Rachel Maddow (Ali Goldstein/Associated Press)
Rachel Maddow (Ali Goldstein/Associated Press)

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow came in for some media criticism this month. PunditFact, NewsBusters and ourselves questioned some of her allegations about the activities of Charles and David Koch, the famous industrialists-cum-political activists.

In her Jan. 2 program, Maddow connected the Koch brothers to a Florida law that required drug testing for welfare applicants. A federal court had just declared the law unconstitutional, and Maddow suggested that the brothers helped bring this misguided legislation into existence — along with a group called the Naples, Fla.-based Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA): “That’s the Koch-brothers group that has been promoting this idea, right, the same Koch-brothers group that has been telling people not to get health insurance. They’re the ones that came up with the idea that it’s a great use of state funds.”

The Koch brothers denied any involvement with FGA: “Koch has not contributed to the Foundation for Government Accountability. We have had no involvement whatsoever with FGA or the Florida law,” Koch spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia told the Erik Wemple Blog.

Maddow’s contention that the FGA was a Koch-affiliated group rested on the associative property. An e-mail sent by a Maddow producer to the Kochs just before the Jan. 2 program sketches out the case: “The Florida Foundation for Government Accountability (FFGA) has supported drug testing for welfare recipients. The Koch Brothers have donated to the State Policy Network of which the FFGA is a member. Do the Kochs wish to comment on mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients?”

True: The Kochs had donated to the State Policy Network, as had Comcast, the parent company of MSNBC. But was that relationship sufficient to charge that the FGA was affiliated to the Kochs, as Maddow claimed? “Tenuous” is how Daniel Schulman, who is working on a book about the Kochs titled “Sons of Wichita” (to be published in May), characterized the tie that Maddow was peddling.

Irked by the host’s reporting, the Kochs typed out a correction that they asked Maddow to state on the air. On her Jan. 3 show, she refused: “I will not read scripts provided to me by anyone else. I do not play requests.”

There the standoff remained, until last night’s Maddow program. Animated by the Kochs’ denial of involvement with the FGA, the host fired away. She’d found the “Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow Program” under the auspices of the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University, a group that lists Charles Koch as its chairman. Among the organizations that participate in this fellow program? You guessed it.

Maddow: “And oh, hey, look, that group, that the Koch brothers say they and their foundations have absolutely no involvement with whatsoever? The Foundation for Government Accountability, that group in Florida that has been pushing that drug-test-the-poor law? Look, there they are. Same guys. Same guys the Kochs say neither they nor their foundations have anything to do with.” (Note: The IHS states that the summer fellow program has moved to the Charles Koch Institute, which lists a smaller set of partner organizations, including the IHS).

As a gotcha exercise, Maddow’s work here is admirable. After the Kochs made a sweeping statement of non-affiliation, Maddow found a relationship, right there on the Internet. Busted.

At the same time, Maddow is now premising her case of Koch-FGA collaboration on a Web page. As the Summer Fellow Program’s Web site states, the FGA is among 80 organizations that take part. Does that mean that every initiative of the FGA is essentially an initiative of the Koch brothers? That appears to be Maddow’s contention. “This is also about how American politics works now, and whether it stays in the light or whether it is allowed to go underground, because how they are working their side of politics now is millions and millions and millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars that are intentionally made difficult to trace, funneled to networks that build networks that you can disown when you want to if you want to,” she argued in last night’s program.

There’s firm ground for the opaqueness argument. As The Washington Post reported this month, the Koch brothers’ political network is a web of “unrivaled complexity.” Says Schulman via e-mail: “The Koch network is somewhat amorphous and certainly opaque. There are many layers to it and it can be difficult to tell where their influence ends and where it begins. They are hugely influential in all corners of the country, but a certain mythology has also risen up around the brothers in which they are the wallet bankrolling every political fight. The legend of their power has been useful when it comes to building a political power center within the conservative world, as they have done, but it also means that the Kochs occasionally get tied to matters they have little or no involvement with.”

Delving into the particulars of the Koch brothers’ political activities is precisely what an enterprising anchor at MSNBC should be doing. The problem is that Maddow, in this instance, appears to have done things backwards. On Jan. 2, she made a series of allegations that carried little substantiation. The layman’s takeaway from her monologue that night was that the Koch brothers were a huge force behind the Florida drug-testing law. When challenged on her reporting, she refused to acknowledge any shortcomings. Then, last night, she went back to the subject with some new facts. The timeline thus suggests some un-journalistic behavior on the part of Maddow — that is, making a public claim and then seeking evidence in support of it.

Last night’s effort to revisit the topic stands as something of a concession that the original report was weak. And now her case rests on … summer interns. Koch spokeswoman Cohlmia tells the Erik Wemple Blog:

Although in the end Ms. Maddow cannot admit she was wrong – that Koch had no involvement in the Florida law concerning drug testing for welfare recipients and we did not work with the Florida Foundation for Government Accountability on these issues – we did accomplish one thing. We now understand what Ms. Maddow believes constitutes a “Koch-affiliated” or “Koch-connected institution.” That is, if an individual who has a relationship with us can apply for a role at another institution, then that institution is “Koch-affiliated” and Koch is responsible for whatever the group does or says.

Well, just how many of these summer fellows actually did help out in promoting the drug-testing law? The Erik Wemple Blog has reached out to the FGA and to the Kochs in search of an answer to that question. Feisty and crazy-smart, Maddow will doubtless keep probing Koch’s Florida connections, and you can bet that future programs will circle back to the drug-testing law. We’ll surely hear about any damning evidence she and her producers come across. But if they find evidence corroborating the Kochs’ side of the story, will we hear about that?

(Disclosure: Maddow writes a monthly column for The Post and thus is an Erik Wemple Blog-affiliated group.)

UPDATE: Cohlmia refers the Erik Wemple Blog to the Institute for Humane Studies for inquiries on fellowship placements. We are awaiting an answer from the institute. Cohlmia notes, “One participant in a Charles Koch Institute program has worked at FGA.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.