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Did The Post story do right by the Koch brothers?

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The Koch brothers, Charles and David, are the betes noire for liberals, much like George Soros is the bugbear for conservatives.

The Kochs own a multinational conglomerate — regarded as the second-largest privately held company in the world — that makes everything from toilet paper and Lycra to Dixie cups and Stainmaster carpets. They also have massive oil interests, recently bought ethanol plants, deal in derivatives and employ tens of thousands of people worldwide.

The brothers tie for fourth on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, with a net worth of $25 billion each. Soros, by the way, is seventh with $22 billion. The conservative-to-libertarian brothers, just like the liberal Soros, spend a great deal of their money to push U.S. politics, government and society in a particular direction through donations to politicians, campaign finance groups and philanthropies.

That makes them fair game for journalists.

On Oct. 9, The Post republished in its Business section a full-page story about the Kochs that was originally published Oct. 3 by Bloomberg Markets magazine. The Post has a partnership with Bloomberg and frequently runs its business stories.

The story was about illegal or questionable business practices by Koch subsidiaries dating back to the 1990s and earlier. The Post story, shortened from the original, describes Koch company activities that include bribing foreign officials in Africa, the Middle East and India to get contracts; selling petrochemical equipment to Iran (legal at the time); being found liable for a pipeline explosion that killed two teenagers in Texas; falsifying records about the amount of oil pumped from federal and Indian lands; and misreporting the amount of benzene emissions at a refinery.

It all looks pretty bad, and it is, on many levels. Koch companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and settlements to resolve these cases, no small change.

But I think The Post erred in republishing this story, or at least in the way it did. And when the Kochs complained to The Post after publication, The Post’s response wasn’t handled well.

Now, I couldn’t find any outright falsehoods in the story that would warrant corrections. Bloomberg, too, has published no corrections. But I think the story lacked context, was tendentious and was unfair in not reporting some of the exculpatory and contextual information Koch provided to Bloomberg.

In the days immediately after Bloomberg published its story but before The Post republished it, Koch swung its PR machine into action and put up a point-by-point rebuttal on KochFacts.com. The Powerline blog, written by lawyers who defend conservative causes and who have ties to the Kochs, did a deep-dive legal rebuttal of the story. Jennifer Rubin, The Post’s conservative opinion blogger, did a post that quoted Koch General Counsel Mark Holden extensively.

So did The Atlantic’s opinion blogger on business and politics, Daniel Indiviglio, who noted the major fines and settlements that General Electric has paid in recent years. ProPublica, the nonpartisan investigative journalism outfit, also weighed in, evaluating the Bloomberg story with more context.

Indeed, Lois Beckett of ProPublica made the point (in the comments section) that “Putting Koch’s entire legal and environmental record in the context of what other, less politically contentious companies have done would be an important service to readers.”

And that’s what The Post should have done.

As Indiviglio and Rubin wrote, lots of companies have foreign subsidiaries that until recently did business with Iran, including GE, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar. Many multinational companies have been investigated and prosecuted for violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and been fined and prosecuted for violating clean water and clean air laws.

Are the Kochs worse, better or in the middle? We can’t tell from this story.

Post Business Editor Greg Schneider said he “was aware” before republication that “the piece had stirred up some reaction, but we look to highlight work that is provocative.”

I think newspapers should always be provocative. But they should also be fair and provide context.

The Post could have included a sidebar summarizing and linking to the rebuttals that ran between Oct. 3 and 9. It could have called Koch directly — it didn’t — and put its comments in the sidebar.

After publication, the Kochs requested that The Post put online a one-paragraph statement from its general counsel, along with a link to KochFacts.com. I thought the statement was too strong; I might have negotiated over the wording of that statement, but the request does not seem unreasonable after a 3,000-word critical story is published. The Post did not publish the statement.

The Kochs are wealthy people with outsize influence; they are fair game for journalists. But journalists should also play the game fairly.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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