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Tina Casey headshot

Koch Brothers Eyeball Media Mega-Merger

By Tina Casey

The New York Times touched off a disturbance in The Force last week when it reported that Charles and David Koch may provide $500 million in financial backing for a media merger that would bring legendary publisher Time Inc. under the umbrella of the Meredith Corporation. The deal would stamp the Koch name on a media empire that spans from Time, People, Money and Fortune magazines to Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens.

The New York Times did not name the sources behind the rumored media buy, and as of this writing Koch Industries has not commented. Nevertheless, the news raced around the blogosphere as reporters and analysts pondered the impact of the Koch brothers' interest in buying into a media empire.

On the other hand, with a deepening pool of traditional media, social media and perhaps even Russian operatives competing for attention, it's not obvious that the Koch brothers will get $500 million worth of influence for their investment.

Who are these Koch brothers?

Charles and David Koch are two of four Koch brothers. Their family business, Koch Industries, is reportedly second only to Cargill as the largest privately held company in the U.S. The Kochs are known for pouring millions into a sprawling network of conservative organizations, including dozens -- 84, according to Greenpeace -- involved in climate change denial.

Going by recent advertisements on National Public Radio, Koch Industries is in the process of rebranding itself as a sustainability-themed company. Koch Industries also sponsors an energy e-newsletter produced by the Washington Post, which regularly covers renewable energy topics. That, too, appears to be part of a broader green branding effort by Koch Industries.

The sustainability business model, however, does not quite overlap with the Koch Industries business model. The company leans heavily on fossil fuels, and as of 2014 it was the biggest lease holder in Canadian tar sands oil. The dollars it spends on green branding appear to be a drop in the bucket compared the Koch family money flowing into The Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity and other organizations that lobby on behalf of fossil fuels.

As recently as 2014 Nevada Senator Harry Reid characterized Koch Industries as "among the worst in toxic air pollution" in the country, producing "more climate-changing greenhouse gases than oil giants Chevron, Shell and Valero."

Koch Industries pushed back against the claim, and Politifact followed up with an in-depth examination. Politifat rendered a "mostly true"verdict as regards to the air pollution claim. That "mostly" qualifier didn't provide a glimmer of good news for Koch Industries, though. Politifact noted that it qualified its findings only because Koch Industries includes more facilities than the oil companies named by Reid.

Guess what, the Koch brothers are already media kings

If you caught those things about advertising on NPR and sponsoring a Washington Post e-newsletter, you're on to something. The Koch brothers are already a powerful presence in mainstream media. They have engaged in a long term public relations campaign that includes positioning the family as a champion of public health. Inserting the family name into liberal-leaning news organizations is consistent with that strategy.

The media strategy also includes a direct investment in news reporting, through the Koch-funded Watchdog.org organization.

In a 2013 article, the Columbia Journalism Review describes Watchdog as an organization that amplifies messaging from an "an ambitious right-leaning investigative outlet" called The Franklin Institute. The driving force behind Franklin is evident from its funding. As of 2011, Franklin received 95 percent of its funding from Donors Trust, an organization supported by the Kochs.

Despite Franklin's claim of objectivity, its research takes on a different shade when funneled through Watchdog. The Columbia article noted that the Koch brothers have kept a low profile compared to other media investors such as Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffett. Nevertheless, Watchdog has provided the Koch interests with an echo chamber that goes "beyond the facts of its findings:"

…Watchdog.org also mixes its reporting with high-decibel commentary—such as Greenhut’s recent column denouncing warnings about sequestration cuts as the government’s “latest strategy scam for more dollars.” The site does not distinguish between straight news and opinion in terms of presentation on the home page, although it does archive them in different categories.

In addition, Watchdog provides the Koch brothers with a shield against criticism of their funding preferences. In 2015, the liberal site Media Matters described a six-part Watchdog series in which the organization assembled a positive case for "dark money."

However, as Media Matters noted, the quality of reporting at Watchdog affiliates undercut their own argument.

The criticism of Watchdog's investigative reporting goes back as far as 2010, when The Portland Press Herald outlined a practice of "purposefully half-reporting stories for a conservative gain."

Portland Press executive editor Scott Wasser elaborated:

“...when you have a blogger not affiliated with a legitimate news organization or, worse yet, working for anonymous backers who may have unannounced political agendas, everything they post should be questioned.”

What's next for the Koch brothers

If the Koch brothers really were thinking about financing the Time-Meredith deal last week, they could change their minds this week. It's happened before. Back in 2013 word seeped out that the Koch brothers were considering buying Tribune Co., which owns The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times. In quick order they backed out of the picture.

Whether or not the Koch brothers come through on the Time-Meredith deal, they may be in for a more of a fight than they anticipated.

A look back at the 2016 presidential cycle is instructive. The Kochs did not back Trump during the primary campaign, and they were caught flatfooted by a more nimble -- and far more inflammatory -- Trump media supporter, namely, the Breitbart News organization.

For the record, Breitbart was financed by rival billionaire Robert Mercer until last month, when Mercer suddenly announced that he was selling his interest in Breitbart to his daughter Rebekah. Some observers have linked his decision to the federal investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election cycle.

Speaking of Russian influence, the Koch media strategy also does not address the onslaught of news churned up through Facebook and other social media during and after the 2016 election cycle. With evidence mounting that Russian state actors were behind a significant portion of misinformation distributed through social media during that period, it seems that the Kochs were beaten at their own media game.

The next couple of weeks should be mighty interesting.

Image credit: Donkey Hotey/flickr.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey