ORLANDO, Fla. - Several dozen Central Floridians protested here May 16 outside the offices of The Orlando Sentinel against the potential sale of that newspaper and other Tribune Company papers to the billionaire Koch brothers. They were expressing concerns that ownership by the right-wing business titans could affect the Sentinel's news reporting and the direction of its editorial pages.
They waved signs with slogans such as "Stop the right-wing takeover of our paper," "Things go better without Koch" and "We need journalism not Koch propaganda" while local media, including a conservative blogger and the Sentinel itself, covered the protest.
"We want to make sure that it stays the Orlando Sentinel, and doesn't turn into the Tea Party Tribune," said Amy Ritter, executive director of Florida Watch Action, the non-profit that organized the event.
"It's important that people understand who owns the newspapers that they read and to question that, and to always fight for the truth [in the media]," Ritter said.
The Tribune Co. wants to unload eight of its newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune (fourth and tenth, respectively, in circulation among U.S. newspapers), the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The Orlando Sentinel and the Fort Lauderdale-based Sun-Sentinel have daily circulations of 174,000 and 166,000, respectively (288,000 and 246,000, respectively, on Sunday).
The winning bidder is expected to be announced by the end of May. One advantage that the Koch brothers appear to enjoy is that they are willing to buy all eight newspapers (combined value: $623 million) while other interested parties prefer to purchase only the Los Angeles Times.
Koch Industries, which has estimated 2012 revenue of $115 billion, has been ranked as the second-largest privately held company in America. Its subsidiaries include the Koch Pipeline Company, which owns 4,000 miles of oil, natural gas and chemical pipelines; Flint Hill Resources, a major oil refiner and chemical manufacturer; Koch Fertilizer, a major manufacturer of nitrogen fertilizer; and Georgia-Pacific, whose brands include Brawny paper towels and Angel Soft toilet paper.
The Koch brothers, David H., 73, and Charles G., 77, use their personal fortunes (estimated at a combined $71 billion) to fund a vast array of right-wing and libertarian groups, including Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the American Enterprise Institute.
These groups all seek to advance an anti-worker agenda that includes privatizing public education and Social Security, repealing Obamacare, eliminating the minimum wage, attacking evidence of climate change, suppressing voter turnout, getting rid of health and safety regulations and collective bargaining rights.
The Kochs also have provided lavish support to GOP candidates. In July 2012, David Koch hosted a $50,000 per person fundraising dinner for Mitt Romney at his $18 million beach house in Southampton, N.Y.
Koch Industries PAC gave more than $100,000 in direct and indirect contributions to the 2010 campaign of union-busting Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. The Koch brothers are "pretty much against everything that is good for the middle class and working Americans," said college student Holly Fussell.
Fussell, who subscribes to the Sentinel's on-line version, said she would like to see the paper purchased by someone who would maintain its "integrity" and use it "to spread local news, not propaganda."
The Koch Brothers interest in the newspapers appears to be part of what the New York Times characterized as their "three-pronged, 10-year strategy" of educating grassroots activists, influencing politics and using the media "to shift the country toward a smaller government with less regulation and taxes."
The Kochs outlined this plan three years ago in Aspen, Colo., at a meeting of rich, right-wing political donors that included GOP oil mogul Philip F. Anschutz, owner of The Weekly Standard, and hedge fund executive Paul E. Singer who sits on the board of neo-conservative dominated Commentary magazine.
The Kochs' vast wealth and history of political involvement raise questions about whether the newspapers could be used to, as The New York Times wrote, "serve as a broader platform for the Kochs' laissez-faire ideas."
"Koch Industries is renowned for a combative relationship with the national media, on several occasions declining to engage with reporters before an article runs and then pushing back aggressively online after publication," noted The Huffington Post.
"There's no precedent for how the Kochs would run major regional newspapers, leaving at times strained interactions with journalists as one glimpse into the billionaire brothers' perspective on the role of the Fourth Estate."
Sue Casterline, who has subscribed to the Sentinel for 31 years, said she would quit reading the paper if the Koch brothers purchase it. She fears that they will turn the Sentinel into a "propaganda rag" with a right-wing bias.
"They want to privatize everything," said Casterline. "They want to cut social services because they don't want to pay taxes. They're part of that one percent that wants to rule the world."