Having Spent Millions Influencing Three Branches of Government, Kochs Look to Buy Fourth Estate

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Having Spent Millions Influencing Three Branches of Government, Kochs Look to Buy Fourth Estate

The billionaire industrialist Koch brothers have spent tens of millions for decades on a long-term plan to reshape the legislative, executive, and judicial branches according to a corporate-friendly form, and may now make inroads into what is often referred to as the fourth branch of government: the press.

Koch Brothers Exposed

The New York Times reports that the Kochs are considering a purchase of the Tribune Company's eight regional newspapers, which would give them control of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune as well as papers in electoral battleground states.

Newspapers have been losing advertising dollars for years and have never been particularly profitable, so the potential purchase is not about generating revenue. It is instead about controlling the discourse.

A source who attended a major Koch political strategy summit three years ago said the goal “was never ‘How do we destroy the other side,’ ” but instead, “it was ‘How do we make sure our voice is being heard?’ ”

News outlets with an ideological slant are nothing new. But news outlets that act as an arm of a wider operation to reshape the American political landscape means a press that is less "free," and less able to check special interest influence over government.

"Kochtopus" Influence is Widespread 

For years, David and Charles Koch have spent tens of millions "making their voice heard" in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. For example: 

  • Koch Industries has given millions to candidates for state and federal office, and the Kochs have poured an undisclosed amount into secretly-funded “dark money” groups that in turn have spent millions on legislative elections. The Kochs announced plans to help raise $400 million to elect Republicans in the 2012 elections, for example, but the total amount raised and spent is not known. They’ve been a major funder of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which generates corporate-friendly “model” legislation for the states, as well as funding a variety of advocacy organizations, like Americans for Prosperity (AFP). 
  • With respect to the Executive Branch, the Kochs pledged $60 million to defeat Barack Obama in 2012, but had greater success with the 42nd president, George W. Bush: in the months leading up to the 2000 presidential elections, Koch Industries faced $350 million in fines for concealing illegal benzene releases from a Texas refinery, but after Bush became president, all criminal charges were dropped and the case was settled. On the state level, the Kochs bankrolled the gubernatorial campaigns for right-wing candidates like Scott Walker, then propped-up the reactionary reforms with millions in spending by AFP and related groups. In Wisconsin alone AFP spent $10 million defending Walker's union-busting bill and aiding him in the 2011 recall.
  • The Kochs have also spent millions funding “judicial junkets” that provide all-expenses-paid trips to fancy resorts for sitting judges to receive “education” on corporate-friendly legal issues. In recent years, David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity has also increasingly grown active in state and local judicial races, spending millions to influence traditionally non-partisan elections for judge. The Kochs have also funded groups like the Federalist Society, which aims to foster right-wing legal thought and create a network of right-leaning lawyers and judges, as well as bankrolling a variety of conservative legal organizations. 

Owning Media Can Amplify Koch's Influence

The media has often been referred to as the "fourth branch of government" or the "fourth estate:" a reference to the vital role that a free press plays in checking the other three branches of government, regulating and tracking the influence of special interests like the Kochs, and ensuring a well-informed citizenry. 

Staffers at the newspapers eyed by the Kochs are worried about the brothers eliminating this watchdog role in favor of "using a major news media as a vehicle for their political voice." And that would be bad news for those communities the papers serve.

By the Kochs extending their tentacles into the fourth estate, they can significantly expand their relative power and influence, particularly by controlling an institution that might expose their efforts to manipulate the other three branches. And by expanding their control over the press the Kochs could have even more power to reshape the American political landscape.

Brendan Fischer

Brendan M. Fischer is a law fellow with the Center for Media and Democracy and a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School in the class of 2011.

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