The author of Sons of Wichita, the new biography of the Koch brothers, never got the interviews he wanted with the archconservative billionaires. But he says the family nonetheless kept a close eye on his research, deploying the "very aggressive P.R. operation" they have used for years to silence media criticism.
"I had a senior person at [Koch Industries] basically tell me, 'Yeah, that is our strategy, we hit back and over time because of doing this the mainstream press has sort of learned a lesson to be careful about what they say about us,'" said Daniel Schulman, the book's author and a senior editor at the progressive Mother Jones magazine. "I would describe it as pugilistic, [which] is often their style in general."
Despite the lack of support from its subjects, Schulman's book is a fascinating portrait of the often bitter relationships between the four brothers -- Charles, David, Bill, and Frederick -- whose sprawling political empire has become a dominant force in the right-wing movement.
Schulman said the company's efforts to find out about his research and stop some from cooperating is not unusual, noting the Koch brothers and Koch Industries, the company at the root of their vast wealth, have a history of both intimidating reporters and seeking to counter negative coverage.
"People in the media certainly have what they would call their war stories dealing with Koch Industries," Schulman said in a lengthy interview with Media Matters. "There is a range of experiences. They have a very aggressive P.R. operation." He added, "I should also say that I like a lot of people I was in communication over there, they were nice people. But they were aggressive."
Schulman, whose book was published last week, said he began his research by writing a formal inquiry letter to each of the four brothers. He said only Frederick, the least involved in the company, would meet with him -- and then said he would only discuss his family if he received veto power over any third-party source material. Schulman declined.
At Koch Industries, which is headed by David and Charles, initial reaction was curious and somewhat cooperative, Schulman said. But it never amounted to any access to the two top executives.
"At one point they flew out to even talk to the publisher," Schulman recalled about a Koch executive. "They wanted to make sure this was going to be a fair book, they saw Mother Jones and immediately thought the worst. I was speaking to people there throughout the process, but they would never give me access to David or Charles, which I think was unfortunate because I do think that they had not much to lose and a lot to gain. I think these guy are all very interesting and should have their stories told."
But Koch Industries' interest did not end there, Schulman said
"I certainly got the sense that there were ... certain people [to whom] they were probably saying, 'don't talk to him.' I definitely got that impression," Schulman said. "I definitely talked to people who said, 'yeah, I spoke to Charles and he said he would prefer that I don't speak to you.'"
The Koch concerns about the book went even further, Schulman said.
Appearing on Fox & Friends in the wake of a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, Geraldo Rivera's claim that Martin brought about his own death by dressing in a hooded sweatshirt the night of the killing was shocking, but not surprising. Echoing earlier comments he made on the program, Rivera proclaimed: "You dress like a thug, people are going to treat you like a thug."
It was shocking because the idea of a well-paid commentator going on television and blaming an unarmed teen for being shot while walking home inside a gated community because he wore a hoodie -- because he tried to look like "a thug" as Rivera put it -- is repellent.
So yes, Rivera's comments were shockingly awful and irresponsible. As was his claim that the all-female jury "would have shot and killed Trayvon Martin a lot sooner than George Zimmerman did." But his comments weren't surprising, because Fox News and too much of the right-wing media have spent the last 16 months zeroing in on the memory of a dead teenager and doing their best to denigrate it.
Apart from the far right's gleeful and disrespectful response to the not guilty verdict, there remains a separate thread of loud tastelessness that dates back to 2012 and focuses on the victim for all the wrong reasons, suggesting he somehow got what he deserved. (Or what he "sought.")
Remember the fake, menacing photo of Martin that right-wing sites passed around last year? And when The Daily Caller published tweets from the slain boy's closed Twitter account? Tweets that conservatives then used to portray the teen as a thug?
This week, Fox favorite Ten Nugent practically danced on Martin's grave, accusing the dead teenager of being a "dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe" who was "responsible" for being shot by a volunteer neighborhood watchman on the night of February 26, 2012.
Comments by Rivera, Nugent and others were proof that a smear campaign was in full swing this week and a reminder the attacks are a continuation of the foul smears first unleashed in the wake of the killing. At the time, the attacks were an ugly attempt to justify Martin's death, to shift the blame away from the gunman, Zimmerman, and to cloud the debate about Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law. (Rivera in 2012: "I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was.")
Trayvon Martin deserves better. Indeed, every victim, and particularly every victim of gun violence in America, deserves better than to have a well-funded media machine like the one led by Fox News targeting shooting victims for endless attacks on their character and on the choices, large and small, they made while alive.
There's something spectacularly misguided about wanting to turn an unarmed shooting victim, an unarmed minor, into the bad guy and blame him for walking home with Skittles and an iced tea. But that's what conservatives in the press have been doing, on and off, for nearly a year-and-a-half now.
As companies cut ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) following a campaign led by ColorOfChange, Fox News has defended the conservative legislation organization, accusing ColorOfChange of using "fascist tactics" and inviting ALEC supporters and officials on to defend their actions. ALEC, an organization that drafts model bills for conservative state lawmakers, has pushed for controversial "Stand Your Ground" and voter ID laws across the country.
For somebody who runs around the media landscape demanding the press fix its mistakes, Andrew Breitbart turns an amazingly blind eye when his own sites are caught fabricating information. And Breitbart remains quite disciplined in terms of ignoring repeated requests that his sites fix blatant factual errors.
Recently, Mother Jones, MediaBugs, and a New York Times reporter all highlight the hypocrisy that fuels Breitbart and his sites.
Specifically, on Sept. 6, Breitbart's Big Government published a piece that made this claim [emphasis added]:
Nature Journal of Science, ranked as the world's most cited scientific periodical, has just published the definitive study on Global Warming that proves the dominant controller of temperatures in the Earth's atmosphere is due to galactic cosmic rays and the sun, rather than by man. One of the report's authors, Professor Jyrki Kauppinen, summed up his conclusions regarding the potential for man-made Global Warming: "I think it is such a blatant falsification."
Slight problem. Profession Jyrki Kauppinen was not one of the report's authors.
Not very complicated, right? Breitbart's blogger made a glaring error in the first paragraph of his piece and that error ought to be acknowledged and corrected. Ah, but this is Andrew Breitbart we're talking about.
New York Times environmental writer Andrew Revkin noticed the "cosmic" blunder and submitted it to MediaBugs, a site that tries to keep the press honest. MediaBugs contacted Big Government and informed editors about the error. Then via Twitter, MediaBugs requested several times that Breitbart address the misinformation. But as Mother Jones notes, he won't respond and nobody at Big Government will concede the error was made, or make any effort to correct it.
Right-wing media figures have recently promoted a study co-written by David Yerushalmi claiming in part that more than 80 percent of U.S. mosques feature texts that promote or support violence. However, as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has noted, Yerushalmi has "a record of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black bigotry."
A March 31 post on Mother Jones magazine laid out the right wing's history of deceptive and misleading "sting videos." The post summarized what was included in the videos, what was edited out, Andrew Breitbart's involvement, and the lasting effects of each project. From Mother Jones:
Most national media have yet to report on whether Sen. John McCain -- a member of the "Founding Board" of the nonpartisan voter education organization Project Vote Smart -- has been removed from the board for his failure to answer and return the group's Political Courage Test, which asks candidates about what policies they would support on a wide range of issues.