Embedded with the Koch brothers

Hometown reporters get rare access to the media-shy oilmen, with mixed results

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. 

This is not at all to suggest that the Eagle has offered only softball coverage of the Kochs and their political network. A sampling of recent stories from the paper’s statehouse bureau will dispel that idea. And while the 2012 profile of Liz and Charles was mostly soft-focus, it was paired with a long article by Wenzl and Wilson that featured some critical voices. Dan Schulman, author of the new Koch brothers biography Sons of Wichita, writes in the book’s acknowledgements that “the Eagle has done a tremendous job of covering Koch Industries and the Koch family over the years.” And not every story about a prominent local figure has to try to be a hard-edged expose.

Still, given the public interest in the Kochs’ political activity, and their recalcitrance about speaking to the press, it’s hard not to see this as a missed opportunity.

Schulman, a former CJR staffer and current Mother Jones journalist, whose book has been praised for its even-handed depiction of the Kochs, was unable to interview Charles or David. (He did line up an interview with Fred Koch, another of the brothers, who has mostly stayed out of politics. But the discussion was cut short, Schulman writes, when he would not agree to submit his text to Koch for prior approval.) I emailed Schulman to ask what questions he might pose to Charles and David if he ever had the chance. He replied with a short list of queries. I’ll put them here in lightly edited form, as possible inspiration for other journalists, the next time someone has a chance to interview one of the Koch brothers:

1. Asked to define your view of the role of government in 1979, Charles, you once said: “It is to serve as a night watchman, to protect individuals and property from outside threat, including fraud. That is the maximum.” Do you still hold the view that government should be almost nonexistent? If so, can you describe your vision of how society would function without things like public investment in infrastructure? If not, can you describe how and why your philosophy on government has evolved.

2. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Bill Gates mentioned having dinner with you, Charles, and discussing climate change. “He was pointing out that the U.S. alone can’t solve the problem,” Gates said. This suggests that you believe climate change poses a threat. Please explain your views on climate change. If you do believe there is a problem, what type of market-based remedy would you accept to mitigate it?

3. As libertarians, you believe that individuals are entitled to the maximum amount of freedom in all its forms. Yet your advocacy has focused largely on economic freedom, at the expense of other types. For instance, you and your donor network have bankrolled Republican candidates and groups that have battled such things as gay marriage and reproductive rights. How do you reconcile supporting politicians and organizations that support your free-market philosophy but oppose other types of freedom?

4. The Koch family was once torn apart over disagreements concerning the direction of Koch Industries. Presumably, the company will one day be largely owned by your children. Diverging views and interests are common among shareholders in privately held companies that enter their 2nd and 3rd generations. What steps have you taken, if any, to prevent the past from repeating itself? 

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee. Tags: , ,