Mr. Sid Holt
American Society of Magazine Editors
Dear Mr. Holt:
On behalf of Koch Industries, Inc., I am writing to raise serious concerns about an August 30, 2010 New Yorker article, Covert Operations, by Jane Mayer, which has been nominated for the American Society of Magazine Editors’ (“ASME”) National Magazine Award in the category of Reporting. We previously raised these concerns directly with The New Yorker, which was dismissive of our concerns. As explained in my September 28, 2010 letter to the magazine, Ms. Mayer’s article overwhelmingly relied on sources whose backgrounds and biases were not fully disclosed, obscured key facts from readers, and distorted many other facts about Koch Industries, Charles Koch, and David Koch. Her article is ideologically slanted and a prime example of a disturbing trend in journalism, where agenda-driven advocacy masquerades as objective reporting. Given these facts, it would be inappropriate for ASME to give Ms. Mayer’s article an award in Reporting. There’s nothing wrong with opinion journalism, of course, and indeed ASME has separate awards that rightfully recognize that form. The “Essays and Criticism” category, for instance, applies to “opinions of the writer on topics ranging from the personal to the political.”
Below is a summary of some of our concerns:
1. Ms. Mayer’s article failed to provide a balanced discussion of Koch Industries, Charles Koch, and David Koch.
When this concern was raised with The New Yorker, they claimed that the lack of balance was because we did not permit them to interview Charles Koch or David Koch. They also maintained that we did not cooperate in the fact-checking process. The truth is that we provided to Ms. Mayer and The New Yorker detailed information concerning Koch Industries, its history, operations, and environmental performance, as well as information about Charles Koch, David Koch, and the Koch Foundations. It was surprising to us that a supposedly reputable publication considered the voluminous written information we provided was not “cooperating.” Even more puzzling was that much of what Ms. Mayer relied upon in her article appeared to be derivative material and previously reported information that she gathered from the internet or other secondary sources, and then repeated in the article, at times without attribution. For example, despite denials to the contrary and despite failing to note this in her article, Ms. Mayer used “a great deal of [ThinkProgress'] research” in her article concerning the Kochs.ThinkProgress is part of the Center for American Progress (“CAP”), a partisan political group funded in part by George Soros. CAP has been targeting Koch Industries, Charles Koch, and David Koch for nearly two years on many fronts, including CAP’s erroneous assertion about the Kochs’ alleged “secret” funding of various groups and causes. Ironically, despite its attacks on the Kochs regarding this issue, CAP itself began “as a way to cope with the new funding restrictions” of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act.
One of Ms. Mayer’s themes was that the Kochs’ political activities were solely motivated by their corporate self-interest, which we explained to The New Yorker was not accurate. In her article, Ms. Mayer quoted Michael Vachon, a spokesperson for Mr. Soros, that “none of [Mr. Soros'] contributions are in the service of his own economic interests.” This statement was directly contradicted by Mr. Soros himself in an October 18, 2004 New Yorker article, The Money Man, by Ms. Mayer in which Mr. Soros noted that “[t]here are occasionally symbiotic moments between political and business interests.” He explained how his attempt to set up a public policy think tank in England led to an opportunity to break into the British bond market, which he said resulted in “one of the most rewarding weekends of my life. . . . I made many millions.” Ms. Mayer’s failure to even mention Mr. Soros’ prior admission in her 2004 article, let alone challenge Mr. Vachon’s statement that contradicted Mr. Soros’ prior admission, demonstrates her bias and was a disservice to The New Yorker readers. Another example of Ms. Mayer’s biased approach was her offensive suggestion that David Koch, a cancer survivor, a generous benefactor of cancer research, and a former member of the National Cancer Advisory Board, had a conflict of interest because a Koch company produces formaldehyde, which Ms. Mayer described as a known human carcinogen.
