When environmental journalist David Sassoon began reporting about the billionaire Koch brothers’ interests in the Canadian oil industry last year, he sought information from their privately held conglomerate, Koch Industries. The brothers, who have gained prominence in recent years as supporters of and donors to conservative causes and candidates, weren’t playing. Despite Sassoon’s repeated requests, Koch Industries declined to respond to him or his news site, InsideClimate News.
But Sassoon, who also serves as publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning site, heard from the Kochs after his story was posted.
In a rebuttal posted on its Web site, KochFacts.com, the company asserted that Sassoon’s story “deceives readers” by suggesting that Koch Industries stood to benefit from construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — a denial Sassoon included in his story. KochFacts went on to dismiss Sassoon as a “professional eco-activist” and an “agenda-driven activist.”
It didn’t stop there. The company took out ads on Facebook and via Google featuring a photo of Sassoon with the headline, “David Sassoon’s Deceptions.” The ad’s copy read, “Activist/owner of InsideClimate News misleads readers and asserts outright falsehoods about Koch. Get the full facts on KochFacts.com.”
Such aggressive tactics have become part of the playbook for Koch Industries and its owners, Charles and David Koch. Faced with news articles they consider flawed or biased, the brothers and their lieutenants don’t just send strongly worded letters to the editor in protest. Instead, the company takes the offensive, with detailed responses that oscillate between correcting, shaming and slamming journalists who’ve written unflattering stories about the company or the Kochs’ myriad political and philanthropic activities.
“We have been the target of attempts to misrepresent the Koch name, as well as to demonize us and what we do,” says Robert Tappan, Koch Industries’ spokesman in Washington.
Unlike most companies, which tend to work out their differences with reporters behind the scenes, Koch (pronounced “coke”) often takes its feuds public, using KochFacts as its spearhead.Journalists who’ve run afoul of the Kochs will often see their personal e-mail exchanges with company executives posted, on the Koch Web site — sometimes to the reporters’ shock. KochFacts also posts lengthy, point-by-point critiques of news stories and calls out reporters for alleged factual errors and biases. A typical KochFacts headline from May: “New Yorker’s Jane Mayer Distorts the Facts and Misleads Readers Again.”
The rapid-response effort is relatively new for the Kochs, who control one of the largest privately held companies in the world. The brothers kept a relatively low profile before 2009, appearing mostly in news articles about the world’s richest people. But as stories began to emerge about the Kochs’ political activities, including their funding of libertarian groups and conservative candidates opposed to President Obama, the company decided to take the initiative. It started a forerunner of the KochFacts Web site in 2010, expanding it to its present form the next year.
There is an anti-Koch campaign, Tappan says, that “has involved concerted attacks by, among others, partisan left-wing political groups and their aligned bloggers and media outlets. Those points of view have found their way into the more mainstream media. The campaign against us is a well-established art form of the left that has been developed and used against many of their opponents over the decades. Koch is just the most recent example.”
Soon, the Kochs may have more than just a Web site in their media portfolio.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in June, Charles Koch confirmed widespread speculation that his Wichita-based oil, chemical and consumer products conglomerate was interested in acquiring newspapers. He declined to comment on whether that might include a bid for the Tribune Co.’s newspapers, which have been for sale since February. But the prospect that the Kochs might buy Tribune’s eight metropolitan papers — which include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and two leading papers in the politically critical Florida — has touched off protests from unions and liberal activists.
If KochFacts is any indication, the Kochs take a rather dim view of the news media, or at least some parts of it. The Web site denounces reporters from mainstream organizations for having an “agenda” — often liberal — in reporting on the Kochs and their company.
The Washington Post has occasionally come in for some of this criticism, particularly after it reprinted a Bloomberg Markets magazine investigation of Koch Industries in late 2011 (a Koch executive declared the story “dishonest”). But others, such as the New York Times, have fared much worse. In a letter to the Times’ public editor early last year (and duly posted on KochFacts), Koch spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia cited more than 60 stories and commentaries “which reveal the Times provides a frequent and high platform for the grievances of left-wing advocacy groups and the Democratic party about us.”
By contrast, stories that are sympathetic to the Kochs or play to their political preferences — limited government, lower taxes, reduced regulation — are highlighted as “Notable Links.” The links often are to articles from conservative or libertarian sources, such as Breitbart.com, the American Spectator and the Washington Free Beacon.
Nevertheless, “this is not about a left versus right or a mainstream versus conservative perspective,” said Philip Ellender, the president of Koch Industries’ government and public affairs unit. “Certainly there’s a lot that comes from conservative or libertarian voices, but we very much welcome other viewpoints as well.”
If the Kochs have a Public Enemy No. 1 in the media, it is most assuredly Mayer, a writer for the New Yorker magazine. Mayer has been on the company’s radar since the New Yorker published her 10,000-word investigation of the Kochs’ philanthropic and political activities in August 2010.
The article, titled “Covert Operations,” detailed the Kochs’ financial support of a network of conservative-libertarian think tanks and organizations. The Kochs were so incensed by the article’s suggestion that their activities were “secretive” and designed for personal enrichment that the normally press-averse David Koch gave several interviews. In one, he denounced Mayer’s article as “hateful.” The New Yorker stood by its story.
When Mayer’s article became a finalist for a National Magazine Award in early 2011, Koch Industries took the unusual step of writing to the award’s sponsor, the American Society of Magazine Editors, to object. “Her article is ideologically slanted and a prime example of a disturbing trend in journalism, where agenda-driven advocacy masquerades as objective reporting,” wrote Koch attorney Mark V. Holden in his letter, which was posted on KochFacts. “Given these facts, it would be inappropriate for ASME to give Ms. Mayer’s article an award in Reporting.”
Mayer was not selected for the reporting award that year.
KochFacts now denounces Mayer even before her stories appear. In a posting May 18, the Web site predicted that a forthcoming Mayer article (about David Koch’s involvement in public television) “will be another attempt to smear us while advancing her partisan agenda.” But that was just a guess; as the anonymous author of the post admitted, “We don’t precisely know the content of her story.”
For her part, Mayer offered only the following statement for this story: “Anyone in this country has a right to buy a newspaper, if they can afford one, and that extends to Charles and David Koch, too. But why they might want to is baffling since they seem to have an aversion to dealing with most of the independent press.”
The Kochs’ long-running argument with Mayer comes complete with a subplot. In late 2010, the conservative Web site Daily Caller began checking an explosive allegation: that Mayer had plagiarized some of the passages in “Covert Operations” and in an unrelated article she wrote a decade earlier.
The Web site never published a story about them. Although it was never clear where the allegations came from, the timing of them, and the extensive research that appeared to go into them, suggested to people at the New Yorker that someone was working overtime to discredit Mayer. The Kochs’ representatives said they had no knowledge of the plagiarism allegations. Mayer and The New Yorker say the allegations are false.
Tucker Carlson, the Daily Caller’s editor in chief, said in an interview that he doesn’t remember who gave his Web site the original tip about Mayer. But Carlson said the source is immaterial. “Every story idea winds up with an agenda behind it,” he said. “I’d be happy to take a story from Satan himself as long as it was true.”
Like Mayer, Sassoon has been on the receiving end of some special attention from the Kochs. In 2011, Koch Industries objected to a series of articles he published in SolveClimate News, the forerunner of InsideClimate News, that raised questions about Koch Industries’ potential profit from Keystone. This time, the company went over Sassoon’s head and took its complaint to Reuters, the wire service that distributed SolveClimate’s stories.
Koch’s Ellender engaged in a long exchange of e-mails with Jack Reerink, a Reuters managing editor (again, duly posted on KochFacts and copied to top managers at Reuters), in which he challenged the accuracy and integrity of the reporting. He asked Reuters to justify its distribution of the articles.
Sassoon describes Ellender’s complaint as “intimidation.” He says, “They tried to get us fired.”
However, Reuters declined to take action; Reerink defended Sassoon and InsideClimate as “a legitimate news organization that meets our standards for inclusion as a content provider.” (InsideClimate won the Pulitzer Prize this year for its reporting about a 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.)
Tappan says Koch wasn’t trying to interfere with InsideClimate’s business relationship with Reuters, but it was trying to get its message across. “We advised Reuters that Mr. Sassoon’s reporting was false and questioned why a news outlet of their stature would permit him to make such reports under their banner,” he said.
In any event, Tappan and Ellender suggest that the Kochs’ get-tough stance with the news media is paying off. KochFacts has drawn an average of about 15,000 visitors per month for the past two years, they say.
And just as important as how many may be who. The company says it is able to reach “key audiences” through the site, including the news media, elected officials and political organizations. The company advertises on two Web sites that are widely read by reporters — Poynter.org and Jimromenesko.com.
As for what the Kochs’ squabbles with the media may foretell about their proprietorship of their own newspapers, Tappan refers a reporter to Charles Koch’s comments to the Wall Street Journal last month: “Our focus would not be to have a newspaper as a vehicle for what’s in our business interest or even our philosophical interest. We would have the best chance to succeed by, as we do with our other businesses, understanding what our customers value. Going in, we believe this would be to offer real news, not just selective news and not news with spin on it.”