On Koch vs. journalists: he said-she said

Washington Post says the Kochs are fighting the media, but not whether they have a leg to stand on

It’s good to know, as Paul Farhi reports, that the Koch Brothers “use Web to take on media reports they dispute.”

That corporate interests are employing aggressive public relations strategies to rebut press reports, or to try to intimidate reporters, is certainly important, though it’s not the newest development in the world. Direct, online corporate-to-public rebuttals have been around for a while, reaching, for instance, fairly heated levels a couple of years ago when General Electric Co. went to the Web, and to the mat, to dispute David Kocieniewski’s blockbuster in The New York Times that GE’s U.S. tax bill in 2010 was “none.” GE even took to fencing about it on Twitter with Henry Blodget. In the end, the aggressive strategy didn’t go well for GE, and Kocieniewski, correct in his reporting, won a Pulitzer the next year.

The Post piece describes how Koch Industries, using its Kochfacts.org site, has engaged in public and pointed disputes with high-profile journalists and outlets, including David Sassoon at InsideClimate News, the Post itself, and the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.

Koch Industries, we learn, besides denouncing journalists and their work, took a complaint about Sassoon’s reporting on how the closely held company stood to benefit from the proposed the Keystone XL Pipeline to Sassoon’s customer, Reuters, the giant wire-service that distributed the news organization’s work. Reuters defended Sassoon and his organization as a legitimate news shop, and it later won a Pulitzer in 2010 for reports on flawed regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines.

The trouble with The Washington Post treatment of this topic, though is that the Kochs repeatedly, indeed, routinely allege that journalists mislead readers, distort facts, and commit “outright falsehoods,” which is supposed to mean actual errors of fact (“Activist/owner of InsideClimate News misleads readers and asserts outright falsehoods about Koch,” says an ad quoted by the Post. “New Yorker’s Jane Mayer Distorts the Facts and Misleads Readers Again,” says a Kochfacts blog post). But the Post piece treats the matter as though it were a tennis match, a he said/she said affair, without getting into the key question: did the outlets actually make fact errors?

None are cited.

This is from the piece, with my emphasis:

…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.


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.”

But did the Times really fare “much worse”? Not really.

It’s one thing to complain that a journalist is “biased,” an “activist,” or as, David Koch said of Jane Mayer, “hateful”—those are ad hominem attacks and, while not particularly effective, are no more than expressions of opinion that don’t leave much for journalism to adjudicate. Same goes for an assertion that a news outlet provides a “frequent and high platform,” whatever that means, for lefties and Dems. If that means those types are often quoted in the Times, no one’s going to dispute that or think twice about it. The Times quotes a lot of people.

Really, the only charge that counts is being caught in an embarrassing fact error. That’s the only thing journalists really fear, not being called names, but making an error that undermines the premise of the story. What really discredits a story is getting it wrong. Facts are, after all, stubborn things.

In one example cited, the Kochs complained, for instance, about a 2011 piece Sassoon wrote on Reuters site: “Koch Brothers Positioned To Be Big Winners If Keystone XL Pipeline Is Approved.” As the cautiously worded headline implies, the actual piece merely makes the point that the company owns assets that could benefit from the project. It says the company owns a crude oil terminal at the starting point for the proposed pipeline; was already shipping 250,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day to its own refinery in Minnesota; would benefit from an expected oil-price increase that is expected to accompany the pipeline, and so on.

Any of that wrong? Apparently not.

A Kochfacts post attacking the story, “UPDATE Continuing Falsehoods from InsideClimate and its Owner, David Sassoon” includes this exchange with Sassoon.

Sassoon: “We have made no false allegations and remain in the dark about what you think they might be.”

[Kochfacts reply:] That is untrue. We have made it explicitly clear for the better part of a year now to InsideClimate that Koch has no financial interest whatsoever in the Keystone project. Yet, InsideClimate continues to mislead readers that we have some connection to the project and that approval of the project would be a “big victory” for Koch and a “great financial opportunity [for Koch to] profit.”

But the rebuttal to the Kochs’ allegation lies within their own answer. It’s obviously a very different matter to say something would be a “big victory” and a “great financial opportunity” for a company than it is to say that the company has a “financial interest” in something. There is no false allegation at all, so Sassoon’s statement is not “untrue.” No wonder Reuters stood by the story.

It’s not enough to report merely that a big corporate interest is battling the media on its own turf. The real question, who’s winning?

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.