In an age of declining revenue and readership for newspapers it is interesting that a battle is shaping up between the left- and right-leaning zillionaires for control of the Tribune Media group of eight newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The Orlando Sentinel, and others.
The New York Times quotes the usual media enthusiasts crying in horror about the profanation of the Holy Temple of Journalism by filthy barbarian hands—”It’s a frightening scenario when a free press is actually a bought and paid-for press,” the director of one watchdog group said—but for more than 200 years American journalism has largely survived as a for-profit institution. The desire of wealthy people to ensure that the news media are shaped in what they see as a socially and politically positive direction is not in our view a wicked thing, and that would be true on the left and the right.
According to the Times, two groups are jostling for the Tribune company’s newspapers: the Koch brothers, conservative billionaires and longtime supporters of libertarian causes; and a varied group of wealthy, mostly liberal Los Angeles residents. From our point of view it’s an excellent thing that two groups of differing political persuasions are eying major newspaper acquisitions. We need diversity in journalism; the left and the right see society from different positions and both sides can offer useful and helpful insights.
From where we sit, the biggest danger to journalism today is the gentry liberal groupthink one can call the “Acela cocoon.” It’s particularly problematic for journalism right now because it mutes press criticism of the current Administration. On a handful of issues—civil liberties, drones, the environment, Iran—the Acela cocoon is significantly to the left of the Obama administration and so has been criticizing the Administration a little harder now that the election is out of the way. But on so many big issues of the day the Administration and much of the press are so closely allied that the press genuinely has a hard time criticizing power.
That would change under a GOP president, of course; the press would turn from lapdogs to pit bulls almost overnight. From the standpoint of the public interest, we need a strong right wing press corps to go after Democratic and liberal presidents and a strong liberal press corps to keep Republican and conservative politicians on their toes. That way, no matter who controls Washington the public’s interest in press oversight will be served, and we can also count on the left and right wingers in the press to check each other’s work. All this would be significantly better than the overrepresentation of the Acela consensus in the contemporary press; competition and rivalry is what the press needs.