The Koch brothers' bid for the L.A. Times and objective journalism

Activists opposed to the sale have taken “objective journalism” to mean “journalism that advances the Democratic agenda.” Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, May 8, 2013 ― In the debate over David and Charles Koch’s potential bid for the Los Angeles Times, activists opposed to the sale have co-opted the term “objective journalism” to mean “liberal journalism” or “journalism that advances the Democratic agenda.”

Touting the importance of “professional and objective” journalism, Democratic L.A. Councilman Bill Rosendahl has proposed pulling pension funds from firms backing the Times if it’s sold to the Koch brothers, libertarian donors to the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, lest it become “an ideological mouthpiece whose commitment to empirical journalism is unproven at best.”

The Newspaper Guild and the Communication Workers of America have issued a press release stating their plans to oppose the sale on ideological grounds. Calling the Koch brothers “active proponents of harsh right-wing positions,” the unions go on to profess their dedication to “protect[ing] newsrooms from ideological taint.”

And, according to rumors of two separate informal polls conducted among the staff at the paper itself, half are threatening to quit if the Koch brothers take over.

To clarify the position of those who oppose the sale, a paper that twice endorsed Obama and that was found by a UCLA study to be the fourth most liberal in America is a bastion of objective reporting. The Koch brothers, on the other hand, are a diabolical duo bent on “publish[ing] political ideologies instead of unbiased news” according to Dave Stancliff at the Times Standard, out of some “burning desire to convert America into a conservative gulag.”

The ironic thing here is that some of the sale’s loudest opponents claim that it threatens “objective” reporting, but have no apparent problem with political activism on the part of individual journalists and even from the newspapers themselves in support of certain Democratic causes.

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The Newspaper Guild, for instance, went to arbitration in 2008 to defend the right of a reporter at the Detroit Free Press to make a contribution to the Michigan Democrats. Future Guild president Bernie Lunzer wrote at the time that “the simple act of making a political donation does not hurt a newspapers credibility.”

Now the Guild sings a different tune: Libertarian ownership of the L.A. Times will “taint” the whole paper.

You see that same double standard in Rosendahl’s motion to the L.A. Council: He calls for a paper that believes in “reduction of greenhouse gases,” “investing in American infrastructure,” and a list of other platitudinous codes for Democratic causes from gun control to campaign finance reform.

There’s nothing wrong with that stuff. But, according to Rosendahl’s logic here, if the paper supports it with favorable coverage, then it’s “professional and objective.” If, on the other hand, it doesn’t, then it’s the Koch brothers’ “ideological mouthpiece.”

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That’s the new definition of “objective” reporting among liberal opponents of the Koch brothers’ plan to buy the paper, a misuse of the term that can color readers’ perceptions of the issue, and that media covering the Kochs’ rumored bid for the Times have to look out for and question. 

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Dorian Davis

Dorian Davis is an adjunct professor of journalism at Marymount Manhattan College. He’s been a contributor on politics, pop culture and social media to MTV, WNYC, NY1 and more.

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