Half Baked

Author Lee Fang's toke on Koch Industries clouded by errors

Lee Fang
May 1, 2013

Author Lee Fang makes a number of questionable and embellished claims about the political activities of Charles and David Koch in a chapter of his new book The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right, a Washington Free Beacon analysis shows.

Fang, formerly a writer for ThinkProgress and the Republic Report and now a reporter with the left-wing magazine the Nation, has compiled years of dodgy reporting on the industrialist Koch brothers into a chapter called "The Koch-Fueled War on Obama."

Fang does not disguise his political agenda. Outside spending by labor unions and other groups that share his policy preferences is not so much a problem, he said in an email exchange with the Washington Free Beacon.

"I think we'd have a better political system if it wasn't so influenced by special interest groups across the board," Fang said. But "if you think the interests of two billionaires seeking upper income tax cuts and industrial deregulation are akin to unionized janitors and nurses seeking better work and retirement conditions, I don't know what to tell you."

That comment mirrors remarks Fang has made previously and reflects the subject line of a fundraising email from Organizing for America, a now-shuttered advocacy group tied to President Barack Obama: "Our Donations are Different." (Organizing for America was more or less reborn after the 2012 election as Organizing for Action.)

The distortions pile up. For example, contrary to Fang’s claim that "Obama and the Democrats…were too timid to explicitly denounce the Koch Brothers," numerous high-profile White House officials targeted the brothers by name.

David Axelrod, then a top Obama adviser, accused the Kochs of manufacturing the Tea Party movement in Jane Mayer’s 2010 attack on Charles and David.

A month later, Austan Goolsbee, then the chairman of Obama’s council of economic advisors, revealed private tax information about Koch Industries in a background briefing with reporters.

The president himself attacked Americans for Prosperity, which Fang dubs a Koch "front group," in an August 2010 speech warning of secretive, potentially foreign-funded groups influencing American elections.

That attack dovetailed with one Fang himself made up a couple months later. He alleged in a ThinkProgress post that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—another Koch co-conspirator, by Fang’s telling—was illegally spending foreign money on American political activities.

Fact-checking websites panned the piece. "Accusing anybody of violating the law is a serious matter requiring serious evidence to back it up," wrote "So far Democrats [who attacked the Chamber based on Fang’s report] have produced none."

It was revealed in 2011 that the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the 501(c)(4) that publishes ThinkProgress, accepted nearly $3 million in foreign money from the Bermuda-based Atlantic Philanthropies through 2010.

Fang says his distaste for conservative political philanthropy is grounded in what he alleges is corporate America’s antipathy to progressivism.

"Democratic presidents promising bold, progressive change have faced orchestrated attacks from the titans of industry since President Franklin Roosevelt," he writes.

But Fang glosses over evidence of corporate support for Roosevelt’s programs—as well as for Barack Obama's.

"The New Deal continued the innovatory corporatism of Hoover," wrote historian Paul Johnson.

Roosevelt’s package of economic reforms was part of a corporatist strain in American politics that began with President Woodrow Wilson’s war economy and "culminated in the vast welfare state which Lyndon Johnson brought into being in the late 1960s," Johnson wrote.

More recently, financial regulation legislation was crafted in conjunction with industry lobbyists who have frequently huddled with regulators in charge of implementing the bill.

The Obama administration struck a deal with the pharmaceutical industry, ensuring its support for the Affordable Care Act in exchange for billions of dollars in payoffs for the industry.

Tobacco companies Philip Morris and Altria were major lobbying forces for and beneficiaries of the president’s 2009 tobacco control legislation.

Yet Fang does not admit any similarity between what he says is rent-seeking by the Kochs and the litany of corporatist influences on the president’s policies.

That outlook has led Fang to vehemently criticize politically active philanthropists in publications funded by politically active philanthropists (including the Nation).

Fang notes in his introduction that much of his writing is drawn from his work at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a division of the Center for American Progress (CAP) that does not disclose its donors.

The well-endowed liberal think tank is funded in part by corporations such as Walmart hoping to advance financial interests by supporting policy work and political commentary.

Reports indicate CAP has also received contributions from liberal billionaires George Soros, Peter Lewis, Tom Steyer, and Herbert Sandler and his late wife, Marion.

However, Fang routinely dubs the conservative 501(c)(4) activist group Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which is organized under the same provision of the tax code as the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a Koch Industries "front group" because of the brothers' ties to the organization.

David Koch sits on the board of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which is a legally distinct organization from AFP, analogous to the relationship between CAP and its Action Fund, neither of which are referred to in Fang’s book as "front groups" for Walmart, Soros, Lewis, the Sandlers or any of their other wealthy, politically active donors.

