Playing the Koch Brothers’ Game

June 6th, 2014 · energy policy, journalism, regulation, role of government, tax policy

By Arthur Alpert

Egads, I haven’t posted here for a month. It wasn’t a vacation. I was learning lines for a role in “Jerome Bixby’s Man from Earth” (at the Adobe through Sunday, June 8) when a terrible upper respiratory bug knocked me down. I’ve muddled through but couldn’t find the energy to write.

Now I can and what happened in the Business Outlook of Monday, June 2 demands attention. As you know, the Journal recently picked up Tom Philpott’s Military Update, a syndicated column of news and analysis on what affects Americans in the military or retired from it.

Philpott said he was writing an editorial, just his third in 20 years. But he’d discovered “a well-funded group called Concerned Veterans for America” that, he said, “is confusing veterans and darkening attacks on the Department of Veterans Affairs during the current health-appointments scandal.”

The facts of the scandal will emerge, Philpott wrote, “But in my 37 years of covering veterans’ issues, I have never seen veterans issues used more cynically or politicized more thoroughly than during the past several years. At times the intent seems to be to shake trust in government generally rather than to address veterans’ needs.”

Ah, the naiveté! I like Mr. Philpott. He’s innocent the way real reporters often are but hate to admit.

Of course, shaking trust in government is the goal of oligarchs (and their news mediums), the better to rule the nation.


Philpott says Concerned Veterans for America poses as a vet advocacy group, but its press releases “are partisan attacks.” He writes, “The goal seems to be to attack, relentlessly, while a Democrat holds the White House.”

Oh, and he associates CVA with Republicans and the Koch brothers. (According to the Washington Post’s Matea Gold, a Koch sub-group called TC4 supplied all of CVA’s funds in 2012.)

Here Philpott takes an interesting tack. The Kochs create “public interest groups to oppose big government. That’s fine. That’s protected speech.”

Fine? Well, yes and no. It’s true the First Amendment to the Constitution protects free speech for front groups, too. But no, it is not fine for the Kochs or anybody else to try to sway public opinion from the shadows.

It’s dishonest and (like lots of legal, constitutional practices) it corrupts democracy.

Happily, we have journalists like Tom Philpott pulling back the curtain to reveal the plutocrat behind. And happily an Albuquerque Journal editor didn’t spike this Philpott column. Kudos!

But how can the Journal allow Philpott to out the Kochs in this instance while habitually publishing Op Eds by Koch-financed fronts without warning readers of the puppeteers pulling the strings!

Let’s pursue that apparent contradiction. I don’t know if the oligarchy’s essays pop unbidden into the editors’ email boxes or the editors solicit them, but in either case, why publish them at all?

Yes, it would be progress if the Journal followed Philpott and told us who’s behind the organization, as we have requested here many times. But why should the Op Ed page plump for plutocratic positions in the first place? Isn’t it enough that columns on the editorial page predominantly favor the wealthiest?

Meanwhile, even as the Journal devotes most of both opinion pages to the suffering upper class, its editors find nothing worth printing about the Kochs (and fellow oligarchs) in the daily’s so-called news pages.

Thus, the Journal ignored the news that Koch-funded ALEC has a new strategy to fight EPA efforts to tame global warming, one involving friendly states attorneys-general. Emily Atkin filed a story though at May 2.

Daniel Schuman’s new book, “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty” is just out and reporter Matea Gold culled “17 things you didn’t know about the Koch brothers” from Schuman’s volume for a Washington Post story published May 20, including the note that Fred Koch, the family patriarch, was “present at the birth” of the John Birch Society.

Of course, the Journal didn’t care. Nor that an updated version of Robert Greenwald’s documentary entitled, “Koch Brothers Exposed: 2014 Edition” currently is in the theaters

Nobody expects the Journal to agree with the N.Y. Times editorial board, but why doesn’t our local newspaper find the subject of a Times editorial Jan. 25 newsworthy? It was slimy electoral tactics of the “The Koch Party”.

And why isn’t the subject of the Times editorial April 26 – “The Koch Attack on Solar Energy”, about how the petrochemical siblings who hate taxes have found one they can abide – newsworthy?

You get the point. That the Journal published Tom Philpott’s column outing the Koch-financed pseudo-veterans group deserves our applause.

But it’s hardly Journal policy. Day in and day out, the Journal plays the Kochs’ game, printing essays from their front groups without telling readers who is paying for them while exempting the Kochs (and other oligarchs) from critical reporting. Oh, and cherry on the cake, it published conservative Kathleen Parker’s spirited defense of those gentlemen April 7.

