WASHINGTON – 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, were not 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 website, KochFacts.com, the company asserted that Sassoon’s story “deceives readers” by suggesting that Koch Industries stands 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 did not 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 have written unflattering stories about the company or the Kochs’ myriad political and philanthropic activities.
Taking feuds public
Unlike most companies, which tend to work out their differences with reporters behind the scenes, Koch often takes its feuds public, using KochFacts.com as its spearhead. Journalists who have run afoul of the Kochs will often see their personal email exchanges with company executives posted, without permission, on the Koch website. 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 Barack Obama, the company decided to take the initiative. It started a forerunner of the KochFacts website in 2010, expanding it to its present form the next year.
“We have been the target of a multifaceted, politically motivated campaign that has attempted to misrepresent the Koch name, as well as to demonize us and what we do,” says Robert Tappan, Koch Industries’ spokesman in Washington.
He adds, “The (anti-Koch) campaign has involved concerted attacks by, among others, partisan leftwing 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 website in their media portfolio.
Tribune newspapers bid?
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 politically critical Florida — has touched off protests from unions and liberal political 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 website frequently denounces reporters from mainstream organizations for having an “agenda” — often the liberal kind — 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”).
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 of that that comes from conservative or libertarian voices, but we very much welcome other viewpoints as well.”
Enemy at The New Yorker
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 Holden in a letter that 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 on May 18, the website 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.”
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 emails 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.”
But 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 was not 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.