BY: TANNER KENNEY
In recent months, billionaire investors and conservative political activists Charles G. and David H. Koch – the Koch Brothers – as well as their wives Elizabeth and Julia, began a public relations marathon touted as an abrupt and monumental shift in the public-facing aspects of the family business. From Koch Industries’ environmentally conscious language to Charles Koch’s call to corporate leaders to reject tariffs, the Koch brothers are now carefully controlling their own narrative. But is the change as profound as they would like the general public to believe? Their newly-adopted language and tone may appear to signal yes, but their financial support of politicians appears to have changed very little.
When considering the vast sums of money that the Brothers are preparing to spend on the 2018 midterm election-cycle – including some $20,000,000.00 to sway public opinion regarding the recently-passed tax reform legislation – the need for increased skepticism becomes readily apparent. In supporting the DREAMers, the Kochs have targeted a vulnerable group popular among Democratic circles but identified by many on the Right as just another example of the necessity of immigration controls including President Trump.
Journalists, political watchdogs, and opponents of the Koch Brothers, alike, have long pointed to their spending-habits as a measuring stick for both their moral and political leanings, at any given time. Even though there are more than seven months left in the 2018 election-cycle, the Brothers have already spent nearly $6,000,000.00 on campaign contributions, alone, which is to say nothing of the almost $10,000,000.00 they parted with in 2017 to lobby politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, in all levels of government.
Whilst professing their desire to see economic growth generated by the paring-down of the American governmental machine, their lavish expenditures on personal extravagancies – including roughly $35,000,000.00 spent on investigating a fraudulent wine sale of approximately $400,000.00 – brings into question their fiscal responsibility. Therefore, it is worrisome to see their influence manifest itself in the public sector as in the case of the recently-let-go Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, and his outrage over the Koch’s push to privatize the organization, a sentiment echoed by many veterans of the American military.
On its face, it appears as though the Kochs have deserted the divisive rhetoric that previously marked their missives at governmental leadership through a series of commentaries designed to emphasize the importance of bipartisanship through the lens of the ‘American Dream.’ However, their public maintenance of the conservative moniker they so readily enjoy sharing begs the question – what do the Koch Brothers want?
Again, the appropriate response is to ‘follow the money.’ The Brothers’ support of the private prison system – a morally and financially questionable decision, at best – can be cited as the primary driver of their desire to see additional privatization throughout the federal government.
No strangers to machinations of the PR world, the Koch family has targeted a wide variety of media outlets for purchase, saturation of beneficial coverage, and more to promote the industries, politicians, and ideologies they support, but under the much softer light they have long sought. This includes the creation of the communications firm In Pursuit Of as well as a massive investment in Time Inc., a media powerhouse and longstanding bastion of thoughtful journalism. But it is a move decried as an attempt to discredit climate science and those that report on the subject in order to protect their oil-related business interests.
In terms of public health, this is a wildly dangerous maneuver as the Brothers are attempting to effectively silence the scientists and reporters that highlight the dangers of energy exploration, the damage done by their utilization, and various other debilitating aspects of the climate-energy nexus. Following a conversation with Dr. Jeffrey Sachs about the Koch Brothers, Mercers, and Fox News and their attempts to improve their public image by attacking the entrenched media outlets that have followed their political activities for decades, I asked him what citizens can do, moving forward, to combat the recent spate of ‘fake news’ in their closest circles.
In response, Dr. Sachs addressed the inequality in voter registration throughout the nation and compared it negatively to other wealthy nations, pointing to the burden placed on society by requiring Americans to maintain their own registration as opposed to the maintenance of rolls by the government, itself. Moreover, the dangers posed by climate change are not limited to the loss of life and/or home as Dr. Sachs emphasized the responsibility of developed nations to recognize and accept the interconnection of their actions, historically, and justice in emerging economies. However, Sachs assures us that “it’s not as bad as it seems” when it comes to the average American’s relationship with the subject.
