Over the past 30 years, Charles and David Koch, owners of a Kansas-based family business called Koch Industries, have given hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations that advance their political views. Those views can be described as unevenly conservative and generally libertarian (pro-gay marriage, anti-ObamaCare). The donations are readily observable in foundation tax records posted on the Internet, as all such transactions are, and the brothers themselves have made many public appearances on behalf of the think tanks and magazines they fund, given speeches and media interviews, issued statements of support, sat on boards—even, in David’s case, made a hopeless and expensive run for the vice presidency on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980.
Oddly, it took a while for the Inspector Clouseaus of the American left to smell a rat. And in fairness, it should be said that hiding in plain sight can often be the most sinister form of disguise for billionaires like the Kochs, the tricky bastards. About a year ago, the alarming rise of the Tea Parties inspired researchers at a website called ThinkProgress to start Googling. Among their discoveries, breathlessly reported, was the news that one of the Kochs’ foundations had funded Americans for Prosperity, a group instrumental in the Tea Party movement.
ThinkProgress presented its story as a scoop the mainstream press was afraid to touch. There the Kochs stood at last, exposed to broad daylight in the public square, where they’d been all along. ThinkProgress dubbed them “The Billionaires Behind the Hate.” We may never know what tipped off the sleuths to the Kochs’ political activities, but David Koch in particular must be kicking himself: I knew I shouldn’t have given that speech to 2,000 people in that hotel ballroom at the Americans for Prosperity convention! And the interviews I gave to New York magazine, and the Times—what a fool I was!
In the early days of “the new media”—talk radio, cable TV, and the Web—liberal media critics used to warn about the “right-wing conveyor belt,” a means by which conservatives, feeling disenfranchised from the mainstream press, could smuggle a story onto the network airwaves or the front pages of national newspapers. A report in an explicitly ideological venue—the American Spectator, maybe—might be picked up by, say, the Drudge Report and then become a favorite topic on talk radio, provoking a mention by a mainstream-media reporter in a story about the story, and before you knew it, the original story had itself breached the battlements, landed on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, and gone kaboom. In such a way could the ideologues manipulate the agenda of supposedly neutral journalism. President Clinton’s Troopergate scandal, boycotted by the press at first, was the best example of the conveyor belt in motion.
Our present-day leftists apparently hope to construct a conveyor belt of their own. (Why they should feel disenfranchised from the establishment press is a good question, but they do.) ThinkProgress’s reports on the Kochs were repeated on the more heavily trafficked and slightly more mainstream Huffington Post, drawing the notice of the MSNBC talk-show host Rachel Maddow, who pointed out to her viewers that while Americans for Prosperity had a “really innocuous sounding name,” it was a sock puppet of the Kochs. When Maddow speaks, the White House listens, and by August, the president himself was at a Texas fundraiser warning an audience that had paid at least $5,000 a person about the dangers that rich people posed to politics. Obama didn’t mention the Kochs, just their organization. Despite an “innocent-sounding name,” he said, “they don’t want you to know who theAmericans for Prosperity are.” It’s not clear from the president’s remarks who “they” are, but they can’t be good.
Obama’s quote, along with reporting plucked from ThinkProgress and other websites, made it into the New Yorker magazine at the end of August as part of a long exposé of the Kochs and their organizations by a staff writer named Jane Mayer. (According to Mayer, the names of Koch political organizations are not only “innocent sounding” and “really innocuous sounding,” as Obama and Maddow said; they are also “neutral sounding” and “generic sounding.” You can’t fool the New Yorker.) Within a few days of its publication, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a complaint against Americans for Prosperity with the IRS. Terry Gross feted Mayer and her article on NPR’s Fresh Air, and Frank Rich wrote a Sunday column in the New York Times that was mostly a paraphrase of Mayer’s piece.
The left-wing conveyor belt isn’t so elaborate as its conservative counterpart, but then it doesn’t need to be. The distance a scoop had to travel from the Spectator to the Los Angeles Times is much greater than the span that separates ThinkProgress from NPR and the Times op-ed page. Yet that’s only one of the differences between the old conveyor belt and the new. Another is that the news on the liberal conveyor belt gets pushed along by the president of the United States. And another is that what gets pushed along isn’t really news—or, to put it more accurately, is news only to an ideological imagination made tender and impressionable by a feverish paranoia.
The story of the Koch brothers and their involvement in politics, unknown as it is to most readers, is undeniably worth telling. But mere interest isn’t the reaction that ThinkProgress and Mayer, who is as much a party apparatchik as a reporter, meant to provoke. This is five-alarm journalism. “In many places,” Mayer told Maddow in a back-scratching interview, the Tea Party movement “has been considered a spontaneous uprising that came from nowhere.” In fact, it is merely one of the Kochs’ “stealth attacks launched on the federal government, and on the Obama administration in particular.” Maddow summed up the theme of top-down manipulation: “Tea partiers who attended these rallies, particularly the early ones, were essentially instructed to rally against things like climate change by billionaire oil tycoons.”
The only support in Mayer’s article for this extravagant charge comes from second-hand assertions, usually in quotes from the brothers’ critics. Many are anonymous. Others are incompletely identified. Conservative think tanks and activists are carefully pinned with the ideological tag; liberal think tanks and left-wing activists are, well, just think tanks and activists. A man named Gus diZerega is hauled in to describe David Koch’s “wayward intellectual trajectory” toward conservative activism; Mayer describes diZerega only as a “former friend” and “political science professor.” In a bio note on his blog, diZerega is more definitive: after working “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,” he says he quit poli sci for the study of “Neo-paganism, the earth religions more generally, and shamanic healing.” Talk about a wayward intellectual trajectory.
One mark of the paranoid style in American politics, Richard Hofstadter wrote in his famous essay, is its concern with “factuality,” a piling up of random details to create a coherence that reality itself can’t provide. Journalism of a certain sort becomes a convenient instrument of the paranoid partisan. “The paranoid’s interpretation of history,” Hofstadter wrote, “is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will,” an “amoral superman” who “manufactures the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.”
With the Kochs, the American left gets two amoral supermen in one. Mayer’s article, and the larger campaign it’s a part of, is meant not only to alarm its audience but to soothe it as well. Any Democrat unnerved by the rise of the Tea Party movement will find it comforting to learn that it’s a giant confidence trick. The belief requires both a deep cynicism about one’s fellow citizens and a touching credulity about the ease with which they can be manipulated. All those angry, badly dressed people shouting into megaphones on TV: they’re not evil, they’re just stupid.