In Which "left-wing think tanks are nonpartisan watchdogs, but the free-market ones are part of some covert stealth nefarious plot"


Ira Stoll does a good job of articulating the qualms I had yesterday when reading Jane Mayer's big Koch Brothers hit piece in The New Yorker:

Ms. Mayer lets "Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group," sum up the Koch brothers: "The Kochs are on a whole different level. There's no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I've been in Washington since Watergate, and I've never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times."

Charles Lewis is a left-winger and the Center for Public Integrity gets its funding from left-wing foundations including George Soros's Open Society Institute and Barbra Streisand's Streisand Foundation. […]

Ms. Mayer describes what she calls "the Kochs' subsidization of a pro-corporate movement." But a lot of Koch-backed institutions would be more accurately characterized as pro-individual or pro-small-government than as "pro-corporate." These think thanks and professors and groups were criticizing ObamaCare when the drug companies were backing it, criticizing TARP when the investment banks were backing it, criticizing the auto bailout when GM and Chrysler were begging for it, criticizing "clean energy" subsidies when GE and Ford were begging for them. […]

Ms. Mayer tries to suggest something is wrong with the Koch family backing George Mason University.

It is an unusual arrangement. "George Mason is a public university, and receives public funds," Stein noted. "Virginia is hosting an institution that the Kochs practically control."

But there's nothing the slightest bit unusual about a publicly funded university also accepting private funds with some strings attached. Stephen Ross gave $100 million to the University of Michigan and had the business school named after him. The Walton family gave the University of Arkansas $300 million.

Ms. Mayer uses an anonymous source to accuse the Kochs:

An environmental lawyer who has clashed with the Mercatus Center called it "a means of laundering economic aims." The lawyer explained the strategy: "You take corporate money and give it to a neutral-sounding think tank," which "hires people with pedigrees and academic degrees who put out credible-seeming studies. But they all coincide perfectly with the economic interests of their funders."

How is that any different from what Ms. Mayer is doing with the neutral sounding "Center for Public Integrity" and "National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy"? […]

In Ms. Mayer's world, the left-wing think tanks are nonpartisan watchdogs, but the free-market ones are part of some covert stealth nefarious plot to create "slippery organizations with generic-sounding names" by two brothers who are big corporate polluters. It's an amazing double standard.

Whole thing here; related Stoll post here.

I am a big admirer of Jane Mayer, and her article is worth reading for anyone who's interested in the topic, but is seems a clear case of describing two apples with different adjectives because one smells funny (the George Soros paragraph in the article is a classic of the form). Whether the piece amounts to a kind of opening White House legal salvo against some of its biggest critics is something worth monitoring closely over the next two-plus months (and two-plus years). Given President Obama's increasingly hysterical (and hypocritical) attacks against "the influence wielded by corporations and foreign entities," it's clear that the campaign will have rhetorical legs at the least.

UPDATE: Randy Barrett, the director of communications for the Center for Public Integrity, takes issue with Stoll's characterization. His response in full:

The Center for Public Integrity is not a left-wing group. We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on investigative journalism. The Center does receive funding from the Open Society Institute, but OSI is but one of dozens of foundations and individuals who have supported the Center's work over the last 20 years, including the Annenberg Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation. You can find a full list of our current funders here.

The Center makes it explicitly clear to all our supporters that they cannot exert any influence whatsoever over the editorial content of our stories. Our work speaks for itself. Over the past two years, Center stories have been honored by the Overseas Press Club, Sigma Delta Chi, the National Press Club and Investigative Reporters and Editors, among others.