It’s political pamphleteering, not journalism.


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A Little Phrase, Inconsistently Applied

May 31st, 2014 · journalism

By Denise Tessier

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation Friday was no surprise, especially after reading in Friday morning’s Albuquerque Journal that all five members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation were – in a rare show of consensus – calling for it.

What was a surprise, however, was a phrase inserted in the Journal’s story about that resignation call.

VA patients in ABQ parked in ‘phantom’ panel” was a straightforward story, reporting the state’s congressional delegation joining the cry for Shinseki’s resignation, and including revelations from VA records obtained by the Journal.

The phrase that jumped out of that story was inside the paper, atop the last column of type, and it had nothing to do with the VA. The phrase was part of a paragraph leading into a statement made by Democratic Sen. Tom Udall.

Here’s the paragraph, with emphasis added on the phrase:

Udall, who is seeking re-election this year, said new leadership at the VA is needed to restore accountability and transparency.

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Journal Doesn’t Get TTIP Memo

May 27th, 2014 · economy, energy policy, journalism

By Denise Tessier

Apparently, the Albuquerque Journal editorial board hadn’t seen the memo. Or maybe it did and didn’t care.

How else to explain its editorial advocating – pretty much without reservation – adoption of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership? The May 20 editorial, “TTIP would strengthen U.S. and EU economies,” talked about the TTIP as the best way to “promote economic growth, add jobs, expand markets, promote common interests and avert traditional wars without costing taxpayers a penny or adding to budget deficits.”

There was no mention of the secret October 2013 TTIP negotiation memo, published by Huffington Post the day before the editorial, which revealed that among the terms being discussed the U.S. would be under EU pressure to expand fracking, offshore oil drilling and natural gas exploration.

Instead, the Journal editorial parroted statements made by EU ambassador to the U.S. João Vale del Almeida, who touted economic benefits without alluding to the potential power TTIP appears to provide carbon extractive industries over the very nations the editorial says will be united as “equals” under TTIP, capitalizing on their already “similar democratic systems, economies and approaches to industrial and workplace standards.”

Basically, the editorial said, “. . .the United States should be first in line to embrace” TTIP, adding:

Senators, are you listening?

Picking up on the Huffington Post story about the memo, Common Dreams noted (also the day before the editorial) that:

Many European leaders have made no secret that they would like increased access to U.S. natural gas reserves. At a US/EU meeting in Brussels in March ministers pressed Obama to provide better access to U.S. fossil fuel reserves as a way to counter dependence on Russian pipelines from the east. As the Guardian reported at the time:

While European access to the US shale gas revolution is currently constrained by American licensing procedures, a successful conclusion of ongoing ambitious trade talks aimed at creating a transatlantic free trade area would also hasten European access to American gas.

EU officials said they wanted the talks finished by next year while Obama pledged that he would ensure a successful pact would not entail any dilution of consumer or environmental standards under pressure from multinational corporations.

In revealing the memo, however, Huffington Post reported that:

Free trade agreements frequently bind all of their participants to a specific regulatory regime, hindering the deployment of future regulations in response to new problems. Trade pacts are enforced by international courts, which can issue economic sanctions against countries that violate the deals. The proposed EU language would run counter to existing environmental standards that limit the development of the fossil fuel industry.

“It expands a trend in trade negotiations of removing policy decisions from national and local governments and enshrining those policy decisions in international trade laws,” said Sarah Burt, an attorney with the environmentalist legal organization Earthjustice, who has seen the document. Those negotiations, said Burt, happen outside of the public eye and are an “opaque process where trade and economics are elevated above any other values.”

In other words, the trade agreement could interfere with U.S. attempts to regulate carbon-based industries (and other industries, including food production giants) if it is deemed to interfere with the trade promoted under the TTIP.

Those against the elevation of such international agreements over local rule point to the fact that oil companies are already threatening or have filed lawsuits against local governments that ban fracking.

In Canada, a Lone Pine Resources Inc. is threatening the city of Quebec with a $250,000 lawsuit if it does not lift its moratorium on fracking for natural gas under the St. Lawrence River.

Closer to home, Mora County faces two federal lawsuits for its ban on fracking, and, according to The Nation, more than 150 townships and municipalities in the U.S. have passed laws similar to the Mora County ban. San Miguel County has had a moratorium on oil and gas drilling for more than three years and Santa Fe County has effectively kept out oil and gas development through a restrictive ordinance.

