Mark V. Holden is general counsel at Koch Industries Inc., and he has a big file relating to MSNBC. The progressive cable network tends to make frequent references to Koch Industries and its politically active, free-market major shareholders Charles and David Koch. Following those references, Holden often swings into action.
Last September, for instance, he sent an e-mail to MSNBC President Phil Griffin protesting the “false and disparaging statements” allegedly made on an episode of “Disrupt with Karen Finney.” In August, he wrote Griffin about a segment on “The Ed Show” that “contained a rehash of distorted and baseless allegations and misinformation” about a certain Koch seminar. In July, he wrote Griffin about a segment of “All in with Chris Hayes” that allegedly contained “misinformation” about Koch Industries. And that’s just for starters.
The file has gotten a touch fatter in the past week.
Last Thursday night, Holden was at his Wichita, Kan., home having dinner with his family. He heard his phone ring but didn’t rush to check it out. About a half-hour later, he picked it up and found out that “The Rachel Maddow Show” was planning on doing a segment mentioning Koch Industries. An e-mail from MSNBC producer Amy Shuster laid it out:
I’m sorry for the late request.
We’re covering the story of the Florida law that was just struck down on the 31st – the law that mandated drug testing for welfare applicants.
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?
Please let me know and sorry for the late notice.
Shuster’s acknowledgement of the tardy invitation-for-comment shows some self-awareness: Her e-mail arrived about 45 minutes before the Maddow show was to start. A reply came back from Koch’s Rob Tappan, agreeing that the inquiry was late and asserting, “Not sure what the point of your question is and not sure i see how we would have anything to say on this, since we aren’t involved in this issue in any way.”
By the time Tappan’s explanation came through, the Maddow show was already underway. And true to Shuster’s warning, Maddow indeed hauled the Koch brothers into a discussion of drug testing for welfare applicants. In one of her trademarked monologues, Maddow rapped the Koch brothers and their political machinery for running advertisements urging people not to sign up for Obamacare. From that point of attack, she shifted — somehow — to the welfare thing. Here’s the transcript:
Now, if you want to know what these Koch brothers-affiliated state groups are working on, other than telling people not to get health insurance, in Florida they, at least, have been promoting forced drug tests for people who are on welfare.
The allegedly Koch brothers-affiliated group is the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), a Naples, Fla.-based organization that promotes “public policies that achieve limited, constitutional government and a robust economy that will be an engine for job creation across the states.” The FGA helped to defend the 2011 Florida law that required welfare applicants to submit to drug testing. On several instances, Maddow claimed tight links between FGA and the Koch brothers. For example: “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.”
Of all the players in American politics to take on, the Koch brothers are among the most exacting. They’ve turned media pushback into a virtual subsidiary of their conglomerate, via KochFacts.com, which calls itself a “repository for media responses and factual information presented by Koch Industries, Inc.” The headline of its response to Maddow’s show was this: “Rachel Maddow Deliberately Misrepresents the Facts then Refuses to Admit It.”
That post came after Koch tried to get Maddow to issue a correction of her report linking the company to the work of the FGA. A letter from Holden to MSNBC included this passage:
Given the serious nature of this matter, we ask that on the air tonight Ms. Maddow correct her false, misleading, and malicious statements by reading the statement below unedited and in its entirety, and that this statement be posted on your website unedited and in its entirety:
“During last night’s show, I was wrong when I stated that Koch Industries, Charles Koch, and David Koch were involved in the Florida law concerning drug testing for welfare recipients. That was not a true statement. Contrary to what I said last night, Koch was not involved with these issues and did not work with the Florida Foundation for Government Accountability on these issues. I apologize for this misstatement of fact and regret it.”
That suggestion didn’t impress Maddow. After receiving it, she went on air and told her viewers: “I will not read scripts provided to me by anyone else. I do not play requests.”
On the substance of the matter, Maddow found comfort in the massive and complicated funding relationships among political groups on the American right, of which the Koch brothers are a central part: “Now, we are not the first news outlet to report on the Koch brothers funding distribution networks and groups small and large all over the country who have received funding through mechanisms that the Koch brothers have set up to support conservative candidates and conservative activism and conservative research and conservative advocacy. And the Koch brothers lawyers are not denying that they fund these networks or that the Florida Foundation for Government Accountability is one of the groups that has been funded through these networks. But they really do not want anyone reporting any connection between what those groups do and who gives them the money that they do it with.”