The billions spent on electioneering activities by the nation’s labor unions are said to be less pernicious to American democracy than the significantly smaller sums spent by conservative political groups.

Additionally, Fang provides little evidence to support his claims regarding the Koch brothers' motivations.

"Before Obama even assumed office, the pair made it their goal to neuter the young president and remove him from the White House," he writes.

"Every company wants smart people," noted Charles Koch in one anecdote relayed by Fang. "Well, Hitler was smart. Stalin was smart. Mao was smart," Koch continued. "If somebody’s evil, the smarter they are, the more damage they’re going to do."

This historical observation, Fang claims, is a veiled comparison of Obama to Hitler and Stalin, though Koch mentioned neither Obama nor any other element of contemporary politics.

"The odd remark, made at the peak of the election season, sounded more like a shot at candidate Obama than a critique about the perfect employee. The erudite senator from Illinois could do a lot of ‘damage’—like Hitler or Stalin—Charles seemed to think," Fang writes.

Asked how he drew that conclusion from Koch’s remark, Fang said he had simply laid out "why Charles' remark could be interpreted as a fear about a leader like Obama in the book."

Fang also cites his own writings as "evidence" the Koch brothers have faced criticism for their activities.

"The Koch brothers were accused of rampant oil speculation, driving the price of gasoline up for consumers," he writes.

But that accusation was made by Fang, who stands by his reporting despite the fact it was quickly debunked.

He also repeats accusations that Koch Industries stole oil from Indian tribal lands in the 1980s—claims that resulted in a settlement with the federal government—without mentioning "investigations by the Bureau of Land Management and the Osage Tribal Council in Oklahoma found no evidence" to support the allegations, according to a Tulsa World article obtained through Lexis Nexis.

Fang spends much of the chapter on what he alleges are activities by Koch Industries to undermine a consensus on the dangers of anthropogenic global warming.

"After emails were hacked from a climate research center in England—the so-called ClimateGate scandal—Koch groups manipulated several of the emails to claim the science underpinning the concerns on climate change was a hoax," Fang writes.

None of the emails were altered or edited, however.

Fang says the accusation of "manipulation" refers only to attempts to use the emails as evidence of a "hoax."

Organizations that used the emails to subject the theory of man-made climate change to scrutiny were funded by the Kochs as a means to avoid regulations that might hurt the company’s bottom line, Fang writes.

What Fang does not mention is that the Koch brothers also provide funding to groups and individuals that warn of the dangers of global warming.

"Denying the threat of global warming only permits the Koch brothers to make vast amounts of money from their pollution-based empire," Fang writes.

Koch subsidiary Georgia Pacific has received an award from the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency for its "significant contributions to protecting the environment."

Koch Industries and its subsidiaries have also received dozens of other awards for environmental stewardship and sustainability.

Fang does not mention of those accomplishments or the groups and individuals that have received funding from Koch that have warned of the dangers of anthropogenic global warming.

The Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation is one of the largest donors to the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project whose founder, University of California Berkeley physicist Richard Muller, insists "humans are almost entirely the cause" of global warming.

Patrick Michaels, the director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Koch-funded Cato Institute and the keynote speaker at a 2008 conference held by the Koch-funded Heartland Institute, proclaimed: "Global warming is real and people have something to do with it."

Fang also dismisses Koch support for other progressive causes pushed for by Obama.

Koch-funded groups including the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation supported the 2010 repeal of the "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" policy banning gays openly to serve in the U.S. military.

Reason magazine, which is editorially independent from but also published by the Reason Foundation, has also published a libertarian case against right-to-work laws, which progressives vehemently oppose.

Fang insists the Kochs "adamantly fought every progressive policy [Obama] proposed" and writes off their support for socially liberal causes as "a Trojan horse for imposing their radical economic views."

One such "Trojan horse": The American Museum of Natural History to which David Koch has donated $35 million. The museum is a compendium of evidence for evolution, Koch support for which Fang says is "mostly a ruse."

So sinister are the Kochs, Fang writes, that they ally with groups that oppose them on key pieces of legislation.

He includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a major Koch ally in opposing the president’s agenda. But he also identifies Koch opposition to the 2009 stimulus bill, which the Chamber supported, as a key plank in the brothers’ anti-Obama campaign.

Fang said he did not claim these groups have identical agendas.

The Nation on Tuesday issued a 370-word correction to an Earth Day piece by Fang that alleged a conspiracy to sink efforts to address climate change.

"We apologize for the errors," wrote the Nation editors.