Charles and David Koch have made quite a bit of news in the past year. I’ve reported on the alliance between the Kochs and some liberals on criminal justice reform and Charles Koch’s interview with the Financial Times

Now Jane Mayer has decided to launch another fusillade at the Kochs in the New Yorker. But her prejudices ensure that her attack is, once again, ineffective.

Readers of her book Dark Money (which I reviewed for National Review) will know that Mayer really, really doesn’t like the Kochs. Understandably, they wouldn’t let her interview them. But she has gotten closer than in the past. She went to the annual dinner of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, where Charles Koch was the keynote speaker. And she did speak to Koch Industries corporate communications director Melissa Cohlmia, who accurately noted that the Kochs have been interested in criminal-justice reform for decades.

But the Kochs refused to speak with Mayer. In my view, this is a reasonable response on the Kochs part, given Mayer’s prejudices.

I’ll discuss the Kochs in a minute, but first some history. Mayer quotes public-relations guru Fraser Seitel, author of Rethinking Reputation, who claims that the Kochs are following a “rebranding” strategy similar to that pursued by the Rockefellers in 1914, when a strike at Colorado Fuel and Iron, majority-owned by the Rockefellers, was suppressed by the National Guard, who killed a dozen strikers, as well as women and children. The result was what became known as the “Ludlow Massacre.”

A year later, the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations held hearings on, among other things[1], the Ludlow Massacre. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. charmed everyone with his honesty and intelligence. After 1916, John D. Rockefeller transferred most of his assets to his son, who began using Rockefeller dollars in projects for which his father had little interest, such as conservation.

Mayer’s account says that “Rockefeller hired the publicity expert Ivy Lee to salvage his image after the Ludlow Massacre” and after doing things Lee recommended, such as visiting the camp and talking to miners, “Rockefeller then became known for his charitable contributions.”

I knew about Ivy Lee, who was famous (or infamous) for convincing John D. Rockefeller to present himself as a cuddly old guy who gave shiny dimes to little kids. But I also knew that, prior to 1914, the Rockefellers’ response to criticism was to do nothing, which is why John D. Rockefeller could be portrayed in the press as an evil octopus and manipulator.

So Mr. Google pointed me to a long article by Colorado State journalism professor Kirk Hallohan that appeared in the Journal of Public Relations Research in 2002. Hallohan notes that John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s chief advisers were Lee and Mackenzie King, an industrial-relations expert and future prime minister of Canada. Both men, says Hallohan, advised the younger Rockefeller ”to be honest in expressing his own beliefs and principles, to ignore the motives of the commission, and to send a human note in expressing his feelings.”

That hardly sounds like Lee manipulated his client to do something he didn’t want to do. Moreover, it was always known that John D. Rockefeller, Jr, his father’s only son, would inherit his father’s philanthropic legacy. Being a philanthropist wasn’t a career path “Junior” took because Ivy Lee told him to.

Here’s another example of Mayer’s distortions. She says a “new, data-filled study” by Harvard graduate student Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol that “reports that the Kochs have established centralized command of a ‘nationally-federated, full service, ideologically focused’ machine that ‘operates on the scale of a major U.S. political party.’’

I believe the paper Mayer is quoting is this one which was delivered at the Southern Political Science Association this January. Much of this paper is indeed about the political spending by the Kochs and their allies. But here is a passage that, surprise, Mayer didn’t quote. The italics are in the text:

 “Although the Republican/conservative list may capture a smaller share of all available resources than the Democratic/liberal list, it is clear that well-funded arrays of organizations operate on both sides of the political spectrum. Indeed, from 2002 to 2014 we find a greater percentage growth in the sum of all budgets for the left universe organizations (75% growth) than for the sum of all right organization budgets (29% growth). Somewhat greater aggregate budget growth happened on the left even though dues-paying memberships have declined in most of the major labor unions at the center of the left organizational universe.”  

I’m not disputing that the Koch brothers and their allies are spending a lot of money on politics. But George Soros and his allies are spending even more—and they’re growing faster than their right-wing counterparts are.

As for massive political spending, I note that Donald Trump spent about a tenth as much as his rivals did, and somehow managed to win the nomination. If massive spending is so decisive, how did Trump manage to win?

Finally, Mayer quotes liberal blogger Lauren Windsor, who obtained tapes of a closed-door meeting in 2014 with the Kochs and their philanthropic allies, who have now decided to place more emphasis on “well-being” with the idea that capitalism makes people’s lives better. I can confirm that the Charles Koch Foundation is indeed giving grants in this area, but I’d like to know more about what the purposes of these grants are and how they differ from the Templeton Foundation, which has what seems to be quite a similar program.

I tried to track down a piece that Charles Koch wrote about why he is funding well-being studies, but what I found was this forceful op-ed from last week’s Wall Street Journal in which Koch warned of the pessimism that is choking the Republican Party,

“The U.S. is already far down the path to becoming a less open and free society, and the current cultural and political atmosphere threatens to make the situation worse. Growing attacks on free speech and free association, hostile rhetoric toward immigrants, fear that global trade impoverishes rather than enriches, demands that innovators in cutting-edge industries first seek government permission.

This trajectory takes the U.S. further away from the brighter future that is otherwise within reach. Resisting calls to exclude, divide, or restrict—and promoting a free and open society—ought to be the great moral cause of these times.”

With the disclaimer that I have never received Koch money and I have only dealt with the Koch Foundation as a journalist, I can say that Charles Koch seems sensible to me and I personally find little to disagree with in his philanthropic endeavors. 

[1] The commission was the first national examination of the strength and influence of foundations.


Photo credit: via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA