Major GOP Donor Gaining Monopoly Control Over Crucial Media Market

The conservative Columbus Dispatch has long been a force in local and state politics in Ohio. But in recent years, the newspaper's parent company has become a virtual media monopoly in Ohio's largest city and state capital, controlling not only the daily newspaper, but two radio stations, a television outlet and a long list of other weekly, monthly, and regional news sources.

“It's a one-newspaper town,” said Dominick Cappa, editor of Columbus Business First, one of the few local publications not owned by the Dispatch"They have the TV station, a radio station. Are they powerful? Hell yeah they're powerful because they have those outlets."

And the Dispatch's owners have used that media muscle to promote conservative causes and candidates, in particular the state's Republican governor, John Kasich. Publisher John F. Wolfe, CEO of parent company Dispatch Printing, and his wife, Ann, have spent more than $100,000 seeking to elect Republicans in state and out, with three dollars out of every ten going to Kasich's coffers.

The Dispatch's news reporting is the pride of Ohio; in recent years the paper has repeatedly been named the best newspaper of its size by the Associated Press Society, and its reporters typically clean up at that organization's annual awards presentation. In 2012, John Wolfe himself was given a special recognition award for “exemplary service to print journalism.”

But critics say that the recent expansion of Dispatch Printing has created a near-monopoly in central Ohio, and point to the way the paper's editorial board has shielded Kasich to sound a note of alarm. 

The increasing influence of the Wolfes comes during a period in which several right-wing moguls have been seeking to use mainstream media outlets to influence the political debate.

In December Media Matters profiled financier Douglas Manchester, a major Republican Party contributor who purchased the San Diego Union-Tribune and used it to cheerlead for right-wing politics and his own business interests. More recently, David and Charles Koch, major funders of the conservative movement, have reportedly considered buying the Tribune Company's eight regional newspapers -- which include the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune -- as part of their plan to shift the country to the right by investing in the media. Manchester has also considered buying the Tribune Company.

The Kochs also financially support the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a non-profit organization whose websites and affiliates provide free statehouse reporting from a conservative perspective to local newspapers and other media across the country.

The Wolfes' stranglehold on central Ohio's media grew substantially last September when the Dispatch Printing Company took over Columbus Media Enterprises from American Community Newspapers. That purchase added 12 specialty magazines to its arsenal, including Columbus Monthly and Columbus CEO, and Columbus Bride; Suburban News Publications, a string of 22 community weeklies that were subsequently merged with the company's 22-paper ThisWeek Community News group of weeklies; and The Other Paper, a feisty alternative weekly that had been known as a Dispatch watchdog.

Dispatch Printing already owned a variety of specialty publications including Columbus AliveColumbus CraveColumbus Parent, and Capital Style, along with two radio stations, the local CBS television affiliate (WBNS-TV), Ohio News Network Radio, which provides regular newscasts and sportscasts to 73 radio stations statewide, and Consumer News Services, a marketing company that distributes insert fliers via direct delivery bags.

Columbus has three other network television affiliates: WCMH, the NBC affiliate owned by Media General; WSYX, the ABC affiliate, and WTTE, the Fox affiliate, both owned by Sinclair Broadcasting.

But critics say that those outlets amount to little more than window dressing. “There is no competition,” said Gerald Kosicki, a 26-year professor of communications at nearby Ohio State University. "You do only now have one voice. That is a concern to people."

The concern in Columbus increased earlier this year when Dispatch Printing closed The Other Paper, silencing perhaps its biggest critic.

“That is important in that The Other Paper was a real alternative voice in the community, many of us are sorry to see it go,” said Kosicki. "The Other Paper had a reputation for dealing with stories about the Dispatch ... kind of watching the watchdog kind of role ... we certainly won't have that in Columbus anymore, it is really a loss to the community."

“The sad thing is that we cannot in a city this size sustain alternate outlets,” said Ann Fisher, a talk show host at WOSU Public Radio in Columbus and a former 10-year Dispatch staffer, who also wrote a column for the paper. "The monopoly is unfortunate. They basically control everything."

But Dispatch Printing Chief Marketing Officer Phil Pikelny, a company executive since 2004, claims the monopoly is not as bad as people assume.

“Because of all of the other TV stations, the Internet, people can easily vote with their money,” he said, noting there are other outlets. “And we are still one of the largest subscription newspapers.”

Dispatch editor Ben Marrison also defended the paper's work, stating in an email, “I am confident that our reporting and editing is as professional as you will find.” He later added, "[I]t's worth noting that the Dispatch has won more journalism awards in this state than any other metro in the past five years, including multiple awards for being the state's best newspaper. Clearly, our peers wouldn't recognize our work with these awards if we were a biased news organization."

But those who monitor national media issues say such local monopolies can be problematic.

“Quietly, we're seeing a new wave of consolidation in news,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute and a co-founder of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. “A lot of it less visible or less obvious than a generation ago.”

Jean-Philippe Tremblay, a filmmaker and producer of the 2012 documentary, Shadows of Liberty, about the dangers of media consolidation and control, said such local news control is among the most dangerous.

“It is very sad,” he said in an interview. “That is where information begins and where people can begin to become informed through local news, localism. That is where we really make decisions about our lives and run our lives, schools, our community is where it begins.”

