Media has long been trending toward greater disorder, but the purchase of Time Inc. by a rival magazine company on Monday captured some of the process’ harsh details: a snapshot of the financial chaos engulfing the traditional news business; a case study of how a once-vaunted publisher has been unable to stay relevant on the internet; another sign political activists—in this case the Koch brothers—may hold ambitions to influence independent outlets.
Such entropy is natural and the fate of Time Inc. is yet another sign that it’s tilting the scales rightward in a historic reshuffling of media power. The American right has long battled a mythical “liberal media” that dominates public debate; the changing politics and economics of media that have come into greater focus in recent years have shown that it’s finally winning.
David and Charles Koch’s private equity arm threw $650 million behind the successful bid for Time Inc. by Meredith Corporation, which publishes Better Homes & Gardens and other lifestyle titles. Among the endless options for billionaire investors looking to make a buck, magazines sit somewhere between the bargain basement and the seventh circle of hell. Yet representatives for the conservative megadonors have claimed that the investment is a pure financial play, and a Meredith press release announcing the purchase said they “will not have a seat on the Meredith Board and will have no influence on Meredith’s editorial or managerial operations.” It is true that many media companies have eked out a few final pennies by consolidating operations and whittling down expensive news outlets like Time and Fortune to their component parts.
But this is itself a type of influence, as the dissolution of Time Inc. would appear to make the company’s namesake flagship more vulnerable to a spinoff or shutdown on purely business grounds. More overt political meddling is also possible—an SEC filing dated Sunday at least left the door open to it: Representatives from Meredith and the Koch investment arm “will meet...to discuss then current business, financial and strategic matters” on a quarterly basis, it said.
Regardless of motive, it is likely that Time Inc.’s news titles will soon cease to exist in a recognizable state. Time magazine isn’t the discussion driver it was 10 years ago, let alone a half-century ago. But Koch-backed ownership of a newsroom that has aggressively reported on climate change—and is now approaching its own end times—is symbolic of a decades-long shift in who controls political information and the narratives driving how we all consume it.
Media criticism has been a central plank of the conservative movement since the end of World War II, when Time magazine was still edited by its staunchly Republican founder, Henry Luce. Publications like Human Events and National Review were founded as “fair and balanced” responses to much larger left-leaning outlets. Barry Goldwater’s flack handed out pins reading “Eastern Liberal Press” to reporters on the campaign trail in 1964, and the Reagan era-FCC revoked a policy requiring broadcasters to give equal airtime to opposing political views, setting the stage for talk radio and, in turn, Fox News. Draw a straight line through all these data points of right-wing media activism, which has grown more disingenuous over time, and you’ll reach the likes of James O’Keefe and Project Veritas. The goal has gradually shifted from press accountability to outright replacement of the “liberal media,” whatever dishonest means necessary.
The dividends of this campaign are finally trickling in. A right-wing media creation sits in the Oval Office. Legal challenges to media companies have found growing success across the country. The Trump administration has shifted the regulatory climate in conservatives’ favor, green-lighting the expansion of at-times cartoonishly right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group while blocking the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, which includes CNN. This comes in addition to a Justice Department that has made cracking down on the press a top priority.
In the meantime, the “liberal media” boogeyman continues to languish amid unprecedented financial pressure, unmitigated social fragmentation, and unrelenting political attacks. Avowedly right-wing outlets have survived, if not blossomed, in this same environment by catering toward their audiences’ political muscle memory, drilled into them over decades. It’s no accident that Fox News remains by far the largest cable channel, talk radio still outguns any of its much-talked-about liberal counterparts, and newer entrants like Breitbart drive a disproportionate amount of attention online, often with the financial backing of GOP donors. Even if these outlets don’t individually command the firepower of The New York Times and Washington Post or the ratings of NBC Nightly News, they march together as the singular bloc that the “liberal media” was long purported to be. Their audiences vote as such.
Myriad factors have contributed to the mainstream media’s waning clout as a cultural arbiter and political institution. And right-wing powerbrokers have begun circling their finally-wounded prey: take Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal or Peter Thiel’s secret plot first to kill Gawker and now erase it from the internet. Such bad-faith manipulation isn’t necessarily unique to conservative billionaires, but they’ve long exhibited a pattern of behavior in this regard.
Even if the Koch brothers are merely taking advantage of a business opportunity, it could result in Time and Fortune in the hands of a Trump-friendly owner or shuttered to cut expenses more quickly than they would have been otherwise. Both could mean less journalism in the wild at a crucial time—a win for the conservative movement’s long game of discrediting the “liberal media” to the point of political irrelevance.
Much of the recent confusion over what news is real and fake comes in part because we’re finally witnessing that power shift begin in earnest. The question is to what extent “principled” conservatives like the Kochs are pleased with the final results.