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Don’t Let the Koch Brothers Buy ‘Time’ Magazine

A former Time editor condemns the billionaires’ bid to buy a stalwart advocate of climate action.

By Charles Alexander

November 22, 2017

An issue of Time magazine on a newsstand, November 16, 2017. (AP Photo / Mark Lennihan)

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Can you imagine what it would be like to see your life’s work suddenly go down the drain? I can—right now. As a former Time editor who spent 13 years editing the magazine’s coverage of environmental issues, I am in despair over reports that Time Inc. will soon sell itself to Meredith Corp. in a deal that includes a $600 million investment from Charles and David Koch, whose Koch Industries is a big player in the oil and gas business and whose philanthropy has long funded climate denial.

This article was a finalist for the 2018 Mirror Award for Best Commentary, presented by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications .

If that happens—and news reports indicate the deal could be announced as soon as November 28—it will be a tragic end to a Time story that was once glorious but turned sad as corporate woes increasingly affected the editorial product at one of America’s iconic news outlets. The story is not just about the fate of Time. The story is about the fate of the world.

So far, media coverage of the proposed deal (which is separate from AT&T’s attempt to buy Time Warner, which the Trump administration has sued to block) has missed the most important point. The problem is not that the Koch brothers are “conservative.” Henry Luce, who co-founded Time in 1923 and ruled the magazine company for more than four decades, was conservative, too—a staunch opponent of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Time thrived as a conservative publication, and the bias persisted for a long time after Luce’s death in 1967. The first cover story I ever wrote for Time, which was totally rewritten by the editors above me, was titled “Making Reaganomics Work.”

The biggest problem with the modern conservative movement is that it has sold its soul to the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and other kingpins of the fossil-fuel industry. For decades, the Kochs’ “dark money,” as The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer called it, has financed a campaign of disinformation designed to convince the public and politicians that climate change is nothing to worry about. In fact, any reputable climate scientist will tell you that global warming is the second-greatest danger to the human race, trailing only nuclear weapons. A majority of the American public is now concerned. Donald Trump and the Republican Party are not, because they know who butters their bread. Despite 30 years of scientific warnings about global warming, Congress has not passed an effective plan to slow the burning of fossil fuels. The Koch brothers, whether they understand it or not, appear to have plotted to destroy civilization as we know it for their own short-term profit.

Time was one of the first major publications to report on the environmental crisis in a big way. Even before the first Earth Day in 1970, Time established its Environment section in August of 1969. In October of 1987, Michael Lemonick wrote “The Heat is On,” the first of his many Time cover stories on global warming. In late 1988 Time’s managing editor, Henry Muller, decided to run the unprecedented special cover package “Planet of the Year: Endangered Earth,” which would report on the whole panoply of environmental threats, including climate change, ozone depletion, and species extinction.

That’s when I entered the picture. Muller moved me from being business editor to being science editor because he wanted me to oversee “Planet of the Year.” He knew I had once been a high-school science teacher, but I still had a lot of boning up to do. Time invited 33 top experts to a conference in Boulder, Colorado, for three days in November 1988—my crash course for editing “Planet of the Year.” My team and I listened to such luminaries as Edward O. Wilson, Gus Speth, Lester Brown, Tom Lovejoy, and Peter Raven. And, yes, Al Gore was there, as was Tim Wirth, one of Colorado’s senators.

It was a mind-blowing experience. It totally changed my life. Until then, I had no idea the planet was in such trouble. I got home to New York City and immediately sat down with my wife. My words went something like this: “You’re not going to see much of me over the next month. This is the most important thing I’ve ever done. This is about the future of our two sons. I’ve got to do this right.”

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Published as the first issue of 1989, “Planet of the Year” won all sorts of awards and accolades. But of course it didn’t solve anything. Reversing the ominous environmental trends would be a daunting long-term challenge, and Muller knew our coverage could not be a one-shot deal.

That same year Time Inc. entered the age of huge corporate mergers when it combined with Warner Communications. Fortunately, the new corporate structure had no impact on Time’s editorial choices. Muller and I had free rein to run dozens of major environmental stories produced by a large group of talented writers and reporters, including Lemonick, Dick Thompson, Eugene Linden, Madeleine Nash, and Andrea Dorfman.

The work proved to be not only good journalism but also good business. Toyota and Ford, eager to promote their fuel-efficient cars, lavished advertising dollars on us to sponsor special issues. We took a fair amount of flak from some quarters of the environmental movement for recruiting corporate sponsors, who were accused of “greenwashing” their images. It was a reasonable criticism, but as long as Ford had no say over what I put into the stories, I was happy to accept $10 million to produce a single special issue of Time. When Norman Pearlstine, the editor in chief of Time Inc., and I flew to Detroit in 2000 to seal the deal with Ford Chairman Bill Ford, I really thought the world was changing.

