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Karsh mulls Tribune sale to Kochs

University trustee Bruce Karsh, Trinity ’77 and president of Oaktree Capital Management, is being pressured to stop Oaktree from selling Tribune Company newspapers to the Koch brothers. 

The sale would give Koch Industries Inc. control of 10 daily newspapers, which include the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun. Those opposing the sale have staged protests throughout May and June in various locations, such as the Los Angeles Times building and Karsh’s home, citing the Koch brothers’ right-wing political agenda as a danger to the journalistic integrity of the publications.

Karsh is heavily involved in the University—he has served on the Board of Trustees since 2003 and co-chairs the Duke Forward campaign. In 2011, Karsh and his wife, Martha, donated $50 million for a permanent endowment to support need-based financial aid for domestic students and a scholarship for international students.

Karsh declined a phone interview, noting that he cannot discuss the matter with the press as a member of Oaktree Capital’s board of directors. He noted, however, that the situation has not yet been finalized.

“The company (not me!) announced that it is exploring strategic alternatives,” Karsh wrote in an email Wednesday. “It also said that no sale to anyone was imminent.”

Senior Lucas Spangher, a former columnist for The Chronicle, reached out to Karsh to persuade him against selling the Tribune newspapers to the Koch brothers. He noted that Karsh called him from London at midnight for a 40-minute phone conversation about the situation.

“The conversation was fairly unproductive or negative,” Spangher said. “His primary purpose for calling me was to explain his side of the story rather than listening to my arguments.”

Spangher is personally opposed to the sale because the Koch brothers have given money to support scientific studies that will deny climate change. A group established by the brothers—The Koch Foundation—has been a significant funder of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, which aims to address criticism of the planet’s temperature record.

Selling the Tribune newspapers to the Koch brothers is therefore shortsighted, Spangher said to Karsh, adding that shareholders in the company could withdraw their support over the decision. 

Karsh told Spangher that Oaktree Capital’s board of directors had considered that as a possible situation, but could not explain the matter further, as it was a confidential meeting.

Karsh declined to comment on the phone conversation he had with Spangher.

Because the Koch brothers have been known to push their political agendas by funding media campaigns—notably pulling support from PBS station WNET after it aired a piece critical of the brothers’ political activity—owning the Tribune newspapers could result in biased coverage of important topics, said sophomore Michael Pelle, who has communicated with Spangher regularly on the issue.

“It’s not just in the skewed reporting of information, it’s [also the] major scientific studies they are going to choose to ignore,” Pelle said.

Charles Koch has maintained that his company plans to acquire the newspapers to create a profitable business and not to advance a political agenda, according to a Wall Street Journal article. He added that there would be an editorial page that would serve as a forum for readers’ ideas.

Still, Spangher maintains that the purchase would result in skewed coverage and that Duke students should keep an eye on the developing situation.

“I told him that students are watching—Duke is aware of the situation,” Spangher said. “I appreciate the things he’s done for Duke, but if this goes down, there could be student action.”

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