Koch buys online advertising to attack report on its lobbying influence

Koch Industries bought online ads to counter a Center project. The ad is at right; the Google search showing the story is at left. 

Koch Industries has launched an online advertising campaign to rebut a Center for Public Integrity report about its lobbying activities that it refused to respond to when the story was published last week.

The story, headlined “Koch’s Web of Influence” by John Aloysius Farrell, outlined Koch’s multimillion-dollar lobbying network in Washington and its attempts to influence Congress and federal agencies.

The Center sought comment from Koch Industries repeatedly while the story was being reported, including 11 emails and phone calls to several Koch communications and lobbying officials. Koch’s only response then was an email on the eve of publication from Melissa Cohlmia, director of corporate communications.

“We have received your requests for assistance. We have serious misgivings about your claims of objectivity, balance and sourcing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that you have written numerous pieces that are critical of issues that Koch would support,” her email said.

Cohlmia’s email is part of the ad campaign, which was spotted on Facebook and Google.

Mike Hoyt, executive editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, said he had not seen similar attacks on journalists via online ads. He said he was concerned about the potential effects of the rapid growth of public relations on the press — the subject of an article to be published in the magazine's May/June edition.

"Public relations has grown so tremendously while journalism has, due to the recession and the digital shakeup of the business model, shrunk," Hoyt said in an email. "Combine that with the ability of powerful entities to buy their own gateways to the public, and you have a civic conversation that can be skewed. A main job of the press is to examine the powerful, and that becomes harder given the PR muscle of the powerful."

A group on Facebook, The Beer Party, defended the Center story and gave followers a step-by-step process on how to report the ad as misleading.

Center for Public Integrity Executive Director Bill Buzenberg noted that Farrell’s story was based on lobbying disclosure reports filed by Koch’s own lobbyists, and that he was disappointed the company bought advertising to attack a reporter instead of simply answering the questions he raised to the company beforehand.

“The story is based on Koch’s own reports, hardly controversial material that would warrant the ad hominem attack on a reporter who was objectively doing his job,” Buzenberg said. “Rather than answer our repeated efforts to get their side of the story or to address issues that are irrefutably factual, it seems as though Koch simply wants to use advertising to bully and chill a free press.”

Thomas B. Edsall, a journalism professor at Columbia University and a longtime Washington reporter, said he thought the ad might simply draw more attention to the Center’s report.

Noting the Center’s work often draws on publicly available databases, Edsall added, “These are available to Koch and any other organization, left, right or center. These databases could be used to verify (or dispute) CPI's reporting, something Koch has failed to do.”

Have you seen other corporate ads attacking journalists or media organizations? Send an email to Cole Goins: cgoins@publicintegrity.org

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