Last week, I interviewed Jon Stotsky of the Knight Foundation for my podcast. The interview was about a report exploring student opinions about free speech on college campuses. The topic was prescient enough, the report seemed interesting and Stotsky was available to talk.
Done in conjunction with Gallup, the report found that students believe more in freedom of speech in abstract than reality. It also tabulated a seven percent rise in students who believe the environment on college campuses doesn’t allow people to speak their minds.
Toward the end of the interview, I asked Stotsky about the Knight Foundation’s future work on First Amendment issues. It was then he mentioned recent funding from, among others, the Charles Koch Foundation.
My ears perked up. As an avid Jane Mayer fan, any mention of the Kochs is worrisome. I wanted to press on, but my time in the studio was running out. I ended the interview and went back to my desk.
Suddenly, it clicked. I’d been duped by a pseudo-earnest journalistic organization pushing conservative free speech storylines with Kochtopus money.
Or had I? I dove back into the report and listened again to the interview. Neither seemed to hold any sinister, subtle messaging. It seemed like this brush with Koch-funded journalism was on the up and up. But a look into how the Kochs fund journalism made me unsettled about future encounters.
Anyone who’s read Dark Money knows about the Kochs infamous focus on information warfare. The billionaire brothers (and several other large conservative donors) have spent millions of dollars creating think tanks to shift American intellectual discourse to the right. Organizations like the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation exist solely to mainstream uber-conservative ideals like limited government and lower taxes for the rich. Intellectuals and employees from these institutions have spread these ideas for decades via policy proposals, college programs and media hits.
Once Stotsky mentioned Charles Koch, I feared I’d been tricked. I thought they used a veneer of a scientific survey to sucker me, a simple liberal media sap, into spreading conservative narratives.
But the Charles Koch Foundation isn’t an arm of the Koch political influence operation. It funds various research programs, hospitals, charities, artistic organizations and social science nonprofits like the Knight Foundation.
“The Koch Foundation funds lots of serious research. It is a major funder of PBS’ science programming,” said Rich Hanley, assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. “So it’s not that unusual to see that it is supporting a social-science-based approach to free speech research and programs.”
Earlier this year, the Charles Koch Foundation pledged $3.25 million to the Knight Institute over five years (a research arm of the Knight Foundation based at Columbia University). But it wasn’t Knight’s only recent donor. The Democracy Fund and New Look Media—both ventures of eBay-founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar—also pledged $3.25 million over five years. Omidyar could easily be counted among the ruling class of society alongside the Kochs, but many of his ventures—including Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill-led online news publication The Intercept—would suggest somewhat opposite political ideology.
I don’t think the Knight Foundation is a political tool. Hanley says the Quinnipiac journalism department regularly applies for the organization’s grants and considers it a bastion of free speech.
“The Knight Foundation is an essential institution in strengthening journalism and building robust communities of discourse in the United States,” Hanley said. “It is without question a champion of free speech and a well-informed, active citizenry.”
Not everything the Charles Koch Foundation funds is ideologically driven. But with their rampant political spending and activities, separating the Kochs brothers’ non-ideological funding from political influence is impossible.
Funding good causes doesn’t undo the Kochs’ jackknifing of American democracy. The brothers spearheaded the now generations-long intellectual war to discredit climate change. Through backchannels, they funded the Tea Party’s astroturf movement. They’ve screwed over employees and compromised land for fossil fuels just to add a few extra million dollars to their bottom line.
That makes it seem like anything the Kochs fund, no matter how earnest or necessary, is an attempt to control America’s political narrative. They are trying to use legit news to launder ideology the same way criminals launder money through legal businesses. Just as Walter White mixed meth money with car-washing cash, the Koch brothers can mix far right messaging along with non-politically driven reporting.
I’m no longer worried that the Knight Foundation is arm of the Kochtopus. Still, any organization that accepts Koch money deserves scrutiny.