Covering a “Koch-Fueled” Weekend in CA

Reports from the clandestine conservative confab

Charles and David Koch, the billionaire owners of Koch Industries, hosted a semi-annual, invitation-only conference for conservative political donors, strategists, and lawmakers at a resort near Palm Springs, Calif. this past weekend, as previewed back in October by The New York Times. The conference was closed to the press, the guest list was confidential, and participants were reportedly asked not to tweet, Facebook, or otherwise talk about the gathering. (Check out the barrier erected, as reported by Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel, “to block film crews from recording GOP big $shots arriving” at the conference). Still, more than one reporter showed up to cover the goings-on (in contrast to, say, that secretive Democratic big donor “huddle” at the Mandarin Oriental in D.C. in November, which Politico’s Vogel seemingly had to himself.)

Jane Mayer’s recent New Yorker profile of the Koch brothers probably didn’t hurt attendance (inside or outside the conference). The Koch name is likely more familiar to more reporters since the 2010 midterms—during which, for example, the Koch-linked 501(c)(4), Americans for Prosperity, boasted of plans to spend $45 million (the group’s donors are undisclosed) on conservative candidates and causes. Another likely attraction for the media? The promised protest outside the conference (as previewed, CNN reported, in a “Thursday telephone press conference for reporters organized by the liberal-oriented, nonprofit group, Common Cause.”)

Let’s look back at what the Times wrote way back in October about this past weekend’s conference (headline: “Secretive Republican donors are planning ahead”):

A secretive network of Republican donors is heading to the Palm Springs area for a long weekend in January, but it will not be to relax after a hard-fought election— it will be to plan for the next one.

Koch Industries, the longtime underwriter of libertarian causes from the Cato Institute in Washington to the ballot initiative that would suspend California’s landmark law capping greenhouse gases, is planning a confidential meeting at the Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Spa to, as an invitation says, “develop strategies to counter the most severe threats facing our free society and outline a vision of how we can foster a renewal of American free enterprise and prosperity.”

The invitation, sent to potential new participants, offers a rare peek at the Koch network of the ultrawealthy and the politically well-connected, its far-reaching agenda to enlist ordinary Americans to its cause, and its desire for the utmost secrecy.

Koch Industries, a Wichita-based energy and manufacturing conglomerate run by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, operates a foundation that finances political advocacy groups, but tax law protects those groups from having to disclose much about what they do and who contributes.

Money! Politics! Planning! Secrecy! Sounds like the sort of story a reporter would want to stay on top of. The sort of story readers deserve to hear more about.

How did the Times cover the conference itself? The gathering, this past weekend, of that “secretive network?”

The Times’s story from the conference can be paraphrased about as follows: Several hundred liberal protesters vented their anger at the billionaire Koch brothers for using Koch money to finance conservative causes. Here’s what a couple of liberal protesters said. Here’s what “some conservatives” and one professor “whose writings have been influential among conservatives” said.

And? What does the Times say? Just liberals and conservatives butting heads? Any reason readers shouldn’t just tune out, then? That “secretive network” the Times wrote about in October? Just something liberals are shouting about?

NBC’s Michael Isikoff worked to give readers a glimpse of what might be going on inside the gathering and a sense of what that might mean:

A top Republican fundraiser told NBC that a principal goal of this year’s Koch conference was to lay the groundwork for a major “grassroots effort” to back GOP candidates in next year’s election and to develop an early “budget blueprint” for conservative groups during the campaign. The Kochs were planning to raise at least $30 million from donors attending this weekend’s event, the fundraiser said.

Much of the funds pledged this weekend by donors, however, may never be disclosed publicly because they will be directed to politically oriented non-profit organizations, like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity…[which] ran millions of dollars in attack ads against Democrats in the last election and now is promoting an aggressive political agenda in Congress that includes repealing the health care overhaul law and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill as well as restricting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions.

Isikoff also appeared on MSNBC to discuss his story (above the chyron “Koch-fueled party.”)

Politico’s Kenneth Vogel, too, shoe-leathered it out to the weekend conference, filing a detailed pre-game report (which left little question as to why readers might want to know about this), and a from-the-scene account. Wrote Vogel:

Through their oil and chemical company Koch Industries, the Koch brothers have been holding the conferences twice a year since 2003, with the winter meetings typically in the Palm Springs area, and the summer meetings in Colorado. But this was the first year the meeting attracted the attention of protesters - or really anyone at all, beyond the attendees.

The meetings bring together roughly 200 conservative business titans and dignitaries hand-picked by the Koch brothers to discuss the conservative movement and allocate millions of dollars in contributions to Koch-linked non-profit groups. Those who attend are warned not to mention the meetings publicly, and every previous meeting went off without a word in the press…

Various media outlets ran items previewing the Koch conference. Yet the conference itself attracted relatively little national media, with some television news sources explaining that the organizers’ barring the press made it difficult to cover, and also citing the saturation coverage of the unrest in Egypt, as diminishing the bandwidth for stories on a secretive conservative donor conference.

Understandable. Reporters can (and, one hopes, will) cover this story (the larger, bi-partisan money-secrecy-influence story, of which the Koch “network” is one piece) without standing outside a closed-to-media gathering of some of the big players. As for Politico’s Vogel, he lingered at the conference, poking around, and filed another piece yesterday which begins:

Faced with an avalanche of bad publicity after years of funding conservative causes in relative anonymity, the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, Charles and David, are fighting back.

They’ve hired a team of PR pros with experience working for top Republicans including Sarah Palin and Arnold Schwarzenegger to quietly engage reporters to try to shape their Koch coverage, and commissioned sophisticated polling to monitor any collateral damage to the image of their company, Koch Industries.

At the same time, through their high-priced lawyers, private security detail and influential allies in conservative politics and media, the Kochs have played hard ball with critics and suspected foes.

It’s a fascinating read. At the end Vogel describes how Koch conference security guards threw him out of the resort (just like at that secretive Democratic donor conference back in November!) and “threatened ‘a citizen’s arrest’ and a ‘night in the Riverside County jail’ if [Vogel] continued asking questions and taking photographs.”

(Is that “quietly engag[ing] reporters to try to shape their Koch coverage” or “play[ing] hard ball with critics and suspected foes?”)

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR. Tags: , , , , ,