Monday, October 24th, 2011

Washington Post Ombudsman Rebukes Paper for Relying on Biased, Flawed Bloomberg Story

On October 21, the Washington Post published the following letter from Koch Industries:

Koch Industries responds

On Oct. 3, PostOpinions blogger Jennifer Rubin did a professional job of debunking a deeply flawed report about Koch Industries. Hers was among the first of numerous critiques of the Bloomberg Markets magazine article, as many reporters and bloggers detailed how Bloomberg used biased and deceitful sources, gave in to political bias and ignored countervailing facts so blatantly that Rubin called it “comical.” We have chronicled those accounts at KochFacts.com.

The only ones not paying attention apparently were Post editors, since the Bloomberg piece was reprinted, many days after it had been journalistically discredited, in the Oct. 9 business section. Post editors made no effort to heed the laundry list of serious problems that were flagged by Rubin, ourselves and many others. Had the editors bothered to call us, we would have provided that input.

Thus, Post readers were treated to a story that was not merely warmed over and a week late but one that had been thoroughly torched by one of its own bylined journalists.

Melissa Cohlmia, Wichita, Kan.

The writer is director of corporate communication for Koch Companies Public Sector.

That same day, Patrick B. Pexton, the Washington Post’s Ombudsman, used his column to tackle our concerns:

Did The Post story do right by the Koch brothers?

. . . On Oct. 9, The Post republished in its Business section a full-page story about the Kochs that was originally published Oct. 3 by Bloomberg Markets magazine. The Post has a partnership with Bloomberg and frequently runs its business stories.

The story was about illegal or questionable business practices by Koch subsidiaries dating back to the 1990s and earlier . . . It all looks pretty bad, and it is, on many levels. Koch companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and settlements to resolve these cases, no small change.

But I think The Post erred in republishing this story, or at least in the way it did. And when the Kochs complained to The Post after publication, The Post’s response wasn’t handled well.

Now, I couldn’t find any outright falsehoods in the story that would warrant corrections. Bloomberg, too, has published no corrections. But I think the story lacked context, was tendentious and was unfair in not reporting some of the exculpatory and contextual information Koch provided to Bloomberg.

In the days immediately after Bloomberg published its story but before The Post republished it, Koch swung its PR machine into action and put up a point-by-point rebuttal on KochFacts.com. The Powerline blog, written by lawyers who defend conservative causes and who have ties to the Kochs, did a deep-dive legal rebuttal of the story. Jennifer Rubin, The Post’s conservative opinion blogger, did a post that quoted Koch General Counsel Mark Holden extensively.

So did The Atlantic’s opinion blogger on business and politics, Daniel Indiviglio, who noted the major fines and settlements that General Electric has paid in recent years. ProPublica, the nonpartisan investigative journalism outfit, also weighed in, evaluating the Bloomberg story with more context.

Indeed, Lois Beckett of ProPublica made the point (in the comments section) that “Putting Koch’s entire legal and environmental record in the context of what other, less politically contentious companies have done would be an important service to readers.”

And that’s what The Post should have done.

As Indiviglio and Rubin wrote, lots of companies have foreign subsidiaries that until recently did business with Iran, including GE, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar. Many multinational companies have been investigated and prosecuted for violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and been fined and prosecuted for violating clean water and clean air laws.

Are the Kochs worse, better or in the middle? We can’t tell from this story.

Post Business Editor Greg Schneider said he “was aware” before republication that “the piece had stirred up some reaction, but we look to highlight work that is provocative.”

I think newspapers should always be provocative. But they should also be fair and provide context.

The Post could have included a sidebar summarizing and linking to the rebuttals that ran between Oct. 3 and 9. It could have called Koch directly — it didn’t — and put its comments in the sidebar.

After publication, the Kochs requested that The Post put online a one-paragraph statement from its general counsel, along with a link to KochFacts.com. I thought the statement was too strong; I might have negotiated over the wording of that statement, but the request does not seem unreasonable after a 3,000-word critical story is published. The Post did not publish the statement.

The Kochs are wealthy people with outsize influence; they are fair game for journalists. But journalists should also play the game fairly.

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