Bill Knight – July 11
1:38 pm
Wed July 10, 2013

The Battle Over Tribune Ownership

Labor is leading the fight to keep the Chicago Tribune newspapers free from overt partisan control, using their financial clout as well as their street presence.

The right-wing billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, oil men from Kansas City, have financed conservative causes and founded the advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, whose stated goals are to limit government and eliminate regulations. Now they’re after the Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, plus seven other newspapers.

Bill Knight

The powerful Kochs are busy. The non-partisan, nonprofit Center for Public Integrity revealed that Koch Industries’ political action committee (KOCHPAC) so far this year has stepped up its campaign contributions.

Bill Knight's July 11 commentary

The Center’s Dave Levinthal said, “KOCHPAC donated $559,000 to federal candidates and committees during the first five months of the year. That bests its output for the same periods during previous elections.”

In Illinois, Common Cause Illinois director Rey Lopez Calderon last month addressed the Teachers Retirement System of Illinois (TRS) in Springfield, where he relayed concerns to TRS managers that there are negative implications of a sale of the Tribune to the Kochs, stressed that a good return on the fund’s investment doesn’t depend on a quick sale to them, and that TRS shouldn’t be “passive” investors.

In particular, two of TRS’ investment funds – Oaktree Capital and Angelo Gordon – are at issue. Oaktree owns 23.5% of the Tribune; Angelo Gordon owns 9.4%. Oaktree’s clients also include pension funds from the Illinois State Retirement Systems, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, and union holdings from six other states. Angelo Gordon’s clients include pension funds or union funds from five states. Since the investment funds arguably work for TRS and labor-friendly funds, they should respond to unions’ preferences.

Elsewhere, actions against the Kochs’ acquisition of the newspaper’s holdings took place or are scheduled at pension fund meetings from coast to coast, and a panel sponsored by The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America (CWA) was June 26, when speakers criticized the Kochs and their takeover of the Tribune.

Reporter Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone wrote, “It should go without saying that the sale of this still-potent media empire to the cash-addled Koch brothers duo … would be a disaster. But the issue here is what the private equity firms and banks that are the major shareholders in the Tribune Co. think. Because it turns out that some of these firms are heavily dependent upon investment from public unions, which would make their participation in the sale of a media empire to the public-union-bashing Kochs severely problematic.”

The Newspaper Guild, which represents Baltimore Sun workers, says it’s just seeking responsible buyers committed to unbiased news, stating, “TNG-CWA and CWA have called on the Tribune Co. to pledge to sell its holdings to a buyer that will protect the objectivity of the news product. Whoever comes to own these mastheads needs to understand that protecting newsrooms from ideological taint is no small thing.”

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka was more direct, saying, “The Koch brothers have given millions to Right-Wing organizations that want to dismantle Social Security, repeal health-care reform, overturn Wall Street regulations, roll back environmental standards, and eliminate workers’ collective bargaining rights. It is hard to imagine how the Tribune newspapers would continue to provide quality, independent journalism if they were under the control of the Koch brothers. We need newspapers that are dedicated to providing objective and high-quality reporting, not another Fox News-style propaganda machine.”

For organized labor, the Kochs’ interest in the Tribune presents an opportunity to flex the muscle that millions of dollars in mutual funds should represent.

Liz Greenwood, a trustee for the L.A. County Pension Fund, said, “We’re investing in companies that lead to the layoff of our beneficiaries. We have to be aware.”

Taibbi agrees, adding, “These workers possess an enormous amount of political power via their retirement plans. In the long run, it would almost certainly be both financially and politically detrimental to all of these public-sector employees who trusted their money with these management firms to see the massive propaganda power of the Trib papers unleashed upon them.”  

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.