Jane Mayer and the Brothers Koch

If your taste in journalism and politics runs to artless screeds and hatchet jobs, you might want to read Jane Mayer’s “Covert Operations,” published in the Aug. 30 issue of the New Yorker.  Having earlier pilloried such as Dick Cheney and Clarence Thomas, Mayer now does the remarkable – she pillories some more conservatives.

Her latest targets are the wealthy Koch brothers, Charles and David, who together run Koch Industries, the country’s second largest privately held corporation.  Make no mistake, it’s not their wealth that Mayer dislikes, it’s their politics.  This becomes clear (early on and without surcease thereafter) by the sources she quotes and by her strained attempt to brand the Kochs’ philanthropy as something not merely conservative (and therefore wrong) but venal and surreptitious as well.

But never mind.  Other people (as shown here and here) have already undertaken the easy job of deconstructing Mayer’s fable, and in any case, with their kind of money and influence the brothers Koch can take care of themselves.  The objection here is with something Mayer writes virtually in passing, not about the Kochs but about another politically active philanthropist, albeit one with very different political views – George Soros.

Here’s the offending text:

Of course, Democrats give money, too.  Their most prominent donor, the financier George Soros, runs a foundation, the Open Society Institute, that has spent as much as a hundred million dollars a year in America.  Soros has also made generous private contributions to various Democratic campaigns, including Obama’s.  But Michael Vachon, his spokesman, argued that Soros’s giving is transparent, and that “none of his contributions are in the service of his own economic interests.”  (Emphasis added.)

How many things are wrong with this paragraph?  Let’s count the ways.  First, there’s the very brevity of it.  Here we have what purports to be an expose of extraordinary and dangerous influence on the political process, and George Soros is treated to precisely 74 words – in an article that totals nearly 10,000.

The second problem is the false claim, unchallenged by Mayer, that Soros’s contributions are “transparent.”  As the head of an organization that every day has to contend with the misrepresentations and outright lies of one of the Open Society Institute’s grantees – Free Press – let me report that nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, the amount and kind of Soros’s (and OSI’s) funding of groups like Free Press is unknown (and of no apparent interest to reporters, “investigative” or otherwise.)

There’s yet another problem with the quote attributed to Soros’s spokesman, namely, the assertion that none of his giving benefits his economic interests.  Not to put too fine a point on it, how would anyone know?  After all, the gentleman made his bones in international finance as a currency speculator.  And as recently as March of last year, in the middle of the recession, he was quoted as boasting that he was “having a very good crisis.”

Point being, of course, that hedge funds and other investors often profit by going “short” on securities as diverse as bonds, equities, commodities, and currencies.  In other words, it’s entirely possible, if he’s been making bearish bets, that Soros’s investments have been enhanced by his philanthropy, such have been the disastrous economic consequences of the public policies and politicians he supports.

This said, the thing that’s most wrongheaded about the paragraph at issue is the notion that people’s political views are suspect only when they’re (arguably) motivated by some economic interest.

This canard has been so widely circulated for so long it’s rarely challenged, but it should be.  This, because as anyone who has ever worked in policy circles knows well, those people who are the least objective and truthful are political activists, of whatever cause or political stripe, whose satisfactions come not so much from financial rewards as from the psychological satisfaction they gain as warriors in political crusades.

Consider, again, the example of Free Press.  This noxious organization, whose founders’ political views are in fact incompatible with a free press, makes much of the fact that it doesn’t receive funding from for-profit corporations.  But it gets lots of money from ideologically motivated groups like the Open Society Institute.

That this financial circumstance is treated by so many journalists as thereby absolving Free Press, and kindred organizations, from the kind of skepticism and scrutiny they visit on those that derive some or all of their funding from for-profit entities, amounts to a double standard of some considerable moment.  Because the fact is that, however much the Kochs and other businessmen may contribute to non-profit organizations, it’s a pittance compared to the kind of money provided to left-leaning organizations by the country’s major grant-making foundations.

And what’s the upshot of that?  If you’re a left-of-center activist you have a good chance of scoring big bucks from foundations with a keen political interest in your activities, and as a bonus you can go about your business free of worry that Jane Mayer, or some other reporter, will ever accuse you of being a mouthpiece for “vested interests.”

As in the title of the movie, it’s a wonderful life!


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.