This lesson in investigative journalism is brought to you by The New Yorker’s hit piece on Charles and David Koch’s political activities:
1. Find some fact that isn’t particularly widely known. Save time by finding a fact that isn’t widely known because it isn’t particularly interesting.
2. Pretend that the fact is not widely known because of a conspiracy.
3. Write a hit piece that calls out political activists for their political activism.
Koch industries has issued their rebuttal, and the story will likely blow over pretty quickly, but The New Yorker’s story deserves a second look as a primer on journalism mistakes to avoid.
Most Americans probably don’t know the extent to which federal government activity buoys the Washington, D.C. job market. In addition to government jobs, there are countless lobbying firms, public affairs shops, and of course think tanks whose existence is based on the fact that the government is so complex. Both the left and the right have their think tanks, and if you stroll through the halls of similar organizations on either side you’ll start to see similar names on the plaques which commemorate donors. One of those names on the conservative side is Koch.
The New Yorker article paints David and Charles Koch as clandestine movers and shakers among the center-right, starting sham organizations to debunk global warming theories and government regulations. The hilarious part about this is that the Koch brothers have never made any secret of their interest in politics – or their willingness to spend money advancing ideas.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had a few dealings with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. I’ve had friends who work there, and I’ve spoken to their Associates program (a widely advertised course which trains people to run think tanks) a couple of times a few years back. In fact, to thank me for appearing, they gave me a Swiss army knife key chain with “Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation” stamped on the side. If you’re running a secret conspiracy group, you don’t make up key chains advertising it.
Buried in the conspiratorial tone of the story and the apparently necessary examples of inflammatory rhetoric at tea party rallies are a few interesting facts about the priorities of Koch-funded organizations and the priorities of Koch industries. But lost in the shuffle is the consistency with which the Koch brothers have held to libertarian ideals – ideals which are actually quite rare in the business world.
And then there’s the big story The New Yorker completely whiffs on – that a large, activist government that picks winners and losers will attract attention and activism from large corporate players.
Internet and technology companies are weighing in on policies like net neutrality. Health care companies were all over the place on both sides of the health care takeover. Railroad companies are plugging for railroad subsidies; farmers are plugging for farm subsidies. In fact, the devious “Koch agenda” is unique only in that while most companies are clamoring for their piece of the pie, the Koch brothers are among the few saying “just leave us alone – we got this.”
Had the author not spent valuable mental energy dreaming up the term “Kochtopus” to describe the many tentacles of activity funded by the Koch brothers, she might have had some left over to explore some of the other octopi in the D.C. ocean.
Plus, I’m pretty sure Ziggy already wrote this story.