As we have previously explained, David Koch never considered the issue of formaldehyde’s classification during his time on the NCAB. Moreover, the EPA’s classification and regulation of formaldehyde has been sharply disputed for many years, with numerous parties providing comments to the EPA’s proposed regulations. The reality is that formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance that exists in the human body, the air, and in food. It has many useful, everyday applications, and products such as certain medicines, carpeting, plywood, paper towels, insulation, and paints all contain formaldehyde. Therefore, interested parties, including industry, NGOs, government agencies, and environmental groups are providing feedback on the regulations to ensure that the EPA regulates formaldehyde in a way that properly balances the various interests involved.
In the article, Ms. Mayer cherry-picked environmental advocates for one view and totally disregarded other perspectives, including those of industry, which were provided to her. Those views are shared by the National Academy of Sciences which, as The New York Times reported on April 8, 2011, “slammed EPA’s formaldehyde assessment.” According to the New York Times, NAS concluded that the same EPA position that Ms. Mayer touted in her article “fails,” was not prepared “logically,” and needs “substantial revision.”
3. Ms. Mayer’s article relied heavily on anonymous sources and individuals whose backgrounds and potential biases against Charles Koch and David Koch were not disclosed.
Koch provided Ms. Mayer with the names of many individuals to interview who were knowledgeable about Koch Industries, Charles Koch, and David Koch. Very few of them appear to have been interviewed, and even fewer were quoted (unless they were some of the numerous anonymous sources relied upon by Ms. Mayer). Instead, Ms. Mayer relied on, among other sources, Gus DiZerega, who is quoted both concerning Charles Koch’s “younger years,” as well as for insight into Charles Koch’s current thinking. While not mentioned in Ms. Mayer’s article, Mr. DiZerega had not spoken with Mr. Koch for more than 30 years, and he had no current or relevant information concerning the Kochs or Koch Industries. When we challenged The New Yorker for failing to disclose these facts concerning Mr. DiZerega, The New Yorker noted that Mr. DiZerega’s views had “changed” in the 30-plus years since he last spoke with Charles Koch, which is quite an understatement. As Mr. DiZerega explains on his website, his “spiritual studies took him far from academia’s libraries into seasonal Wiccan celebrations, encounters with Pagan deities, and out into solitary fasts in the California desert, alone on remote beaches or isolated high on mountains doing vision quests. . . . Now that Barack Obama has been elected President, Gus aims to focus more on his spiritual writing instead of trying to prevent the triumph of what he feels are the moral monsters that long controlled the U.S. government and still dominate the Republican Party.” Mr. DiZerega’s lack of any knowledge or contact with Charles Koch for the past 30 years and his current beliefs would have been relevant to readers’ assessment of his credibility and potential biases. However, none of this was disclosed by Ms. Mayer.
Likewise, Ms. Mayer never disclosed that Charles Koch and David Koch had stopped funding the work of another source, Bruce Bartlett, at the National Center for Policy Analysis, which was upsetting to Mr. Bartlett. When we raised our concern that Ms. Mayer did not disclose Mr. Bartlett’s potential bias, The New Yorker claimed that this fact was disclosed. However, Ms. Mayer’s article in no way, shape, or form states that Mr. Bartlett was upset with the Kochs for stopping the funding of his work. In addition, Ms. Mayer quoted Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, which Ms. Mayer claimed to be a “nonpartisan watchdog group.” The Center for Public Integrity is a well-known advocacy group funded by Mr. Soros. For Ms. Mayer to suggest that Mr. Lewis and CPI are nonpartisan means either that Ms. Mayer did not research or check her sources, or that she misrepresented the bias of her sources to create the appearance of objectivity.
4. Ms. Mayer’s reporting concerning Koch’s history with the EPA and other regulators was inaccurate, biased, and distorted.
