MEDIA

Media Outlets Debate Whether Increased Access To Kochs Is Worth All The Strings Attached

Because there has to be a catch.
<span>Charles Koch and Dr. Michael Lomax, of the United Negro College Fund, speak during an interview with the Washington Pos
Charles Koch and Dr. Michael Lomax, of the United Negro College Fund, speak during an interview with the Washington Post at the Freedom Partners Summit in Dana Point, California.

NEW YORK -- The Washington Post published an “exclusive interview” on Tuesday with Charles Koch, the press-shy billionaire industrialist, who, along with his brother David, is a major backer of conservative causes.

The Post was offered the sit-down with Koch as part of a joint interview with Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund. The New York Times was also offered a joint interview with the two men but turned down the opportunity, according to sources familiar with the matter. The Times wanted to talk just to Koch, who rarely speaks to the media, the sources said, but was only offered the joint interview.

This was the second time in recent days that the two papers had grappled with whether to accept an opportunity to access the secretive Kochworld. The Koch brothers, who are worth more than $100 billion, are trying to soften their image in the media after years of negative coverage.

The media glasnost, however, comes with strings attached that may give editors pause. Media outlets must weigh whether to accept restrictions on their reporting in exchange for increased access to the reclusive brothers and their gatherings of private donors. Do ground rules for journalists still allow for reporting in the public's interest, or are the conditions so rigid that the resulting coverage will primarily benefit the Kochs?

Koch Industries has long been combative toward journalists. In 2010, the company launched the site KochFacts.com to rebut critical reporting, much of which targeted the brothers' efforts to roll back environmental regulations and their outsized role in U.S. electoral politics. Koch Industries urged top magazine editors the following year not to honor The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer for her deeply reported piece on the Koch brothers’ “war against Obama.” In a 2013 piece on the company's media strategy, InsideClimateNews publisher David Sassoon described feeling "completely disrespected and attacked" when investigating Koch Industries' environmental record. Last year, the company launched its first national TV advertising campaign to tell its own story, presumably without the filter of the news media. 

But Daniel Schulman, a Mother Jones senior editor and author of Sons of Wichita, a 2014 book on the Koch brothers, said in an interview with The Huffington Post that he's noticed the company becoming more open to the press in recent months.

"That doesn’t mean they’re going to give unrestricted access," he said. "Everything comes with ground rules and they’re going to very closely control their images." 

In January, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a Koch-backed nonprofit, provided a live-streamed broadcast of Republican presidential candidates' appearances at its private donor gathering -- a first for the event, which is held twice a year. "It’s a dramatic change in approach for the Koch-backed operation, which has withheld information about previous donor seminars, held under tight security," the Post reported at the time. 

At the most recent gathering, held this past weekend at a luxurious California resort, Freedom Partners allowed journalists inside for the first time. Nine news organizations, including the Post, Politico, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, gained entry to the three-day event, which included five GOP candidates and 450 major donors.

But the journalists covering the gathering were barred from naming any of the donors present without their permission -- and weren't even allowed to approach them, according to the event's media restrictions, published in full by ThinkProgress on Monday. Journalists were permitted to report on the candidate Q&A's, which were moderated by Politico's Mike Allen and, again, live-streamed. 

The restrictions, which some attending outlets acknowledged in their reports, prompted much criticism. Reporters, of course, should be able to report what's directly in front of them -- even if what's in front of them, a donor, doesn't want to be identified. With the Koch network planning to spend nearly $900 million during the 2016 cycle, those 450 big-time donors are part of the election story. 

The New York Times, for one, balked at Freedom Partners' ground rules and did not attend, sources said. The paper did cover some of the candidate sessions, which were available via live stream.

Executive Editor Dean Baquet declined to comment on the Times' coverage of the event.  

Though journalists in attendance didn't have unfettered access, they could find ways to work around the ground rules. For instance, a reporter could call or email a donor they saw and get more information, either on a not-for attribution basis or by requesting a formal interview. Politico's Ken Vogel, for one, spoke to several donors while covering the event, some of whom even went on the record. 

Scott Wilson, the Post's deputy national editor, told ThinkProgress that attendance, however controlled, could lead to better coverage of money in politics down the line. “Our feeling was that this was as much a source-building and reporting trip as a real-time writing trip,” Wilson said. “This was an investment. We agreed to the restrictions basically on that principle.” 

Still, the Post did get some stories out of the event, including a few pieces based off the joint interview with Koch and Lomax, which took place at the resort on Monday.

It seems clear why Koch's representatives wanted the two men to do the interview together. Last year, Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Foundation gave $25 million to the United Negro College Fund. The joint interview could provide an opportunity to showcase the brothers' charitable giving and focus on criminal justice reform, an issue on which the conservative billionaires may have allies across partisan lines.

"These are things they are trying to highlight right now," Schulman said. "Not that these aren’t issues they're interested in. But they’re highlighting them deliberately to show they’re not these right-wing zealots people have made them out to be."

The Post's main story on the joint interview, by reporter Matea Gold, was published online on Monday night and in print on Tuesday. Gold focused on Koch and Lomax's "unlikely partnership,” suggesting the men maintain a sincere friendship despite their differing views on topics like voter ID laws. That relationship, Gold said, could have influenced the brothers' talk during the weekend of fighting "injustices" and their likening of their conservative network to the civil rights movement (as well as to abolitionists and women’s suffragists).   

During the joint interview, Gold also posed several questions directly to Koch that were unrelated to the college fund donation or to his areas of agreement with Lomax. Koch's responses to those questions, which had to do with the 2016 election and climate change, were billed as an "exclusive interview" and published separately on the Post's website Tuesday morning in Q&A format. 

When asked about negotiations for the joint interview, Wilson told HuffPost that the paper was offered an interview opportunity with Koch and Lomax together, which it accepted. 

“Whether we could have gotten an interview with Mr. Koch without also speaking for part of the time to Mr. Lomax was a question we never had to answer,” Wilson said. “We were offered an interview with Charles Koch without any restrictions. We accepted it and I’m very glad we did.”

James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners, declined to say whether the Post had been given the option to interview Koch alone, or to confirm whether the Times had been offered a joint interview as well.

"We offered the Washington Post a sit-down interview with Charles Koch and Dr. Michael Lomax and they accepted," he wrote in an email. 

Though the Times didn't interview the pair together, reporter Nick Confessore spoke to Lomax separately for a Friday front-page story about how the Koch brothers are trying to alter their image in the media, in part by emphasizing their philanthropic pursuits.

In the article, the Times noted how some critics viewed Kochs' $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund as “a publicity coup."

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