Blog ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS
A new book by New Yorker writer Jane Mayer lays out how the oil billionaire Koch brothers rose to the powerful position they are in today, where they wield unquestionable political influence and have shaped public opinion in drastic ways. Titled Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, the book brings to light many tactics that the Koch brothers and others in their network of like-minded millionaires and billionaires have used over the years to push their agenda while hiding the true motivations behind it.
The book examines the influence of several of the country's wealthiest conservative donors, but it pays particular attention to the activities of Charles and David Koch, who have organized their network and spearheaded the group's political efforts. "Few had waged a more relentless or more effective assault on Americans' belief in government," Mayer wrote of the Kochs.
A key element of the Koch brothers' strategy is influencing the media. Through media, they have advanced their political and ideological goals and attacked those who stand in their way. The Koch brothers and their network have paid conservative media figures to promote their message, bankrolled front groups that run aggressive anti-environmental media campaigns, and even created their own right-wing "news" outlets. Meanwhile, they've garnered some favorable mainstream media coverage by tightly controlling reporter access to their summits and other events, while attacking and otherwise intimidating journalists who dare to shine a light on their activities.
Here is how the Koch brothers and their network have infiltrated the media:
"Instead of earning the media, they were paying for it."
This is how former Republican Rep. Dick Armey of Texas described the activities of the Koch front group he once chaired. Indeed, Mayer lays out several ways that Koch-backed front groups have spent money to create a "national echo chamber" in the conservative media. Most notably, she highlights two Koch-backed organizations that directly paid conservative pundits to promote the Koch agenda on air.
The first group is FreedomWorks, which originated from the Koch-founded Citizens for a Sound Economy. Mayer reported that FreedomWorks "quietly cemented a deal" in 2011 with Glenn Beck, who was a Fox News host at the time. Beck read "embedded content" written by FreedomWorks staff in exchange for an annual payment "that eventually topped $1 million." Mayer further explained: "They told him what to say on the air, and he blended the promotional material seamlessly into his monologue, making it sound as if it were his own opinion." Because of this deal, Politico reported, FreedomWorks saw "50,000 new email sign-ups."
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) -- the other Koch front group that formed out of Citizens for a Sound Economy and has received significant funding from Koch foundations -- forged a contract with conservative radio host Mark Levin to promote AFP's attacks on climate scientist Michael Mann, thereby "copying the deal that FreedomWorks had struck with Glenn Beck." Levin attacked Mann and other climate scientists, Mayer wrote, accusing "enviro-statists" of "inventing global warming in order to justify a tyrannical government takeover."
In addition to the deals between Koch front groups and conservative pundits that are identified in Mayer's book, the Heritage Foundation, which has received millions from Koch foundations, has spent millions to sponsor the radio shows of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, according to Politico.
Additionally, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the central group in the Kochs' financial network, paid Republican strategist Frank Luntz's firm $1.5 million for messaging work in 2014. Luntz then used his media platform as an analyst at CBS News to praise the Kochs and defend their spending without disclosing his own financial ties to them.
And in 2011, Koch Industries hired Republican political operative Michael Goldfarb to improve the company's image while Goldfarb was working as opinion editor for the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard. Shortly thereafter, The Weekly Standard published a long piece defending the Kochs, which was described by investigative reporter Lee Fang in a Think Progress piece as "8,000 words of hagiography." Goldfarb is still listed as one of The Weekly Standard's contributing editors, and the conservative magazine has published several articles in recent weeks criticizing Jane Mayer and her book.
The Koch brothers and their network have had a hand in creating several "news" outlets that echo the Kochs' conservative, anti-government message: The Daily Caller, The Washington Free Beacon, and the Franklin Center.