(While this could not be confirmed at the time this post was being written, attorney Mike Papantonio claimed on his Ring of Fire radio show Saturday that there is talk in legal circles that Quebec is contemplating a suit against the U.S. to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline because of last July’s oil-carrying train tanker explosion that killed 47 people and destroyed the Quebec city of Lac-Megantic. Some believe construction of the pipeline will reduce use of trains and highways for transport of the unstable and dangerous Bakken crude being produced in Canada’s tar sands, while others say such traffic will remain steady because of the boom in fracking overall.)

(And as an interesting, unrelated aside, back in February The Nation reported on this bit of ironic corporate hypocrisy: an Exxon Mobile oil CEO and fracking advocate sued to prevent construction of a water tower near his multi-million-dollar horse ranch because the tower, used to store water for fracking, might devalue his property.)

Without elaborating on details of the talks, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., criticized the secrecy behind trade deal negotiations in general and the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement in particular, according to a story in The Nation, which reported her saying:

From what I hear, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the deal in the upcoming trade talks. So the question is, Why are the trade talks secret? . . . I actually have had supporters of the deal say to me ‘They have to be secret, because if the American people knew what was actually in them, they would be opposed.’

The Journal editorial, however, was less scrutinizing in its view of the trade deals, saying of TTIP:

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposal born from the economic crisis, would create the world’s largest free-trade area, aligning the United States with 28 European Union member states.

By aligning, the United States and European Union would not only remove obstacles to trade but would also strengthen participants’ “position in the world,” allowing them to establish high standards for themselves as well as emerging economies. At a base level it could, for example, open up European markets for U.S. meat. At a higher level it could include finding alternatives to Russian gas, enforcing standards to combat climate change, protecting intellectual property rights and using economic strength rather than military might to project power.

“If we get our act together, if we are able to agree on a set of rules and principles, our capacity to influence the rest of the world will be enormous,” Vale de Almeida says. “If we want to promote economic growth, this is a cheap way to do it. It doesn’t cost any public money, it doesn’t add to budget deficits, it doesn’t add to debt. It just opens up opportunities for business and investment.”

The Journal concluded:

America is considered the land of opportunity. In the 21st century, the chance to align with like-minded countries to address myriad economic, environmental and security issues is too good to pass up.

Its only caveat was that:

This foreign policy matter is too important to attempt to “lead from behind.” Strong U.S. leadership is needed to make sure this is a win-win for both sides of the Atlantic.

A win-win for whom – the citizens of those nations, or the corporations that stand to benefit? The editorial makes no distinction.

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Journal’s Business Outlook Revamp Lives Up to its Promotion

May 23rd, 2014 · journalism

By Denise Tessier

The in-house ad in the Albuquerque Journal on May 17 touted the impending arrival of a “new and improved” Business Outlook, and on May 19, that’s actually what was delivered.

The newly designed and much-revamped weekly business section has a cleaner layout thanks to the elimination of whole sections that had bogged the tabloid down, allowing more space and emphasis for regular features that deserve the better play.

The Journal got the ball rolling back at the beginning of the year in asking readers to give the section feedback via a survey.

In the interim between the survey and this week’s new print debut, Business Editor Michael G. Murphy invited readers to check out the online business section that had been revamped last September, noting that the expanded site carries many more stories than the printed version, such as this one, and with continuing updates on daily top stories, plus weekend features.

The changes revealed in the printed Outlook revamp are striking. [Read more →]

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Heritage Foundation’s New ‘Straight-Down-the-Middle Journalism’ Seems Headed Straight Toward the Far Right

May 16th, 2014 · journalism

By Denise Tessier

OK, dear reader, here’s a question: Do you think mainstream news slants too much to the left?

That’s the premise the radically conservative and already influential Heritage Foundation is using to justify creation of a new digital news site, the Daily Signal, which will launch June 3.

Heritage says its site will deliver “straight reporting.”

Joshua Green reported on Heritage’s plans in “The Tea Party Gets Into the News Biz” in Bloomberg Businessweek:

“We came to the realization that the mainstream media had really abdicated the responsibility to do the news and do it well,” says Geoffrey Lysaught, vice president of strategic communications at the Heritage Foundation, who will also serve as publisher. . . . “We plan to do political and policy news, not with a conservative bent, but just true, straight-down-the-middle journalism.”

Having its think tank positions appear regularly in “left-leaning” mainstream publications like the Albuquerque Journal apparently isn’t enough for The Heritage Foundation. [Read more →]

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‘Leading News Source’ Lags, Misleads With Its Column Placement

May 8th, 2014 · journalism

By Denise Tessier
The Albuquerque Journal recently unveiled a new design for its front pages that not only changed its appearance, but changed its long-time tag line — from the “State’s Leading Newspaper” to “New Mexico’s Leading News Source.”

