Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who are major funders of Republican candidates and conservative organizations, now own a stake in Time Inc. On Sunday night, the Meredith Corporation announced that it is purchasing the company with the help of $650 million from a Koch equity fund. A Koch spokesman suggested this is purely a business decision, and Meredith has claimed the right-wing billionaires will not have a seat on its board or influence over the editorial decisions of the newly acquired magazines, which include Time and Fortune. But journalists are rightfully skeptical that the Kochs would enter the embattled magazine publishing business if they didn’t view the investment as a way to advance their conservative principles.
If the Kochs do begin to play a role in the workings of Time, they will join a handful of major conservative donors who have decided in recent years to purchase, fund, or launch media outlets as a way to expand their political influence. The new owners often bring in new leaders who push the newsroom to support their boss’ political interests. With print, digital, and broadcast journalism business models all faltering, right-wing billionaires will have more opportunities to pull off these sorts of takeovers in the future.
Rupert Murdoch, head of the media goliaths 21st Century Fox and News Corp., has been doing this for decades, growing the small Australian newspaper business he inherited from his father into a string of major news outlets in that country, the U.K., and the U.S. Murdoch uses those media assets to shape the public debate and maximize his political impact.
Any Time Inc. staffers breathing sighs of relief over reports that the Kochs will play no direct editorial role should read up on Murdoch’s takeover of The Wall Street Journal in 2007. Early signs that Murdoch would be hands-off with the Journal were dashed the next year when the paper’s top editor was pushed out. The resulting rightward shift in editorial content led to an exodus of reporters. The paper is now helmed by Gerard Baker, once a conservative columnist at The Times, a daily newspaper Murdoch owns in the U.K. While the paper’s journalists still do some great reporting, many have left the paper in part over concerns about its treatment of President Donald Trump, now a Murdoch favorite.
The same phenomenon came to Nevada, albeit on a smaller scale, when Republican megadonor and billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal in late 2015. As with the Kochs’ purchase of a stake in Time Inc., critics pointed out that there would be little reason for Adelson’s involvement if he did not plan to use the paper for his own benefit. Adelson installed new newsroom leaders and cracked down on negative reporting about his business dealings. Many reporters and editors left the newspaper in the following months, citing a reduction of editorial freedom. In October 2016, after Adelson had spent tens of millions of dollars in support of Trump’s presidential campaign, the Review-Journal became the first major newspaper to endorse him.
In the realm of digital media, two leading Republican donors who made billions in the finance industry have backed different factions of the conservative movement -- along with ideologically sympathetic conservative websites. The Trump-supporting Mercers bought a stake in the extremist garbage factory Breitbart.com, while Paul Singer, who backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in the 2016 primary, is reportedly the main funder of the more moderate Washington Free Beacon.
On broadcast television, Sinclair Broadcasting Company is an ever-expanding behemoth owned by the Smith family, which donates heavily to Republican candidates and causes. Journalists at stations taken over by Sinclair complain that they are forced to slant the news to the benefit of conservatives. More may soon have the same complaint if the company’s purchase of Tribune Media goes through.
Philip Anschutz, a Denver billionaire oil and railroad magnate and major Republican donor, has amassed a portfolio of media companies over the past 12 years, launching the conservative publication The Washington Examiner, and purchasing The Weekly Standard, a leading conservative magazine, as well as the daily newspapers The Oklahoman and the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Journalism needs to be paid for, and any media magnate with interests outside that industry creates potential conflicts of interest. But there’s a difference between this set of media funders, who have donated in some cases tens of millions of dollars to Republican and conservative causes, and the likes of Jeff Bezos, the Amazon billionaire who purchased The Washington Post, where my wife now works, in 2013. As Bezos largely eschews political giving, there’s far less evidence to suggest he bought the paper to bolster a particular party or ideology. His ownership does, of course, require that the paper’s reporting on Amazon be scrutinized for evidence of potential corporate influence. (Per the paper’s top editor, Marty Baron, Bezos has no editorial role and does not comment on the Post’s coverage of his company, and the paper has produced critical coverage of Amazon.)
While there have been a rush of new examples in recent years, conservative moguls have used their media companies to push for political aims for decades. Indeed, Time Inc. is one of the most famous precedents. Henry Luce, the company’s legendary founder, who first conceived and launched magazines like Time and Fortune, was a prominent Republican known for deploying his publications to support his favored candidates and causes.
But the precarious financial position of many in the journalism business raises the concern that Republican megadonors may start snapping up shaky media outlets and using them to dramatically shift the debate. Time Inc. may be only the beginning.