The Daily Caller was founded by financial investor Foster Friess, a major Koch donor who has attended many of the Kochs' annual summits and donated at least $1 million to conservative causes that the Kochs support. Friess provided $3 million in seed funding to The Daily Caller, a conservative website which, according to Mayer, has "functioned more as an outlet for opposition research paid for by the donor class." Charles Koch's foundation would later back the website, and the Daily Caller News Foundation is currently listed as a "partner organization" of the Charles Koch Institute. Tucker Carlson, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller, also has other ties to the Kochs: He joined the Cato Institute in 2009, which the Koch brothers co-founded, and he is currently listed as a senior fellow there. The Cato Institute has received millions of dollars from the Koch family, and David Koch currently sits on Cato's board of directors. Mayer notes that The Daily Caller was "the chosen receptacle" for the Kochs' retaliatory attacks on her after The New Yorker published an exposé she wrote on the Kochs in 2010.
After the Kochs started receiving some bad publicity, Koch Industries hired Michael Goldfarb to improve the company's image. Later, in 2012, Goldfarb founded The Washington Free Beacon, and he remains its chairman. The website has published articles defending the Kochs, attacking their opponents, advancing the Kochs' criticisms of President Obama and Sen. Harry Reid, and promoting their agenda. Plus whatever this is.
The Franklin Center, which runs Watchdog.org, is the "investigative news" service for the State Policy Network, a network of conservative think tanks that are largely funded by Koch-backed dark money groups DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund. The Franklin Center itself received 95 percent of its revenue from Donors Trust in 2011, and it was receiving millions from Donors Capital Fund as of 2013. Mayer writes that the Franklin Center frequently "attacked government programs, particularly those initiated by Obama," adding that it "claimed to be a neutral public watchdog, but much of its coverage reflected the conservative bent of those behind it." As Mayer pointed out, a couple of journalists have "t[aken] issue with the Franklin Center's labeling of its content as 'news.'" Yet the Franklin Center continues to reach far and wide, with 40 state news websites and writers in 34 states as of 2013, and its reporting appearing in state and local newspapers at times.
Key to the Kochs' success has been the "growing fleet of nonprofit groups" that "mobilized public opinion" behind their agenda, writes Mayer, particularly against action on climate change. The Koch brothers "had built and financed a private political machine," backing "[e]ducational institutions and think tanks all over the country" that "promoted [their] worldview." Mayer cited Harvard scholar Theda Skocpol, who noted: "Climate denial got disseminated deliberately and rapidly from think tank tomes to the daily media fare of about thirty to forty percent of the U.S. populace."
Mayer focused on two organizations in particular: Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the Cato Institute. In addition to "spearhead[ing] a national drive to block action on climate change," AFP "took a lead role in organizing the Tea Party rebellion." But the Kochs insisted that they were not involved in the tea party movement, and as Mayer noted, "such denials helped shape the early narrative" in the media "of the Tea Party movement as an amateur uprising by ordinary citizens."
The Cato Institute, which was co-founded by the Koch brothers, took a lead role in attacking the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. Cato published "a steady stream" of misleading reports, which were frequently criticized by experts yet "echoed throughout the network of Koch-funded groups." Cato also "energetic[ally]" promoted the faux Climategate scandal -- falsely claiming that climate scientists deceitfully manipulated data -- in the mainstream media, where Cato officials were often "respectfully quoted as nonpartisan experts." One Cato scholar gave more than 20 interviews pushing the contrived scandal, spreading the story "from obviously slanted venues to the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, adding mainstream credence."
AFP and Cato have continued to promote their anti-environment agenda in the media without disclosing their oil industry ties. And those groups are just the tip of the iceberg; Media Matters has identified dozens of groups backed by fossil fuel interests that are working to attack the Environmental Protection Agency's climate change plan. One tactic commonly employed by these groups is to run op-ed campaigns promoting false and misleading attacks on environmental policies in state and local newspapers, as Media Matters and others have detailed.
The Kochs' political activities have largely been "shrouded in secrecy," writes Mayer, and such secrecy is a key to their success. When they do make media appearances, it is to "portray themselves as disinterested do-gooders and misunderstood social liberals."
