New Yorker Magazine Writer Critical of Koch Brothers Lashes Out

Jane Mayer emails provide window into work process of progressive writer

Jane Mayer New Yorker
Jane Mayer / Wikimedia Commons

Controversial New Yorker magazine writer Jane Mayer lashed out at the Washington Free Beacon last week in a series of emails following a report on her erroneous reporting and efforts to defer blame.

The New Yorker was forced to append a correction to a July 1 article by Mayer in which she quoted from a fictional political pledge that made it appear as if libertarian billionaire brother Charles and David Koch were singlehandedly orchestrating a campaign to stymie global warming legislation.

The incident raised ethical questions about a journalist’s responsibility to be fully transparent with his or her readers and prompted a Washington Free Beacon reporter to reach out to Mayer for comment about the high-profile flub.

The New Yorker’s correction on Mayer’s piece states, "Due to an editing error, this article originally, and incorrectly, contained quotation marks around a paraphrased description of the pledge," which was crafted by Americans for Prosperity (AFP). "The punctuation has since been corrected."

Free Beacon reporter Lachlan Markay reached out to Mayer on July 3 for comment related to an article about her misattribution.

Mayer did not take personal responsibility for the error, blaming it on an anonymous copy editor who she refused to identify.

Following the July 3 publication of Markay’s initial report, Mayer lashed out at the Free Beacon in a series of emails that provide a window into the work habits and inner thoughts of one of the New Yorker’s most prominent authors, whose work has also come under criticism for what critics describe as sloppy reporting and progressive bias.

Mayer spent much of July 3 and the July 4 holiday investigating Markay’s past, alleging in correspondence that he was a paid member of a pro-Koch plot that aims to discredit her writing.

"Hey Lachlan-  I just looked up your profile on LinkedIn. If it's correct, which it may not be, it looks as if you've been connected with several Koch-funded institutions, like [Institute for Humane Studies] and [The Heritage Foundation]," Mayer wrote to Markay on July 3 at 11:10 a.m.

"I don't know what the standards are at the Free Beacon, but Tim Carney at the Examiner has been quite forthright in disclosing his conflicts of interest when he writes about such things. What's your thinking on it?" she asked.

Markay penned a response at 11:49 a.m.:

Ms. Mayer,

The LinkedIn page is accurate and publicly accessible. I don't hide my previous employment, but I don't think it's particularly relevant here as I do not work for Heritage or IHS and they have no influence over my reporting.

My thinking on this generally: reporting rises or falls on its own merits–the previous employment of a reporter may be interesting or provide context and other people are free to write about that if they choose, but I'm just focused on getting the facts right.

Fondly,

Lachlan

Mayer followed up at 3:25 p.m. after reading Markay’s accurate report. She again deferred blame for the original error, maintaining that a copy editor was solely to blame for the error.

Dear Lachlan,

I just read your piece.

As you know, since the New Yorker's editor's note makes clear, and as I also made clear, the sentence that offends you in the New Yorker blog piece was the result of a copy editing error, not a reporting error. Hard to make that more clear than we all have. In case you couldn't understand it though, that means someone else added the sentence in question, not the reporter. Those are the facts, they were related to you, and they are not in dispute. You had that information.

Yet,

Your headline says:

"New Yorker Magazine Writer Misattributes Quote to Americans for Prosperity…"

Your story says:

"Mayer appears to have written the language herself and put quotation marks around it, making it appear as if it were directly drawn from the pledge itself."

I note you say "appears" using the present tense, as if you had not been informed otherwise, which you had. I can imagine that you could argue that since the story was under my byline, it originally "appeared" to be my error, but, of course, that false appearance has since been clarified by the editor's note, and in my email to you. We've all tried to set the record straight on this. Nonetheless, you still got it wrong.

Perhaps your erroneous report is the result of mistaken copy editing. I know that sometimes happens, even at the best publications. Whatever the cause, I would appreciate you running a correction on your website.

Thank you. Best wishes, Jane.

Mayer again lashed out at Markay and the Free Beacon on the July 4 holiday at 10:19 a.m., calling into question some of Markay’s previous reporting while not acknowledging her own.

She determined that the Free Beacon was "0 for 2":

Hey Lachlan,

I just noticed your writeup of the controversy surrounding PBS's decision to drop "Citizen Koch" from its lineup, and see you mangled the facts there as well. You wrote:

"Mayer suggested that David Koch used his positions on the boards of two public television stations, as well as an implied threat to withdraw a seven-figure contribution to the station on which Citizen Koch was supposedly slated to air, to kill the project."

No, actually, that is not what I "suggested." The story specifically doesn't say that David Koch "used his position" to kill the project. It's a bit more complicated, and a little less cartoonish. What the story reveals is that public television officials backed out of funding the documentary in question on their own, because officials there were fearful they would anger David Koch for the second time in a matter of weeks, just as he poised to make a seven-figure contribution. As far as we at the magazine know, the New Yorker story is accurate. We reached out to all sides, included their points of view, and there were no requests for corrections, or accusations of error. But there is a rather serious error in your retelling of it. You've created a straw man, and then torn it apart, rather than honestly conveying the facts.

You are now, 0 for 2. As you say, "reporting rises or falls on its own merits."

Best wishes, Jane.

Markay considered Mayer’s unsubstantiated claims on July 4 at 10:52 a.m. and responded in kind:

Hi Ms. Mayer,

Thank you for reading and for sending along your comments.

I don't write our headlines, but I've passed along your concerns to my editor.

Could you please send along the name and contact information of the editor who mistakenly put quotes around the description of AFP's pledge so I could confirm that account of events?

Thanks! Hope you're have (sic) a great Fourth.

Best,

Lachlan

Mayer found Markay’s response wanting and refused to provide him with a number for the New Yorker’s office or the name of the copy editor who introduced an error into her report.

You can call the New Yorker for that. They speak for the magazine. Of course, they already have addressed this. The editor's note is clear. An editing error is an editing error. Not sure how much more obtuse you can be.

Markay chose to ignore Mayer’s insult in a response at 3:57 p.m.:

Ms. Mayer,

Thank you for getting back to me. Your input is greatly appreciated. My editor has updated the headline of the AFP piece, which you can now find here.

Can you please send along a phone number for the New Yorker and the name of someone who might be able to put me in touch with the editor in question?

Best,

Lachlan

Mayer did not respond to this request. Nor did she respond to a later follow-up request for comment about her correspondence with Markay. The New Yorker also did not respond to a request for comment or to clarify which editor introduced the error into Mayer’s piece.

University of North Carolina journalism ethics professor Lois Boynton told the Free Beacon that it is important for reporters to accept responsibility for their errors.

"Sometimes it’s better to just take the responsibility—particularly when it’s an article with your byline—and let it go," Boynton told the Free Beacon via email.

For example, NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg apologized and accepted full responsibility on Monday for misattributing quotes in a recent article about the Supreme Court.

When behind-the-scenes forces are blamed for an error, readers might think that a reporter is shifting the blame, Boynton said.

"Calling attention to someone else’s responsibility tends to be perceived as shifting blame (and I stress perceived, which often is a bigger influence in how we respond to something than ‘mere’ facts!)," Boyton said. " In the heat of the moment, there is a human tendency to dislike having our wrongs pointed out and a knee-jerk reaction to point to someone else being more responsible for the error."