Dr. Sachs argues that “only part of the congress” is the obstacle to enacting climate change-related legislation as “money speaks volumes to the congress, so we really live in a money-infested political system[.]” As such, it becomes doubly difficult to push-back against “‘fake news’” and the transparent biases of major media organizations that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. He then compared the topic of climate change in American lexicon to that of gun control – “our country wants gun control, and we just can’t get it because of the NRA, because of vested interests… But, the odd part is that[…] the public actually wants gun control.”
Dr. Sachs concluded his response by warning those who wish to sway public opinion for personal gain through the media, as the Koch Brothers, Mercers, and others have done with climate change, by echoing what he believes to be the sentiments of the majority of the American population – “It is not going to be good to be voting against gun-control, and it’s not gonna to be good to be voting against the climate, but we [have to] get organized to achieve that goal, politically.”
The investment in Time is, at its core, both justifiable and righteous when examining it through the lens of the global marketplace and American freedom of speech among other factors. But under closer examination, the investment also represents an insidious move by the Kochs to eschew campaign finance laws such as those aimed at the fair representation of facts and opinion in town halls and on television sets across the nation. It is important to note that the both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Election Commission have seen their fair share of drama under the Trump Administration, in part due to the personal and professional actions of President Trump.
One such example of financial wizardry is that of the Zuckerberg Chan Initiative belonging Facebook founder, Chairman, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg – himself an embattled political aspirant following the Cambridge Analytica data-mining scandal – and his wife Priscilla. The pair have been active in all levels of politics, and for some time, but Zuckerberg’s controlling interest in Facebook, a publicly traded company with rigorous SEC obligations, prevents him from fully extrapolating his growing wealth into the political realm.
So, why did Zuckerberg sell over $500,000,000.00 in Facebook stocks prior to the public revelations of the Cambridge Analytica scandal? One could argue that it was to prevent major personal financial losses in order to maintain effective control over Facebook through his management of the charitable foundation. Lastly, the foundation’s core mission is a wonderfully-crafted message of hope, inspiration, and charity but is undermined in its entirety by the fact that it is structured as a limited liability corporation, or LLC., as opposed to a charitable trust fund.
The Koch Brothers’ investment in Time, Inc. can also be seen as a vessel through which the family’s companies can maintain their PR-blitz through any manner which they see fit without having to report donations to the FEC, SEC, and other regulatory agencies that may have an interest in following their financial outflow as it regards to politics and the general public interest.
In obtaining the moniker of ‘media moguls,’ the Koch Brothers are attempting to rely upon their wealth inherited from their father’s entrenchment in the extractivist energy industry whilst padding their wallets with the ‘dark’ money of media. Much like the Mercer family’s support of former Trump Senior Counselor and Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon and Breitbart, it is evident that the Kochs have begun a similar process to further entrench themselves in the minds of Americans without explicitly connecting their name to their financial interests in order to protect their investments.
Recently, however, the din of the Koch Machine has grown louder as it is joined by individuals like Steve Murray of Murray Energy and Lynn Good of Duke Energy, who are fighting to keep their conglomerations afloat (and their salaries high) while analogues such as FirstEnergy have filed for bankruptcy protection. Similar to the energy industry in Germany, the United States has and will continue to undergo a massive shift away from traditional models to distributed systems incorporating renewable energy technologies from generation and storage to distribution and utilization, thereby allowing for a much more diverse group of ownership throughout the nation.
Lastly, if we are to believe that the Koch Brothers have genuinely had a change-of-heart, then why are they spending like there is less time on the clock than ever before? As with their wine collections, the Brothers are more likely to spend a significant amount of their wealth on protecting their wealth and reputations than they are providing a helping hand to those in need or, at the very least, acknowledge.
Tanner Kenney is an energy and media professional with a background in journalism and received his M.S. in Global Affairs, Environment & Energy Policy from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. Recently, Tanner has focused on the advocacy of sustainable development through renewable energy technologies, transportation efficiency, and inclusive public policy.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.