry and America at large. And yet, when Bezos bought the Post, the prevailing thought seemed to be, "Let’s see how this shakes out before we pass judgment."
David Simon, formerly of the Baltimore Sun (which falls under the Tribune Co. umbrella), voiced his concern over what would happen “if the newspapers represent a particular ideology.” There’s no denying that the Koch brothers represent a specific ideology — they are looming figures in the right-wing money game. A Koch purchase would, in all likelihood, signify an ideological shift for the papers in the Tribune Company.
So why isn’t there the same sort of fear for a Bezos-owned Post? Sure, concerns were raised but opinion seemed to fall on the side that the Bezos purchase was interesting — if not benign — rather than panic-inducing. It isn’t as if Bezos is apolitical. Bezos himself has made political donations in the millions. While it was a personal purchase, it’s difficult to separate the man from his company, and Amazon spent $4.7 billion on congressional lobbying during the last term.
Bezos comes with baggage just as the Koch brothers do, albeit markedly different baggage, ideologically. Still, Bezos' Washington Post and the Tribune Co. papers under whomever they’re sold to will see a shift in business practices, however pronounced, because at the end of the day, they are privately owned newspapers under new management. And no one buys anything if they're content with the status quo.
The reality of Bezos-like purchases will remain as long as the largest newspapers in the United States are private and motivated by profit. We have National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service. Why is a government-subsidized, non-profit newspaper so out of the question? Admittedly, calling for a government-sponsored newspaper may not be the best idea with President Barack Obama’s administration attacking journalists and leakers left and right, but there is enough separation between the operating administration and NPR and PBS, that a similarly set-up newspaper seems perfectly viable.
It comes down to a matter of pick your poison, really. Journalism is an imperfect field with noble aspirations that almost always end up tainted. As much as we might like, there is no such thing as an ideology-free newspaper. Wiith private ownership and profit margins, there is, to varying degrees, always an undercurrent of message. The same may very well be true for a public non-profit newspaper. But the goal should be to shift the concentration of ownership from few hands to many — something the Bezos and near-Koch purchases certainly don't do.