Few American paradoxes are as potent as the coexisting concepts of “freedom of speech” and “money talks.” Just look at some of our country’s most outspoken billionaires and their conflicted relationship with free speech.
President Trump recently tweeted that The New York Times was the “enemy of the people.” In response, the Charles Koch Institute (CKI), the philanthropic arm of the industrial empire built by the Koch Brothers, issued a statement claiming it supports press freedom. At first, this might seem to be a genuine rebuke. The Koch statement declares “for a free press to continue to flourish in the United States, journalists and news outlets must be free from intimidation.” The “repeated denigration of journalists erodes such vital norms and institutions as cultural trust in media, a nonpartisan commitment to the pursuit of truth, and our country’s free press,” CKI spokesperson Sarah Ruger said in the statement. “What’s at stake is the continued ability of news outlets to empower the public with information necessary to hold those in power to account.”
To round out the appearance of truly supporting the noble goals of a free press, CKI points to its token donations to press groups. However, given that the Kochs have allegedly hired private investigators to harass journalists who reported on them, like Jane Mayer and Lee Fang, there is reason to doubt their commitment to journalistic freedom. Apparently, the Kochs only support journalistic endeavors that “hold those in power to account” if those in power aren’t the Kochs. Others have called these statements out as attempts to whitewash the Koch image.
The Kochs not only directly attack journalists, but Mayer, Fang and others have shown how the Kochs have built a self-serving news ecosystem that the Trump administration regularly uses in its campaign of “repeated denigration of journalists.”
As Sludge’s Alex Kotch reported back in November, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute appear to be the primary funder of the Daily Caller, with their combined near million-dollar donation making up 83 percent of the Daily Caller News Foundation’s 2017 budget. In a subsequent report, Kotch explained how the Daily Caller’s Michael Bastasch, whose whole career has been as a Koch operative, generated several posts that the EPA used to attack the National Climate Assessment and the media’s coverage of it.
This is just one of many, many examples of the EPA using the Daily Caller to attack the press and otherwise “erode… a nonpartisan commitment to the pursuit of truth.” For example, last March, the EPA sent out a press release pointing to a Bastasch story on one of Pruitt’s controversial policy proposals. The agency has done this at least four times.
The Daily Caller has even defended the administration when it assaulted a reporter. The AP’s Ellen Knickmeyer tweeted last May that EPA guards “shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building” to prevent her and two others from reporting. In response, the Daily Caller quickly penned a story casting doubt on her claims.
This list could go on, exploring more of the people the Kochs pay to deny climate change in various front groups, like Heartland and Heritage, routinely attacking reporters who dare to follow the evidence on climate change in “a nonpartisan commitment to the pursuit of truth.” But you get the point.
There is no doubt about the need for a free press. But a bought press? That is another thing altogether.
Phil Newell writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.