The Kochs' biannual donor summits, where they have "succeeded in persuading hundreds of the other richest conservatives in the country to give them control over their millions of dollars in contributions," have historically been closed-door affairs. Only in recent years have the Kochs invited a handful of mainstream media reporters to attend the summits, but just in "snippets," and under tightly controlled conditions. Reporters had to agree to refrain from identifying conference attendees without their consent or approaching donors for interviews, and they were allowed in to only a select number of sessions, according to a copy of the conditions for the August 2015 summit obtained by ThinkProgress. That summit thereafter received positive coverage in publications including Politico, USA Today, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
But these conditions also drew some criticism from media ethicists. Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, told ThinkProgress that the terms were "outrageous," and suggested that news organizations should "refuse to attend under these circumstances." Robert Drechsel, a professor and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found it "remarkable" that news organizations "would agree to in effect become complicit in facilitating such secrecy and anonymity." Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone questioned whether the rules "still allow for reporting in the public's interest" or are "so rigid that the resulting coverage will primarily benefit the Kochs." Calderone noted in a separate article that the rules "could restrict journalists from reporting what's right in front of their eyes," and that "it's possible journalists end up reporting largely what the event sponsors want ... but less on the power brokers attending who play key behind-the-scenes roles in the 2016 election."
Mother Jones' Daniel Schulman told Calderone that the rules allow the Kochs to "closely control their images." And indeed, at the most recent conference, Undercurrent's Lauren Windsor overheard that a USA Today reporter was "prepped" by the Koch's communication staff hours before an article was published that Windsor said "dutifully relayed Koch talking points" about the new Koch group that is purportedly aiming to address poverty and education. Bloomberg News was recently prompted by a Koch spokesperson to remove a line from an article in which the reporter stated that Charles Koch "warned that climate change's worst effects would fall on people in poorer parts of the world." The article was changed to say that according to a Koch spokesman, Koch was "referring to the impact of bad climate policies or programs, not the negative effects of climate change itself."
Ever since her first long-form article on the Koch brothers in The New Yorker in 2010, Mayer has faced intimidation tactics and efforts to discredit her by the Koch network.
Koch operatives formed a "boiler room operation," seeking to discredit the New Yorker story by "undermining" Mayer. They hired a private investigation firm looking for "dirt" on Mayer, who was told by a well-informed source: "If they couldn't find it, they'd create it." After their search for dirt turned up nothing, Mayer learned that The Daily Caller intended to publish a "hit piece" accusing her of plagiarism. But Mayer reached out to the reporters she was supposedly plagiarizing, and they "offered to make public statements" supporting her, so The Daily Caller dropped the story.
Mayer is not the only journalist to experience intimidation from the Kochs (though hers may be the most extreme example). At the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual meeting, Greenpeace researcher Connor Gibson was confronted by Koch Industries government affairs director Mike Morgan. Gibson captured a partial video of the interaction, but Morgan then took Gibson's phone away from him, until Morgan was forced to return it by police. Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson called Koch Industries "the most hostile and paranoid organization I've ever engaged with." Mayer also wrote that Koch security threatened to arrest Politico reporter Kenneth Vogel after catching him in a cafe at one of their summits, "[u]nless he left the premises immediately."
Koch Industries also utilizes its website KochFacts.com to combat negative reports. Mayer notes that KochFacts.com "wage[s] ad hominem attacks, questioning the professionalism and integrity of reporters whose work the company found unflattering, ranging from The New York Times to Politico." The website has blasted David Sassoon of the Pulitzer Prize-winning InsideClimate News as a "professional eco-activist" and "agenda-driven activist." It also frequently posts personal email exchanges with journalists, "sometimes to the reporter's shock," according to The Washington Post. This includes email exchanges with reporters and editors at The New York Times, MSNBC, Politico, and more.
Hopefully, Jane Mayer herself is a testament to the fact that reporters will not back down from exposing the true extent of the Kochs' influence and how it is shaping our country for the worse. There is surely more to the story not yet uncovered.