This was revealed by, among other things, Ms. Mayer’s failure to even mention the hundreds of environmental, health, and safety awards Koch companies have received since President Obama took office. Included in the voluminous data we provided to Ms. Mayer was information concerning our environmental and safety record, our positive relationship with the EPA and other regulators, and a detailed discussion of some of the long-ago resolved legal issues Ms. Mayer’s article referenced. Unfortunately, Ms. Mayer failed to mention any of this information which would have provided a counter to her one-sided and distorted presentation of Koch’s environmental performance and relationship with the EPA, which continues to be positive. For example, Flint Hills Resources entered an agreement last October with the EPA to develop a process for transitioning state-issued air permits to federally-approved permits. This issue has been a significant source of disagreement between the State of Texas and the EPA, and the EPA hopes that the process developed with Flint Hills Resources “will serve as a model for other companies.”
Rather than provide a balanced discussion of Koch companies’ true environmental performance and commitment, Ms. Mayer relied on a University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute index, which claimed that Koch Industries is “one of the top 10 air polluters in the United States.” As we pointed out to The New Yorker, that index faulted virtually every major manufacturer in the United States today. Koch companies, of course, provide good jobs to 50,000 people in the United States, as a senior leader of the United Steel Workers recently recognized. Moreover, the so-called “pollution” cited by the index are emissions that are permitted by law and carefully regulated by the EPA.
Ms. Mayer’s article also failed to note that a co-creator of the index, Michael Ash, is a longtime member of the Union for Radical Political Economics. That organization’s website explains it is an organization that “presents a continuing critique of the capitalist system and all forms of exploitation and oppression while helping to construct a progressive social policy and create socialist alternatives.” Suffice it to say that the Union for Radical Political Economics is not a neutral source, but rather a self- described radical organization. The New Yorker dismissed our concerns, claiming that this was “immaterial” and it was “too late to condemn” the study. One would think that Ms. Mayer, in the interest of providing a thoughtful, fair, and balanced article, might have mentioned Mr. Ash’s background in her article as well as the fact that the alleged “pollution” referred to lawful activity. These facts would have been relevant to her readers’ understanding of the context and biases of the individuals behind the study.
The above examples are a sampling of our concerns. We respectfully submit that the article is not an objective piece of reporting, but instead is a derivative piece of work that is politically- motivated, partisan, opinion journalism, and part of the well-documented, concerted campaign of attacks that have been lodged against Koch Industries, Charles Koch, and David Koch throughout the past two years. There is nothing wrong with opinion journalism, and indeed, ASME has separate awards that rightfully recognize that form. As your presenter for this year’s awards, Katie Couric put it, “It’s really important that there’s a place for really objective journalism that’s not necessarily advocacy journalism.”
The New Yorker‘s contention that Ms. Mayer’s article is unbiased and impartial lacks merit, and it should not be considered for an award in the Reporting category. Even in a category that recognizes opinion journalism, we submit that Ms. Mayer’s article falls short because of the many flaws cited above.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Mark V. Holden
cc by email:
V.P., Global Editor-in-Chief, Reader’s Digest
Editor-in-Chief, The Atlantic
Editorial Director, Bonnier Technology Group
Editor-in-Chief, Popular Science and Science Illustrated
Christopher G. Johns
Editor-in-Chief, National Geographic
James B. Meigs
Editor-in-Chief, Popular Mechanics
Editorial Director, MoneyWatch.com
We received the following response from ASME:
(Click to enlarge)
We acknowledged ASME’s response and clarified our intentions:
From: Mark Holden
Sent: Thursday, April 21, 2011 4:44 PM
To: Sid Holt
Subject: RE: Letter From Sid Holt, ASME
Dear Mr. Holt:
Thank you for your response. To be clear, my letter was not designed to unduly “influence” any of the judges. In fact, many nominees are publicly touting their nominations, as is The New Yorker, and ASME itself has sent out a press release concerning the nominations. Rather, I wanted to ensure that journalism standards (or the lack thereof) are not forgotten in ASME’s decision-making process.
Accordingly, as the very subjects of Ms. Mayer’s article, we are voicing to you some of the concerns that we had with the article — from a journalistic perspective –given that the article is being considered for an award in Reporting.
Mark V. Holden
Koch Industries, Inc.