But of course it wasn’t. While Time and other mainstream media were churning out factual stories about climate change, the Kochs and their allies were revving up their financing of an alternative narrative. Despite saying during his presidential campaign that the United States should reduce its carbon emissions to counter global warming, George W. Bush in 2001 rejected US implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate agreement. Jim Kelly, then our managing editor, promptly responded by telling me to crank up another cover story. Called simply “Global Warming,” it had a striking cover image showing Earth as a frying egg in a huge skillet.

I had the idea that the last page of the magazine should be an open letter to President Bush, urging him to recognize the peril of global warming and take action. This letter was signed by Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, John Glenn, Walter Cronkite, George Soros, J. Craig Venter, Jane Goodall, Edward O. Wilson, Harrison Ford, and Stephen Hawking. Kelly later told me that he feared my letter idea was “kind of cheesy” until an assistant to Hawking, the famed physicist afflicted by ALS, sent us Hawking’s thumbprint in lieu of a signature.

This would be my last big project as a Time staffer, and my exit that year was sparked by another one of those pesky mergers. When AOL bought Time Warner with Internet-bubble dollars in what would turn out to be one of the most disastrous mergers in corporate history, the new bosses decided to slash payrolls. They offered immediate, greatly enhanced pensions or payouts to all the older, more experienced staffers. The offers were almost irresistible, and I took one.

For a few years, I had occasional return engagements at Time as a freelancer. In 2002, I edited a cover package entitled “How to Save the Earth” that included such celebrity writers as Jane Goodall and Jared Diamond. But Time’s days of factual but outspoken coverage of the environment were already under threat. I was ordered to include an article criticizing alleged excesses of environmentalism and a sidebar featuring contrarian Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish statistician who cherry picked data to assert, just like Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers did, that global warming was no big deal. It was the first time a top editor had inserted himself into the planning of an environmental issue and insisted we include some nonsense for the sake of “balance.”

But on the whole, Time’s climate coverage remained excellent under Kelly and my successor as science editor, Philip Elmer-DeWitt. For Earth Day 2006, Elmer-Dewitt and writer Jeffrey Kluger produced a cover story that directly challenged the Bush administration’s do-nothing approach; it was called “Global Warming: Be Worried. Be Very Worried.”

By the time Earth Day 2007 rolled around, however, Kelly had left as managing editor, while financial pressures began to have an impact on the quality of the environmental reporting. The centerpiece of the Earth Day issue was a breezy thing called “The Global Warming Survival Guide: 51 Things You Can Do to Make a Difference.” It was well-intentioned and certainly tailor-made for an Internet attention span, but in my view it trivialized the issue. That Earth Day was the only time I ever thought that Newsweek had a more in-depth environmental cover story than Time did.

Here’s where the story starts getting sad. The Internet was steadily destroying the newsmagazine business. Waves of buyouts and layoffs hit Time. The science team I had built dwindled to a handful of people. I can’t really blame management. When a newsmagazine is struggling to survive in the Internet age, you can’t easily afford to have anyone focus on environmental issues.

Meanwhile the corporate machinations continued apace. In 2009, Time Warner spun off AOL into a separate company. In 2014, it spun off Time Inc.—whose properties also include People, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated—leaving the magazine business to sink on its own.

That’s where we stand today, as Meredith Corp. and the Koch brothers move in for the capture. Time’s environmental coverage has gone from in-your-face to barely noticeable. And, despite the rapid development of wind and solar power, the world is still burning far too much fossil fuel to have any hope of curbing global warming. Last year saw a record jump in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.President Trump’s only response has been to dismantle president Obama’s climate programs and pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.

I concluded quite a while ago that my life’s work—the work I did to help insure that my two sons and now my grandson would have a decent future on a healthy planet—had failed. Now, if Charles and David Koch gain control of Time, I expect my life’s work to be repudiated in the very magazine in which it appeared. The thought is almost too much to bear.

I confess I don’t know what the solution is, but 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. Are there no corporate white knights to save Time from the dark knights, as Jeff Bezos saved The Washington Post? For the moment, we will still have the harsh truth about climate change published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and, yes, The Nation. But the Internet is hurting those publications’ revenues as well, and what happens if they too get bought by dark knights with fossil-fuel money?

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.

Charles Alexander In 23 years at Time, Charles Alexander was a reporter, writer, Business Editor, Science Editor and finally International Editor.

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