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.
“I definitely got the sense that the Koch Industries folks were tracking what I was doing fairly closely,” he explained. “In one instance, I interviewed a friend of theirs out in Wichita and ... I asked if I could record this interview and he said, 'sure, but I would like a copy of it if you wouldn't mind.' To which I said, 'okay, sure, fair deal.'”
Schulman said when he returned home, he sent the person a copy of the interview: “I followed up a couple of days later to make sure he had received it and I got his secretary on the line and she said, 'oh, so-and-so from Koch just stopped by to pick it up.'”
The author said in another instance he had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the federal government for some Koch Industries documents and heard back from the Justice Department that Koch Industries had filed its own FOIA about his inquiry.
Schulman describes in his book the tools the Kochs use to respond to press coverage they do not like and does not see the treatment he received as a surprise. Among their most effective weapon, Schulman said, is the KochFacts website, which the company launched to hit back at critical coverage.
“This was their way of sort of bypassing the media to get their story out there,” Schulman says of the site. “But at the same time, they've used this as a place to basically dump the correspondence of reporters and that sort of thing in order to sort of make journalists look dishonest and things of that nature. It's a place where they rebut media articles.”
And he says it has worked, to an extent.
“In terms of the general P.R. operation, I think that KochFacts itself has been pretty effective at giving reporters pause,” Schulman said. “Now you know that every email you send is going to find, could find its way on to that website.”
He also pointed to other intimidating approaches the company has taken against the press, including “taking out web ads lambasting reporters such as Jane Mayer and others which is sort of shocking to us in the press to be treated like that. Their argument is that they feel like they are really getting beaten up in the press and they have to take action.”
Mayer has been the Kochs' top journalistic target since her lengthy 2010 New Yorker piece titled “Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.”
In it, she detailed Charles and David Koch's hundreds of millions of dollars in political backing for conservative organizations. Not only did the Kochs attack Mayer publicly and on KochFacts.com, but they went so far as to write a stinging letter to the American Society of Magazine Editors urging the group not to honor the piece with its annual reporting award after Mayer received a nomination.
In another case, the Kochs took on InsideClimateNews.com, a Pulitzer Prize-winning website, and its editor, David Sassoon, after he wrote about the Koch's interests in Canadian oil. An online ad reportedly stated: “Activist/owner of InsideClimate News misleads readers and asserts outright falsehoods about Koch. Get the full facts on KochFacts.com.”
Schulman cites Powerlineblog.com as an ally for the Kochs, hinting that they seem to get their hands on company information and documents others could not.
“John Hinderaker [Powerline's editor] is quite frequently coming to their defense and sort of rebutting stories about the Kochs,” Schulman said, citing a recent Washington Post story about Koch Industries' link to the Keystone pipeline, a report Hinderaker blasted. “He certainly quoted Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and has in the past received internal documents from Koch Industries to push back.”
Schulman said information or criticism about his book has yet to make it to KochFacts: “I haven't seen anything. I think they view the book as more or less fair, the only thing they said was that they are withholding their judgment and reviewing the book.”