PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — “I’m so hopeful that there will be something, SOMETHING in the world out there besides ‘Evil Koch Brothers,’” Liz Koch, wife of billionaire Charles Koch, told the Wichita Eagle.
“Jesus H., I’m sick of it.”
It was fall 2012, toward the end of a grinding campaign in which her husband and his brother David were deeply invested, and during which they’d attracted a good bit of negative press. The Koch brothers—as they are inevitably referred to, “evil” or not—take considerable efforts to obscure their political spending, though the broad outlines of that activity are widely known. And though they do sometimes address public audiences, they generally keep reporters at arm’s length.
But Liz and Charles opened up to their hometown paper for that 2012 profile, written by Bill Wilson and Roy Wenzl. Then, last week, Wenzl and the Eagle had another piece based on a rare interview with a Koch brother—this one datelined New York City, where David keeps his primary residence, and focused mostly on his considerable philanthropic efforts there.
If you want to score a sit-down with the Kochs, it helps to work in Wichita.
With that access, the Eagle offers a portrayal of the Kochs that’s different than the one you probably know—a counterpoint to the sometimes overheated critical coverage of the Kochs in other outlets. It’s often interesting stuff. Charles and David come across as generous, relatively down-to-earth, Midwestern guys with bemused but loving wives. David has faced death on more than one occasion, surviving a horrific plane crash and a bout with cancer. Charles is intensely competitive but “endearingly quaint” and “doesn’t know how to dress like a sophisticated grown-up.” Some insights into their libertarian political philosophy emerge. At times they seem genuinely surprised and even a little hurt by the vitriol that they have drawn in recent years.
The Eagle stories, appropriately, also acknowledge that this vitriol is pretty clearly the context for the Kochs’ decision to do these interviews in the first place.
But the articles walk a fine line between discussing the Kochs’ PR objectives and advancing them—and sometimes come down on the wrong side, especially when the story inevitably turns to politics.
That’s particularly true in the recent profile of David Koch, which runs about 3,300 words. Much of the piece is devoted to his substantial charitable giving benefiting cultural and medical institutions. Then, about halfway through, the article pivots to Americans for Prosperity, the politically active nonprofit group founded and bankrolled by the Kochs. Here’s how it reads:
The group is spending $125 million on the November elections, including producing ads critical of Obama’s signature health care law.
“These ads are very well done in my opinion,” David Koch said. “AFP finds individuals who have lost their health insurance and who have a serious medical problem such as they have cancer, and they have to take very expensive cancer medication. They describe the situation they are in. The fact that they’ve lost their insurance. They don’t have the money to pay for these expensive cancer medications, and they appeal to the incumbent senator, and in all these cases is a Democrat, and they are saying, I’m going to die, please help me get insurance that allows me to purchase the medications I need so I can continue to live. I have watched a number of these ads…God, these are real people who have real medical problems.”
Koch adds that he’s not closely involved with AFP operations but applauds what the group is doing, “because it’s really quite informative and it’s quite true.”
Wenzl declined to be interviewed for this article, so I don’t know what he asked Koch to prompt these comments or what follow-ups he may have attempted. I also don’t know, for sure, what ad Koch was thinking of. But the only AFP Senate ad involving a cancer patient that I was able to find aired in Michigan in February (although counter to Koch’s description, this is an open-seat race without an incumbent senator). That ad has been debunked by numerous news and fact-checking organizations, who noted that the cancer patient featured in the spot did not lose her doctor or face higher insurance costs as the ad claims, despite losing her individual insurance plan due to Obamacare.
None of this, or anything like it, is discussed in the Eagle story. Nor does the piece press David about other AFP ads that have run afoul of the factcheckers. Or about the blurring of lines between the Kochs’ charitable and political giving—“charities” listed in the piece include groups like AFP and the Heritage Foundation. Or about issues closer to home, like Kansas’s revenue shortfall from sweeping tax cuts implemented by Gov. Sam Brownback, whom Koch Industries has backed for years; and the state’s renewable-energy standard, which AFP tried unsuccessfully to kill this year.