The recent Washington Post story linking the Koch brothers to the Keystone XL Pipeline, via their leaseholds on acreage in the Alberta, Canada, tar sands, is interesting because of what was said in the piece, and because of what its critics have said about it. But mostly it’s interesting because it’s the kind of flap whose resolution will be an early indication of the kind of editorial product Jeff Bezos wants to own.
In a nutshell, the Post piece, co-authored by reporters Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin, ID’d the Koch brothers as “the biggest lease holders in Canada’s tar sands,” and then suggested that this fact would “inflame the already contentious debate about the Keystone XL Pipeline.” The authors admit that their article was based on a report produced by a leftwing organization called the International Forum on Globalization, and that it was IFG’s executive director who provided the material on which the WAPO article was based.
Curiously, the co-authors also go on to say in the piece that they don’t really know how many acres of land the Kochs own in Canada, or what they are doing there, and that in fact “the link between Koch and Keystone XL is indirect at best.”
Given that all of this is revealed in the first five paragraphs of the article, one could wonder why the piece was written in the first place, not to mention why it then goes on for another 29. One answer to that question was provided by lawyer John Hinderaker, who published on PowerLine a devastating rebuttal of the Post piece, complete with evidence that the Kochs are not the largest leaseholders in the tar sands, that they have no interest in the Keystone Pipeline, and that in fact construction of the pipeline would actually hurt their financial interests. Hinderaker also says this:
Why would the Washington Post embarrass itself by republishing a thoroughly discredited attempt to link the Koch brothers to the Keystone Pipeline? Because that is a Democratic Party talking point, and the Post is a Democratic Party newspaper.
Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jack Kelly picks up on this theme, and concludes with the suggestion that “If Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post’s new owner, wants to run a newspaper rather than a Democrat propaganda sheet, he has some housecleaning to do.”
In the face of this kind of criticism, reporter Mufson replied with one of the strangest nonsequiturs in memory:
The PowerLine article, and its tone, is strong evidence that issues surrounding the Koch brothers political and business interests will stir and inflame public debate in this election year. That’s why we wrote the piece. (Emphases added)
As Jonah Goldberg subsequently wrote, “By this logic any unfair attack posing as reporting is worthwhile when people try to correct the record. Why not just … accuse the Kochs of killing JFK or hiding the Malaysian airplane?”
Beyond the facts in dispute there is also the unseemly matter, as Hinderaker describes it, of Judith Eilperin’s (undisclosed) marriage to a man who writes on climate policy for the decidedly partisan Center for American Progress, something that prompts Hinderaker to also wonder if there was any coordination between Eilperin and CAP, or between her and any Democratic congressmen or staff.
Many people are closely watching the Post these days for any sign of a change in the editorial stance in the paper since Bezos acquired it, and there are those who believe they may have spotted something in the decision of the paper to start publishing the libertarian-leaning Volokh Conspiracy blog (which itself questioned the Mufson/Eilperin piece), and in the paper’s decision to pass on the editorial ambitions of Ezra Klein.
But both of those matters concerned opinion writing rather than news reporting, whereas the Mufson/Eilperin article was published as news.
As mentioned here, it would be a surprise if Bezos bought the Post in order to push any kind of political or ideological agenda, but as a businessman he is known to believe in giving customers what they want. And if that’s the case the article in question must give him pause.
Put it this way: When the Post was just a print newspaper, distributed mostly in the greater D.C. area with its large majority of registered Democrats, it made business sense to publish a paper that leaned liberal and Democratic. But in the digital age the paper has the challenge of appealing to people throughout the country, including Republicans and conservatives, few of whom would be attracted by news stories like that of Mufson and Eilperin.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.