So Maddow’s alleging that the Koch brothers run a sprawling and opaque funding apparatus that wields influence across the country? Yes, and a story by The Post’s Matea Gold earlier this week supplies ample corroboration for the point. “The political network spearheaded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch has expanded into a far-reaching operation of unrivaled complexity, built around a maze of groups that cloaks its donors,” writes Gold. And if you don’t believe it, sample this graphic.
The Kochs’ extensive reach notwithstanding, they cannot be connected to everything. Tarren Bragdon, the chief executive officer of the FGA, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that his organization “did not work with the Kochs on the Florida drug-testing issue. To the best of my knowledge, they were not involved at all.” The Kochs’ general counsel, Holden, is a bit more definitive: “Right hand to God, we were not involved.”
A Nexis search seeking coverage of Koch involvement in the 2011 welfare-drug-testing debate in the months prior to the law’s passage comes up limp. Nan Rich served as the minority leader of the Florida state senate at the time when the drug-testing bill was under consideration. “I do not recall that there was any involvement to my knowledge. Now, that’s not to say there wasn’t,” says Rich, who saw it as a “signature” initiative of Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Rich is now mounting a campaign for the governorship. Representatives of the Florida Justice Institute and the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union each told the Erik Wemple Blog that they encountered no evidence of the Koch brothers among the law’s champions. “This is the first I’ve ever heard of the Koch brothers being involved. You got me,” says Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, a group that, along with the ACLU, successfully challenged the law in federal court.
Important distinction: Maddow didn’t allege that the Kochs pushed for the Florida law. She merely stated that a Koch-affiliated group did so. But just how affiliated are the FGA and the Koch brothers? Melissa Cohlmia, director of corporate communication for Koch Companies Public Sector LLC, says that “Koch has not contributed to the Foundation for Government Accountability. We have had no involvement whatsoever with FGA or the Florida law.”
The Maddow show’s bridge between the FGA and the Koch brothers comes from the State Policy Network (SPN), a group that supports “state-focused think tanks that promote and safeguard the principles of limited government, rule of law, property rights, personal freedom and economic liberty.” According to Cohlmia, the Kochs have given SPN a total of $40,000 spread out over five years between 2002 and 2012. In turn, SPN has worked with FGA. “Ms. Maddow makes a giant leap if that’s the connection she’s pointing to,” says Bragdon.
As NewsBusters’ Noel Sheppard has noted, Maddow didn’t treat her readers to an explication of just how she made the connection between FGA, SPN and Koch. Salon reported last year that Comcast has contributed to SPN, which might just make the FGA a “Comcast-affiliated group.” Comcast is the parent company of MSNBC.
The Erik Wemple Blog has presented MSNBC with questions on this matter: What’s the standard for calling a group “Koch-affiliated”? Is it any free-market, libertarian or conservative interest group? Is it any group that has a first- or second-generation funding or affiliation relationship with some Koch entity? Or is it a more strict standard? Holden notes that David Koch has given generously to the Lincoln Center, as well as to the Smithsonian. “Are they Koch groups?” asks Holden. “Where does it end?”
“MSNBC — they like to look for ways to put us in every story. Whether it’s sloppy, whether it’s malicious, it’s hard to tell sometimes,” says Holden. This latest go-round, says Holden, provides evidence that the network is committed to convincing viewers that “we’re after people on welfare.” That allegation, he’s convinced, will eventually acquire a “race angle.” “They try to make us into these right-wing reactionaries. It’s just not true,” says Holden.
The Koch general counsel says he’s “disappointed but not surprised” at how the network has handled this matter. Perhaps MSNBC has Koch fatigue from all the gripes that Holden sends its way.
In May 2012, Holden appeared on MSNBC with then-host Martin Bashir to rebut a report involving the Koch brothers and controversial stand-your-ground laws, which were then a critical part of the debate over the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida. On his visit to MSNBC HQ, Holden met with MSNBC President Phil Griffin, who admitted that the network had erred in the stand-your-ground report, says Holden. “He agreed with me,” says Holden. That said, Holden came away with the sense that the network’s leadership defers to its talent and “doesn’t have that much control over things.” “What he wants his network to be is represented by Rachel Maddow,” recalls Holden.
Attempts to get comment from MSNBC were unsuccessful.
(Disclosure: Maddow is a monthly Post columnist).
UPDATE: Daniel Schulman, a journalist with Mother Jones who’s at work on a book about the Kochs, e-mails this assessment of the alleged link between the Kochs and the welfare drug-testing law:
The Kochs have certainly supported the State Policy Network and some of its think-tank affiliates. But I haven’t seen evidence that they have directly funded the Foundation for Government Accountability or proactively pushed for the drug-testing law. Do they want to rein in entitlements? Absolutely. But in the case of Florida, I think the connection is tenuous.