Charles Koch Institute fellowship funds journalists

December 6, 2018
Charles Koch in 2016. Photo: Fortune Brainstorm Tech, via flickr.

Charles and David Koch do not like the media. For years, the brothers running one of the largest corporate conglomerates in the world fought back against negative stories with press releases, private investigators, and dedicated “fact checking” sites, pushing their version of the truth against the headlines made by dogged investigative reporters like Jane Mayer and David Sassoon.

In recent years, however, the Koch empire has rebranded itself as a friend of the Fourth Estate, through donations and sponsorships primarily from its nonprofit arms, the Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation. As the parent company expanded its media properties by partially bankrolling Meredith’s acquisition of Time Inc. in 2017 (the company has since sold Time and three other titles) the Charles Koch Foundation donated $80,000 to the American Society of News Editors, funded the Poynter Institute’s grant program for college journalists, sponsored Knight Foundation and Gallup surveys, gave money to the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia, and spent $500,000 on the Newseum. In late November, reporting by Sludge, an investigative newsroom on Civil’s blockchain platform, showed that the two Koch nonprofits had in recent years donated up to 83 percent of the Daily Caller News Foundation’s operating budget, and made contributions to several center-right and right-wing publications and PR shops.

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The Charles Koch Institute also started the Media and Journalism Fellowship, which combines a J-school-like curriculum (funded by the Institute) with a subsidized salary and job at a participating media organization for accepted fellows (through grants by the Foundation). The fellowship is now in its second year; the first class of roughly 40 fellows graduated in March 2018, and the second group is about two-thirds of the way through the 12-month course. Courses cover the role of the free press in society, libel laws, FOIA knowledge, as well as more technical electives like “Reading Social” and “the Analytics Firehose.” Other workshops focus on ethical issues, like identifying biases and a reporter’s relationships with sources.

During the day, fellows work full time at a partner news or media organization, a list that includes Task and Purpose, The Washington Examiner, Reason, Mercury Radio/The Blaze, the Real Clear sites, and a few legacy newsrooms like the Detroit News and the Philadelphia Media Network. It also includes PR shops like Red Edge and creative firms like Emergent Order, whose listed clients also trend conservative and libertarian. Many of these organizations showed up on the Koch nonprofits’ disclosure forms. (The Daily Caller does not participate in the fellowship.)

On Tuesdays, fellows tune into a weekly group video chat—typically a two-hour session with a short introduction from an Institute staffer and two or more lectures by regular faculty members or guest speakers. Three times per year, the Institute flies fellows to New York or Washington, DC to meet faculty members. The Institute’s media portfolio—its stable of grants, partnerships, and fellowships—is led by Deirdre Hughes, a longtime producer for Lou Dobbs Tonight on both CNN and Fox Business, who most recently headed video for Yahoo Finance and Yahoo Tech. Hughes oversees strategy for the partnerships, as well as serving as the program lead for the media and journalism fellowship. Other listed faculty members include libertarian staples like John Stossel and The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley, as well a Ashley Messenger, a senior associate general counsel at NPR and Rob Wallace, who spent two decades as a senior producer for Barbara Walters on ABC News.

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Current and former fellows say that the curriculum takes a nonpartisan stance, focusing on the importance of a free press. Liz Wolfe, a former Koch fellow and current deputy managing editor at The Federalist, says the group spent a lot of time discussing the line between journalism and activism. During her fellowship, she worked as managing editor at Young Voices, a nonprofit public relations organization that trains students and young professionals to write op-eds and provide live commentary “in the classical liberal tradition.” The majority of Young Voices clients advocate for libertarian and free-market ideals in line with the Kochs.  And while she was participating in the program, Wolfe says, at no point did the Institute or its instructors try to influence the work they did at their day jobs.

“They are authentically libertarian,” Wolfe says. “I don’t get the sense that there’s a super strong conservative strain on the program. They understand that you can’t and you shouldn’t tell journalists what to write and what to think.”

Wolfe says that the classes often had open discussions of bias in the news—a politically charged topic that owes much of its new fervor to the Trump administration.

Julie Mastrine, currently a fellow in the program, works as the marketing coordinator for AllSides, a news aggregation service that organizes headlines based on their publication’s perceived bias on a left-right spectrum. The Institute’s weekly video chats, she says, cover everything about the media business, from marketing to research to journalism.

“I think overall the program really is meant to inspire critical thinking about the role of the free press, and all of the difficult decisions that that entails,” Mastrine says. “We get to consider all of the various scenarios that a journalist or someone in the media might find themselves in—lots of questions around ethics, standards, that sort of thing.”

Mastrine says being associated with the Kochs was “something I had to think about” when she considered applying for the program. But once she began, the Institute won her over. Mastrine says the organization was “very transparent” about the Kochs’ reputation in the media and “very aware” of criticism, something they were trying to be “more proactive” about.

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The fellowship’s structure is unusual: besides the tuition-free program curriculum, the Koch nonprofits also offer to subsidize each fellows’ salary for the entire year-long program. It is not, however, a direct payment from the Koch Foundation to the fellow. Instead, the Koch Foundation and participating partner organization make their own arrangement based on the partner organization’s budget and needs. Fellows estimate that the average salary is around $50,000 a year. So far, Hughes says that the program has mainly expanded through word of mouth and “running into folks,” but declined to estimate how many of the program’s current partners were approached by the Institute or how many approached the Institute themselves.

As the program expands, each participating newsroom will have to decide whether or not what the Institute’s offer is worth being associated with the name. “Reporters have shone a harsh light on the Kochs’ record of air, water, and climate pollution as well as on their huge role in subsidizing disinformation on climate change,” Jane Mayer, who has reported extensively on the Kochs, tells CJR in an email. “Most companies counter such image problems by hiring PR firms, but if the Kochs can cut out the middle men and simply buy the coverage by hiring the reporters, then I guess they figure that’s an even better investment.”

At least one partner, the Philadelphia Media Network, turned down the subsidy. PMN’s nonprofit parent company, the Philadelphia Foundation, operates the newsrooms of both the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer, and carefully vets any sources of funding that could conflict with their journalistic duties, according to Executive Editor Stan Wishnowski.

“Sometimes we get requests from funders who don’t really align with what we’re after,” Wishnowski tells CJR. Instead of accepting a stipend, the organization asked to have one of its reporters audit the program this year after it was approached by the Institute.

“Our idea on this one was, ‘Let’s put one of our journalists, a single journalist, in to audit the class and make sure it matches our mission,’” Wishnowski says. “Is it training that will elevate the quality of learning for our journalist?” He will decide whether to continue with the program depending on the value of the course.

The reporter declined to comment until after the current cohort finishes up, but Wishnowski says that the reporter found the class “enriching” thus far, and has reported “no perceptible political bias.”

ASNE and others have evidently decided that what they’re getting in return for that favor is worth it, but not without some debate.

“I would say there was a fairly spirited conversation [among board members] about working with the Koch Foundation because of the reputation [the brothers] have out there,” Teri Hayt, ASNE’s executive director, told The Washington Post after accepting the Foundation’s grant earlier this year. “Not all the press about them has been good. . . . A couple of people said, ‘Why do this?’ There is some sensitivity around the Koch name. It’s there for a reason.”

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Correction: A previous version misspelled John Stossel’s name.

Jack Crosbie is a freelance journalist based in New York, who has reported on conflict, technology, food, and sports from several countries. Follow him on Twitter @jscros.