Thursday, a hundred or so veteran agitators gathered in Will Rogers Park on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills to protest the conjectured sale of the Los Angeles Times to Charles and David Koch, plutocrat owners of the $115-billion-annual-revenue Koch Industries, who have expressed interest in using the paper to spread their drown-government-in-the-bathtub invective.
Organized principally by environmental advocate Lauren Steiner, the motley crew of long-time activists, union organizers, and regular Janes and Joes nodded along to speeches by Steiner, Common Cause executive director Kathay Feng, Code Pink’s Jodie Evans, and Rabbi Jonathan Klein, before parading along Benedict Canyon Road toward the home of Bruce Karsh.
Owner of a significant chunk of the Tribune Company, Karsh’s Oaktree Capital Management investment firm reportedly is entertaining offers from the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, and a consortium of Los Angeles investors for the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other Tribune Co. media outlets—eight altogether—around the country.
On a corner down the street from Karsh’s home, surrounded by walled and gated mansions that each could have hosted the entire protest, the upbeat crowd waved signs, displayed banners, chanted slogans, exchanged pleasantries, and generally had a splendid time on a glorious Southern California evening.
Other well-heeled drivers honked and waved as they passed the well-mannered crowd, gently tended by a polite cadre of Beverly Hills mountain bike-mounted police officers.
Pervasive in the speeches and private conversations was the concern that a sale to these libertarian brothers would debase a cornerstone of democracy in Los Angeles, slanting LA Times news coverage to advance the Koch Brothers’ right-wing agenda, as they have indicated is their intent in considering media purchases.
Without doubt, the threat the Koch brothers pose is real, as Matt Tiabbi has pointed out:
They were primary financial backers of Scott Walker’s anti-union movement in Wisconsin, where the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity group engaged in massive ad buys and signature-collecting campaigns to back Walker’s play to crush collective bargaining rights for public workers. Through direct donations and support of groups like the conservative state policy group ALEC, the Kochs have taken aim at public unions, public union lobbying and public pensions in multiple states across the country, among other things spending $4 million in California to support Prop 32, a state ballot measure restricting union political activity.
Yet, as salubrious as it was to enjoy the sunshine and the exercise, you might wonder how much effect this heartening effort could have and if it had even picked the right target.
What Difference Will It Make?
As a practical matter, one hundred well-practiced protesters parading up the manicured streets of Beverly Hills in orderly columns may not have much effect on any proposed sale of the Los Angeles Times, nor certainly on the two Koch brothers, whose wealth reportedly doubled to a combined $68 billion since 2010, at a time when so many Americans were getting tossed out of their jobs and losing their homes to the Great Recession.
Imagine you’re Charles or David Koch, climbing out of bed in the morning—the plushest bed imaginable in absolutely any corner of the globe that you choose to spend the night—and you’re confronted with the problem of how to spend your day.
Sitting on that mountain of lucre, you know you could do anything your health and sanity would allow.
- How about this? The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently estimated that it would cost $20 billion to end homelessness in America—not nurse it along year after year as we’ve learned to do so well here in Los Angeles, but end it for good. Not that the Koch brothers are likely to move in that direction, but if they did, they would still have $44 billion left over, plenty enough for greens fees and mink coats for their lady friends.
- Or, if you have a martial turn of mind, you could stretch your budget a bit to build three 1,100-foot-long Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carriers, retailing for an estimated $22 billion each. (Buying three, you’ll likely get a knockoff to squeeze the trio into that $64 billion budget.)
- Like sports more? Even though most National Football League teams are now worth over $1 billion each, you could easily fit all 28 teams into that $64 billion, with plenty left over to buy all 30 Major League Baseball teams and restore California’s public higher education to the world-class levels it once enjoyed.
- Not your cup of tea? It’s alleged that the most expensive call girl in the world runs $50,000 a night—well, probably not “runs.” By a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, that means you could sleep with her 1,280,000 times, poor girl.
So, you’re sitting there on the edge of that plush bed, sipping a cold glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice as the breeze from some ocean or sea or mountain vale washes over you, and you hear that a bunch of long-in-the-tooth hippies out in the land of fruits and nuts wants to stop you from buying a newspaper you never read anyway.
So, just for spite, you have one of your minions get the estimated $623 million it would cost to buy The Times out of the petty cash drawer—with all the depth of financial concern most of us might put into purchasing a new pitching wedge—and waltz it over to the people who took the bankrupted Tribune Company off Sam Zell’s hands this past winter.
So there! Take that, you hippie pond scum!
Are Newspapers Dead Men Walking Anyway?
The greater concern might be that legacy print newspapers may be on their last legs, no matter who owns them, and their steady evisceration and ultimate demise will put a huge hole in our democracy.
- Major newspaper chains Gannett and McClatchy are hundreds of millions of dollars behind on their pension plans.
- Big-money efforts to replace newspapers such as AOL’s The Patch are losing money hand over fist—$150 million a year in The Patch’s case.
- The 146-year-old Seattle Press-Intelligencer stopped its presses three years ago, as did the much-admired 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News.
- The Los Angeles Times itself has shed more than a third of its editorial staff since 2007, along with all its freelance reviewers and columnists.
At a time when a Los Angeles mayoral contest motivates only 20 percent of the Angeleno voting public to get off its duff and vote, democracy may be wobbling, no matter whether the Koch Brothers own the city’s one big daily newspaper, or Rupert Murdoch, or Eli Broad, or anyone else with so much money they can do anything they want.
Sure, we’re all hoping that online media will rush in to fill the void. But even as venerable local online efforts—veteran LA Times reporters Zuade Kaufmann and Robert Sheer’s Truthdig, LAANE’s The Frying Pan, LA CityWatch, and even LA Progressive—put out a certain kind of worthy coverage, you have to wonder what kind of media enterprise, if not the city’s paper of record, will be able to afford to put a reporter into City Hall day in and day out, several more on the beat to monitor the police department, a couple others watching the schools, dozens and dozens—a battalion in all—of trained, professional day-job journalists keeping us on the straight and narrow.
Maybe that’s where our energy needs to go, not in worrying about what a couple of Kansas oil and manufacturing tycoons want to do with their plentitude, but figuring out how to create a media that serves everyday citizens, not just the well-clovered elite.
Which ultimately was the value of the little gathering in the park, the march up the tree-lined street, the banner waving, the high-fiving, the chest bumps, the slogan chanting. If, in this time of transition on so many fronts, we’re going to need to get good at organizing for ourselves, we’re going to have to work at it. Getting good takes practice, and that’s what Thursday was—good practice.
Dick Price, Editor
Saturday, 26 May 2013
Photographs: Mike Chickey