Billionaires are no strangers to the news-media business (one of them owns this very newspaper) but the big takeover deal announced on Sunday raised some eyebrows nonetheless.
It wasn't the acquirer — Meredith Corp., publisher of such wholesome lifestyle magazines as Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens — or the acquired, Time Inc., that generated concern and speculation. It was the identity of Meredith's financial partner in its $2.8 billion purchase of Time Inc. that made this more than just another bit of consolidation in the fading magazine industry.
Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch will supply about $650 million of Des Moines-based Meredith's purchase price for Time Inc., making them part owners of such titles as Time, People, Fortune and Sports Illustrated. The brothers own a vast energy, apparel and agriculture conglomerate called Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the nation, and this is their first major investment in a news operation.
The Kochs are also major financial supporters of libertarian and conservative causes and candidates, raising questions about their political intentions, if any, in backing Meredith.
After fueling the rise of the tea party movement in 2010, the Kochs have contributed untold millions of dollars in so-called dark money to support Republican candidates who oppose efforts to address climate change, advocate dismantling the Affordable Care Act, oppose unions and support tax restructuring favorable to wealthy interests.
"This is a passive financial investment," a Koch spokesman noted by email Monday, and Meredith said the billionaires will receive no seats on Meredith's board and have no editorial role in any of its newly acquired magazines. In a statement, it characterized the Kochs' investment as strictly financial, saying it underscored "a strong belief in Meredith's strength as a business operator, its strategies and its ability to unlock significant value from the Time acquisition."
The company additionally pointed out that the money is coming through the Kochs' corporate investment arm, not out of their pockets personally.
But that didn't stop some anxious guessing.
Writing in the Nation magazine, former Time editor Charles Alexander said the magazine's long history of award-winning environmental reporting is threatened by the Kochs' involvement. "It is perverse and dangerous for two billionaires with no commitment to factual truth to be permitted to buy a magazine that has been a voice for reason and use it to further their narrow business interests," he wrote.
He added, "I still have faith that in the long ideological war over climate change, the truth will eventually prevail. The ravages of global warming will become too obvious to be denied, even by the likes of Trump. But by then the damage to the planet may be irreversible, and my beloved Time, once a soldier for truth, may have fallen casualty to the forces of greed and deception."
Such concerns may be "overstated," said Jeffrey McCall, a communication professor at DePauw University in Indiana.
If the Kochs really wanted to push their political agenda through the media, he said, they would target outlets other than magazines. "Time just doesn't have the broad sway it once held."
The company's other holdings, such as People, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, "aren't major players in the broader political sphere," McCall noted.
Instead, McCall speculates, the Kochs see an easy entree into media ownership at a relatively low cost, at least for them. "If they are really intent on becoming media moguls, this could be the first, gentle toe in the water," he said. "Then, they could see how they like it and determine later if they want to expand their holdings and influence."
To be sure, the Kochs haven't been passive about their own media coverage in recent years. For several years, the company maintained a website, KochFacts.com, that provided rapid responses to news coverage it deemed negative, often rebutting the stories on a point-by-point basis (the site appears to be dormant; it hasn't been updated in more than two years).
Koch Industries has also gone on the attack. After David Sassoon of the Pulitzer Prize-winning site InsideClimate News reported on the company's Canadian oil interests in 2012, the company took out ads on Facebook featuring a photo of the journalist with the headline, "David Sassoon's Deceptions." The ad's copy read, "Activist/owner of InsideClimate News misleads readers and asserts outright falsehoods about Koch."
The Koch website on occasion published personal email exchanges between reporters and company executives — sometimes to the reporters' surprise.
The brothers also hired private investigators to look into the background of one writer, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker magazine, who has done groundbreaking work on the Kochs' network of political contributions and connections. (Her book "Dark Money," probed the rising influence of the Kochs and other ultrawealthy political donors in America.)
The company took the unusual step of writing to the American Society of Magazine Editors to object after the organization named one of Mayer's New Yorker pieces on the Kochs as a National Magazine Award finalist in 2011.
"Her article is ideologically slanted and a prime example of a disturbing trend in journalism, where agenda-driven advocacy masquerades as objective reporting," wrote Koch attorney Mark V. Holden in his letter. "Given these facts, it would be inappropriate for ASME to give Ms. Mayer's article an award in Reporting."
Mayer didn't win the award that year.
Asked about the Kochs' latest deal, Mayer was skeptical on Monday. "The Kochs have assured the public that they have zero interest in influencing news coverage through their financial stake in the Time Inc. deal, but they also have assured the public in the past that they had nothing to do with the rise of the tea party, that they have attached no strings to the academic programs they fund, and that they only act out of selfless altruism rather than self-interest when they pour money into politics, all of which have proven dubious," she said in an email.
"Time," she said, referring to the famed news magazine, "will tell."