The Wolfe family, currently headed by Publisher John F. Wolfe, has owned the Dispatch -- which opened in 1871 - since 1905. Wolfe and his wife Ann have contributed at least $112,750 since 1997 to numerous Republican political campaigns and candidates as the newspaper editorializes and reports on the same public officials, according to a Media Matters search of the Center for Responsive Politics and National Institute on Money in State Politics databases.

The primary recipient of that largesse is Ohio's Republican governor, John Kasich, a former Columbus area congressman who won the governor's race in 2010 and faces re-election next year. The Wolfes have donated at least $33,750 to support Kasich's campaigns and political action committee. 

That support dates back to the late 1990s, when the then-chairman of the House Budget Committee was exploring a run for the presidency. Discussing Kasich's presidential hopes in a 1998 article, the famed New York Times reporter R.W. Apple cited as a strength his “base among the rich and powerful of Columbus” - a base which included Wolfe. Indeed, in 1997 and 1998, the Wolfes would give $22,750 to Kasich's campaign and political action committee. Ann also served as “a leading central Ohio fund-raiser for Kasich's Pioneer PAC,” according to a Dispatch story.

Kasich's presidential campaign floundered and he dropped out of the race in July 1999. With Kasich taking roles in the private sector and on Fox News over the next decade, the Wolfes' support necessarily flagged. But when Kasich sought the governor's office in 2010, he had their support; they combined for $6,000 for his 2010 run and another $5,000 so far for his reelection.

Other current and former Ohio members of Congress, including John Boehner, Deborah Price, Ralph Regula, Steve Stivers, Patrick Tiberi, have also received checks from the Wolfes, as has former Sen. Mike Dewine. In the 2012 election cycle, the Wolfes combined for $25,000 in donations to Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee.

Michael Curtin, a former Dispatch editor who won a seat in the Ohio State House of Representatives last year, is the sole Democrat to receive the Wolfes' support, bringing in $2,500 from the publisher in 2012.

A request for comment from Wolfe's office was referred to Pikelny, who said of the political contributions: “There is no daily, monthly, weekly meeting that we have to discuss what the initiatives of the publisher are, that's just the way he is as an individual.”

Asked if such political dealings may hurt the paper's credibility, Pikelny added, “We're privately owned and part of being privately owned, the person who owns it, how they operate is their concern because they are privately owned.”

In 2010, the “person who owns it” wanted Kasich elected. And the Dispatch editorial board did too, offering up an endorsement that praised Kasich as a “leader who can inspire hope and not simply cope” with “the personality, the drive and the backbone” to rebuild the state's economy, and criticized then-Gov. Ted Strickland for having “run a campaign largely based on character attacks against Kasich instead of offering Ohio a vision for the future.”

Since the Republican's 2010 victory, some pro-Kasich editorials have come under fire. “It's clear that the editorial page is pretty, pretty right-wing,” Kosicki said. “They do really take the Tea Party or are often really on the GOP line.”

In May 2011, Rep. Armond Budish, the Ohio House minority leader and a Democrat, wrote in to the paper to take issue with an editorial that had lauded Kasich for the “remarkable achievement” of his budget. The Dispatch editorial board had praised Kasich for putting Ohio on a “sounder fiscal footing” while castigating Budish for having tried to stand in the Republican's way.

“Blind partisan affection can impair one's vision of reality,” wrote Budish in his response. “That can be the only explanation for the Sunday Dispatch editorial 'Well done,' which gushed with affection for Gov. John Kasich's budget while turning a blind eye to several key realities.”

Meanwhile, several other Ohio newspapers, including The Cincinnati InquirerThe Blade of Toledo, and the Akron Beacon-Journal, offered considerably more skepticism of the plan at the time, pointing out that Kasich's plan largely shifted the burden to local governments, maintained unbalanced tax cuts, and slashed spending to the bone. “They've always been a conservative paper, that is not a crime in America,” said Dale Butland, spokesman for the progressive Innovation Ohio and a one-time aide to former Sen. John Glenn. "But it wasn't gonzo, completely in the tank for one party. There has been a sort of a shift."

He pointed to the Dispatch's treatment of JobsOhio, a controversial program created in 2012 under the Ohio Department of Economic Development as a private corporation. Created by Gov. John Kasich's office, it receives funding from the sale of state bonds through liquor profits, but has been exempt from open records laws.

Butland said such secrecy drew concerns from most newspapers statewide, including a number of them who editorialized as part of Sunshine Week in March against the exemption. But the Dispatch did not.

“Every paper in the state except the Dispatch used their Sunshine Week editorial to point to JobsOhio as a great example of why we need Sunshine laws, even though it was their own reporter who broke the story,” Butland said. “This editorial page has become an absolute shill for the Republican Party.”

Media Matters has documented numerous other editorial page misrepresentations, hypocritical claims and outright misinformation.

But Pikelny claims the editorial page only reflects the ownership's views, as it should.

“We really have in the family who owns the newspaper, an editorial point of view in the newspaper and it is definite and specific,” he said. “But that really hasn't crept into the reporting.”

Still, some staffers contend the far-right editorial page is hurtful to the paper's image.

“It is no secret that the paper, editorially, is a big Republican paper,” said one Dispatch staffer who requested anonymity fearing reprisals from the paper. “It doesn't surprise me that they give added significance to Kasich stories.”

Adds another Dispatch scribe, “There are a lot of people who can't distinguish between the editorial page and the news page.”

Photo by Gabe Taviano used under a Creative Commons license.