In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Broward may be Koch brothers’ own ‘deal from hell’

As puns go, the caption was pretty vapid. “Sun Sentinel doesn’t need a Koch problem.” (Pronounced, by the way, “coke.”)

The banner held by a small band of demonstrators also featured a caricature of those infamous (or famous, depending on one’s political leaning) brothers with money bags and vampire teeth.

Plainly, the protesters were alarmed by unconfirmed news stories suggesting that the very, very wealthy and very, very conservative Koch brothers, Charles and David, were about to snatch up the Tribune newspaper chain, including Broward’s Sun Sentinel.

Their worried assumption was that the energy moguls would turn the Trib newspapers into personal propaganda rags, espousing far-right causes.

About 10 demonstrators milled about in front of the Broward Financial Center during the Tuesday lunch hour, intending to warn passing motorists about a possible Koch invasion. It wasn’t a simple message to convey.

It says something about the difficulties faced by daily newspapers lately that passing motorists, catching a quick glimpse of demonstrators along Broward Boulevard, might not even discern that they were clamoring about the fate of the Sun Sentinel. Drivers might just as easily have assumed someone was irritated at Morton’s Steak House, Citibank or Fox Sports, which all boast street-level presences in the office building.

In better times, the Sun Sentinel was the prime tenant of prestigious digs on Las Olas Boulevard, with 56,000 square feet of office space and a masthead on the building pinnacle, 297 feet up.

But the newspaper was dragged down by the recession, falling ad revenue, flagging circulation and mostly by dunderhead notions of Chicago real estate billionaire Sam Zell, who bought the Tribune Company in 2007, saddled it with $13 billion in debt, put a former radio shock jock in charge, destroyed 4,500 jobs, looted retirement accounts and drove a great American media conglomerate into bankruptcy. Lately, the Sun Sentinel is just another tenant in a nondescript 24-story office tower.

But the Tribune Company emerged from bankruptcy Dec. 31 and its stakeholders indicated an interest in selling off the company’s newspapers sector (holding on to 23 TV stations), including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, the Hartford Courant and the Sun Sentinel. Last month, reports surfaced that the libertarian activists Kochs were interested. The guess is that the winning bid would require somewhere between $600 million and $700 million, pocket change for brothers at the head of $115 billion Koch Industries.

Their stunning personal wealth made the piddling demonstration Tuesday seem all the more quixotic. Ten demonstrators up against two of America’s most powerful industrialists. Some major union-backed demonstrations against Koch ownership were staged over the last 10 days in Los Angeles and Chicago. Smaller groups protested in Baltimore, Orlando and Allentown, Pa., home of another Tribune company paper. And on Tuesday, it was Fort Lauderdale, though no one among the demonstrators was actually from Fort Lauderdale. Most trucked up from Miami with a social action outfit called 1Miami. At least Jack Lieberman, the grand old man of South Florida’s leftie movements, was from Hollywood, within the Sun Sentinel’s circulation area. Radical Jack, as he was known in his days as a fiery anti-war student leader at Florida State University, talked about how progressive Broward would make a poor fit for the Kochs’ far-right philosophy.

Indeed, more than 67 percent of Broward County’s electorate voted for Barack Obama, the very fellow that the Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity foundation spent an estimated $30 million trying to unseat in 2012.

That was 67.12 percent for Obama despite the urging of the Sun Sentinel, which endorsed Mitt Romney. Which the Koch brothers might want to consider if they think that newspaper editorial pages can reconfigure readers’ brains.

The Kochs might also discover that grand philosophical ideas nurtured, with their millions, in the Cato Institute don’t quite translate to local newspaper coverage. Local newspapering has less to do with philosophy than with keeping an eye on influence peddlers or worrying about who’s stealing the silverware down at County Hall. The Kochs and their minions can deny global warming and rising sea levels on the editorial pages, but their newsrooms can’t pretend that big chunks of A1A didn’t wash away on Lauderdale beach last fall. There’s nothing theoretical about failing sewers and flooded streets.

They can preach self-sufficiency, but local newspapers can’t ignore homeless camps in city parks or natural disaster victims begging for government help. The libertarian promise to abolish Social Security won’t endear a newspaper to precious readers in Century Village.

The Kochs, not in the habit of losing money, might come to wonder if they were snookered into buying the Tribune Company newspapers. If it was some liberal conspiracy to get them to fritter away millions that might have gone to the American Legislative Exchange Council or the Heartland Institute or the Heritage Foundation.

Newspaper economics have been daunting enough for business execs who’ve spent their careers dealing with the confounding challenges of the digital age. Now a couple of Wichita guys who got rich in the oil patch are thinking about reprising Sam Zell’s venture into print media.

Zell came to call it his “deal from hell.” Maybe the demonstrators might have been more effective unfurling a banner with a message a couple of Zell’s fellow billionaires might actually consider: “Welcome, Kochs, to your own deal from hell.”

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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