Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

UPDATE – Is the New York Times Reporting on Events or Participating in Them? A Letter to the Public Editor

Dear Mr. Brisbane:

I regret that I have to write you yet again. I am writing this time because the New York Times appears to have once again taken a gratuitous shot at Koch Industries and the Kochs, and I wanted to bring it to your attention.

A piece published on May 4, 2011, by Jim
 Rutenberg, “Liberal Group’s Video Assails Koch Brothers,” raises the question again of whether the Times is observing and reporting on events or is it taking part in a concerted campaign? What follows are some specific concerns:

  • The story is about the launch of a “video campaign” – yet at the time of its publication yesterday, the video had not even been made public, except by the Times itself.
  • The “video” has no formal distribution platform other than its own obscure online site. In other words, it seems to be no different than countless other partisan advocacy clips that are posted on sites like YouTube every day. This leads me to ask how is this particular video newsworthy and why is the Times giving it a such a public forum?
  • Mr. Rutenberg writes up top that “the [video] campaign marks another step toward conspicuousness for a family whose political activity was largely in the shadows until last year.” That is a puzzling claim. David Koch ran for Vice President on a national ticket more than 30 years ago, and both he and his brother have made public contributions to candidates and public affairs groups for years, all of which has been widely reported. In addition, the Kochs and the business they have built have been the subject of many media stories and profiles over the past decades.

I would be grateful if you could query editors on this and give some consideration to why the Times has been focusing this extreme level of attention to the Kochs and with such disregard for the paper’s own standards of accuracy and objectivity.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Mark V. Holden
Koch Industries, Inc.
Senior Vice President and General Counsel


Arthur Brisbane, the Public Editor of the Times responded the next day


Mr. Holden:

I had a conversation with Jim Rutenberg about this. He said the blog post did not predate the release of the video by the Brave New Foundation group. He told me he received an email from the group telling him the video would be released at 5:39 (May4). I note that Ruteberg’s blogpost is time-stamped 6:40 pm on that day. He also told me that from a technical point of view The Times would not have been able to embed the video on the blog until after the video was released by the foundation.

Rutenberg also said that publishing a political video like this is not uncommon for The Caucus blog, so I would expect to see such pieces going forward — from conservative as well as liberal groups.

He said he spoke with Koch spokesman Michael Goldfarb and that Mr. Goldfarb declined to comment on the video. Rutenberg told me he wished that Mr. Goldfarb had given him a comment and that he would have incorporated it into the blogpost. I would concur with Rutenberg that, given the visibility that now attends the Koch Brothers’ activism, a policy of commenting on such things gives your organization an opportunity to influence the outcome of such published pieces. I took the opportunity, in my conversation with Mr. Rutenberg, to emphasize that your organization is watching The Times coverage closely and expecting fair treatment according to Times standards. He acknowledged that this is what you have a right to expect.

I continue to be available to hear your concerns.

Art Brisbane
public editor


While appreciative of Mr. Brisbane’s quick response, we took issue with Mr. Rutenberg’s explanation


Dear Mr. Brisbane,

Thank you for your response. I appreciate your follow up. I wanted to raise a few points in response:

  • The distinction that Mr. Rutenberg posted this item just minutes after (and not minutes before) it was posted on YouTube seems to miss the point. Our concern is that it appears that it was done in coordination with the New York Times. In so doing, the Times gave a publicity platform to an inherently obscure video that is barely coherent in its construction. While we, of course, do not decide what the Times decides to report the question remains why is this particular video newsworthy? And is there a double standard at play whereby wealthy conservative people are excessively scrutinized, while wealthy liberal people are not?
  •  

  • Mr. Rutenberg also accepted, apparently without any follow-up fact checking or additional inquiry, the “filmmaker’s” assertion that his “film” project was financed by mainly small dollar donors. However, even a cursory review of Brave New Foundation’s 2010 annual report demonstrates he received millions of dollars in funding from “foundation grants” and “major gifts.” Why did Mr. Rutenberg fail to do even a rudimentary fact check of readily available information and point this out this apparent discrepancy?
  •  

  • Finally, in just the last six weeks, by my count, the Times has mentioned Koch Industries 17 times by more than 14 different writers on both the News and Editorial side. Given the nature and extent of this coverage, we would like to better understand the reason for it. I trust we both agree that it would be irresponsible if the Times’ coverage were being done in service of or in sympathy with political factions in the country that have enmity toward Koch for ulterior reasons of their own.

Sincerely,

Mark V. Holden


Mr. Brisbane responded with a circular explanation for the Times’ coverage of Koch Industries. Simply put, the Times is covering Koch Industries because such coverage has given Koch Industries a high profile which warrants further coverage of the company.



Mr. Holden:


I can appreciate that you are concerned that The Times is paying excessively close attention to the Koch brothers political activity. I think you can probably expect the Times to continue to cover Kochs’ activities rather closely, as your organizations’ activities have acquired quite a high profile.

The fact that Rutenberg was alerted to the pending release of the political video is not necessarily an indication of some kind of collusion, however. Political reporters attempt to establish liaisons with political organizations, of all stripes, so that they can be quickly up to speed if a significant development occurs. This is how it is supposed to work, and I would be interested to learn if you know of instances when it does not work this way. You could test it by establishing a liaison between the Koch political operation and selected Times reporters, and then seeing how they respond. I would be eager to hear of the outcome.



I am puzzled by your statement about the size of the donors. I reread Rutenberg’s piece and have pasted the section dealing with the donors below. It clearly addresses both small and large donors.

Here it is:




Like many of the Koch-financed groups, Brave New Foundation is formed under a section of the tax code — 501(c)(3) — that allows it to keep its donors secret. Asked if he would disclose their names, Mr. Greenwald said there were 3,000 small-dollar donors, nearly 2,500 of whom are named as producers on the Web site (the rest gave less than $25 and didn’t qualify as producers). He said the list of large donors included Karen Lieberman (who gave $1,500 through the Leif Nissen Foundation), Dan Berger (who gave $25,000), Adelaide Gomer (who gave $25,000), Marlene Share (who gave $3,000), and the television producer Norman Lear (who gave $1,000).

Mr. Greenwald said that left one last donor who gave a similar amount but whom he had not had a chance to speak with about going public.



Art Brisbane


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