When The Washington Post hosted a public discussion about the future of the First Amendment last month, one of the sponsors of the event was a surprising name: the Charles Koch Foundation.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that journalist Jane Mayer’s reporting on the Koch brothers’ use of private investigators to uncover information about her was unsubstantiated. The story has been updated to include details of her reporting. The Kochs have not denied Mayer’s allegations.
In fact, The Post’s event was just a small part of the foundation’s broader move into free-speech advocacy and journalism-related projects over the past two years.
The foundation gave $80,000 last year to the American Society of News Editors to maintain a legal hotline for news organizations. It funded a college-journalism training program organized by the Poynter Institute, a journalism-education organization. It also underwrote surveys by the Knight Foundation and the Gallup Organization about young people’s attitudes toward the First Amendment, and it backed Techdirt, the legal and tech-policy blog, in its fight against a defamation suit.
Its biggest beneficiary may be the Newseum in Washington, which has received more than $500,000 for panel discussions, awards galas and other events promoting free expression.
The contributions are welcome in an era in which many journalism organizations are struggling financially. But they’ve also caused unease among some journalists about the foundation’s motives and intentions. Some have wondered whether the money is an attempt to greenwash the Koch brothers’ more controversial activities, such as opposing passage of the Affordable Care Act, fighting legislative efforts to combat climate change and advocating for fundamental changes in public school systems.
“I would say there was a fairly spirited conversation [among board members] about working with the Koch Foundation because of the reputation [the brothers] have out there,” said Teri Hayt, the ASNE’s executive director, in an interview. “Not all the press about them has been good. . . . A couple of people said, ‘Why do this?’ There is some sensitivity around the Koch name. It’s there for a reason.”
The Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride also acknowledged initial qualms.
“We talked about this internally a lot,” she said. “We understand their reputation, including their reputation of going after journalists.”
Representatives of the Koch foundation, based in Arlington, Va., describe their motives as high-minded and bipartisan. The foundation’s agenda includes defending press freedoms, promoting civil discourse and combating censorship, said Sarah Ruger, who directs the foundation’s “free expression” grantmaking.
Ruger describes the foundation’s outreach as an extension of Charles Koch’s ethos that “information must flow freely for a society to flourish.”
The irony is that the brothers have used secrecy in their own fundraising activities, overseeing a “dark money” network of mostly anonymous donors that raises massive amounts of money to advance a largely libertarian and conservative agenda.
At the same time, the company the Koch brothers control, Wichita-based Koch Industries, has maintained an aggressive posture toward journalists seeking to shed light on their activities.
The company has publicly attacked reporters who have sought to document the brothers’ political activities, the company’s environmental record and the Kochs’ support of efforts to raise skepticism about climate change.
In 2010, the company — an oil, chemical and consumer-goods giant — created a website, Kochfacts.com, as a platform to promote itself and to criticize reporters whose work it deemed biased or inaccurate (the website appears to be inactive.) Among other tactics, the site’s editors posted personal email exchanges between reporters and company executives — often to the surprise of reporters.
At one point, the company took out ads calling journalist David Sassoon, the founder of InsideClimate News, “a professional eco-activist” for his reporting on Koch’s pipeline business. (InsideClimate News won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for its reporting on lax regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines and was a finalist in 2016 for its investigation of ExxonMobil’s efforts to misinform the public about climate change.)
Koch Industries has saved some of its harshest tactics for Jane Mayer of the New Yorker magazine, perhaps the Kochs’ foremost chronicler. After Mayer wrote her first investigative piece on the brothers’ financial support of libertarian and conservative think tanks and organizations in 2010, Koch Industries tried to scuttle her nomination for a National Magazine Award. In a letter to the organizer of the awards, the American Society of Magazine Editors, the company’s general counsel, Mark V. Holden, wrote, “Her article is ideologically slanted and a prime example of a disturbing trend in journalism, where agenda-driven advocacy masquerades as objective reporting.”
The letter was posted on KochFacts.com.
Mayer said she suspected that the company had paid an investigative firm to dig up dirt on her and had passed it on to receptive news outlets. In her book “Dark Money” and later on the New Yorker Radio Hour, she reported that a firm hired by the Kochs created a dossier about her and passed it on to reporters at the New York Post and Daily Caller, who did not publish the material after determining it was false. No stories about Mayer were ever written; the Kochs have not denied Mayer’s allegations.
But weeks before Mayer published “Dark Money,” her 2016 book about the brothers’ political influence, the company circulated a letter among its employees that once again denounced her reporting. It disputed her revelations about family patriarch Fred C. Koch’s business ties to Nazi Germany during the 1930s, calling them “the lowest form of journalism.”
The Koch Foundation’s Ruger points out that her organization, a nonprofit, is legally separate from Koch Industries, which is one of the nation’s largest privately owned companies, with annual revenue exceeding $100 billion.
Yet the two Koch entities have significant overlap. Charles Koch is the chairman of both organizations; the foundation’s funding and general direction comes from him.
In recent years, Koch has stepped up his contributions. In 2015, grants of all kinds totaled $44 million; last year, the amount had more than doubled to $90 million, according to Trice Jacobson, the foundation’s director of strategic communications.
Despite their initial wariness, the foundation’s journalism recipients say Koch hasn’t tried to influence them after making a grant or investment.
The foundation was one of four sponsors of The Post’s First Amendment discussion last month, and “sponsors have no say over the content of our events,” said Kris Coratti Kelly, a Post spokeswoman. The Poynter Institute’s McBride and a representative of the Newseum, Jonathan Thompson, made similar comments.
Hayt, the ASNE’s executive director, also said there have been no strings attached. The discussions at her organization, she said, amounted to: “Will they help us or dictate to us? Well, no one dictates to us. And they haven’t.”