A daily review of headlines from at least one other newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican, provides enough evidence for one to argue against that new claim, as the Journal on several occasions has run a story the same day as the New Mexican, or sometime after, if it runs a given story at all.

As evidence, let’s begin with Monday’s UpFront column (May 5), which was problematic on another level as well.

Not only was “Out-of-state money and the gov.’s race ” problematic in terms of its timing, but even more important, it was tricky in terms of its placement, the latter of which appears part of an ongoing trend that exacerbates and further erodes any remaining distinction between news and opinion in the Journal.

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Cogs in the Koch Astroturf Machine

April 29th, 2014 · energy policy, Fact Check, journalism

By Arthur Alpert

It was a small item, really, a few slim paragraphs, on the Albuquerque Journal’s Business page Friday, April 25. Yet it spoke or rather shouted volumes about the newspaper.

The headline read, “Libertarian author to talk at luncheon”.

“The Rio Grande Foundation”, it read, “is hosting a luncheon talk with Matt Kibbe on Monday, May 12, where he will discuss his new book “Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto”.

After specifying where, when and how much, the item returned to the speaker:

“Kibbe is the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a national grassroots organization that serves citizens in their fight for more individual freedom and less government control.”

Well, Kibbe may be the boss, but FreedomWorks is not a “grassroots organization.” It’s not even close.

A grassroots organization arises naturally and spontaneously from the community, unlike groups organized and backed by traditional power structures, right? That’s not FreedomWorks. In fact, pretty much the opposite is true.

Here’s the history, as pulled together after an hour or two surfing the web:

FreedomWorks was founded in 2004. It merged David Koch’s Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) and Empower America. Simultaneously, the CSE Foundation became Americans for Prosperity, also Koch-supported.

Reps. Dick Armey, Jack Kemp and C. Boyden Gray (heir to a Reynolds tobacco fortune) all prominent Republican politicians, were FreedomWorks’ original co-chairs.

So far, not a grass root in sight.

Over the years, Freedom Works’ backers have included Philip Morris, the tobacco company, Richard Stephenson, founder of Cancer Treatment Centers of America and the Armstrong, Bradley, DeVos, Sarah Scaife and Shelby Cullom Davis foundations.

Those grassroots must be somewhere.

Dick Armey resigned as chair of FreedomWorks Nov. 30, 2012, after he and Kibbe squabbled, with Armey receiving $8 million in “consulting fees.”

It is true FreedomWorks bankrolled grassroots Tea Party enthusiasts and still does. In 2006, however, the Washington Post revealed that from 2001 – 2006 the organization struck a secret deal with insurance brokers whereby the brokers would sell high-deductible insurance policies and tax-free medical savings plans to individuals at a group discount, with purchasers automatically becoming FreedomWorks members. Customers were unaware of the deal, for which they were charged extra fees; FreedomWorks gained some 16,000 “members” and profited by $638,040.

Grassroots found. Grassroots fleeced.

FreedomWorks once pretended to be grassroots.

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Misdirection Play: What the Journal Didn’t Tell You About the Capital Research Center

April 24th, 2014 · Fact Check, journalism, labor

By Arthur Alpert

Albert Camus once pondered the idea, which I paraphrase, that in the last analysis, there are no villains, only victims. But only, he stressed, in that last analysis.

I use the Camus insight for self- restraint. Instead of condemning a villain or cabal for outrageous behavior I try – not always successfully – to credit them with humanity and a rationale.

Which came in handy when I happened upon an Op Ed the editors chose to publish in the Saturday, April 19 Albuquerque Journal.

Here’s the headline: “State-level think tanks are taking on unions effectively”.

Terrence Scanlon wrote it and under his byline the editors wrote “McClatchy Tribune News Service”. It’s a small point, probably a careless error, but it suggests Scanlon works for McClatchy. He doesn’t. McClatchy, via MCT, distributes material from many sources.

At the end of the essay, editors added, “Terrance Scanlon is president of the Capital Research Center in Washington and publisher of its monthly Labor Watch. Distributed by MCT Information Services.”

That is accurate and a big deal, once you identify Capital Research Center’s mission and backers. Of course, the Journal did no such thing for its readers. I doubt it was careless this time.

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Cooking the Books, or Just a Kooky Column?

April 21st, 2014 · financial coverage, health care reform, journalism

By Denise Tessier

“Cooking the books” is a sizzling charge against anyone. The Albuquerque Journal, via a column by Bloomberg News columnist Megan McArdle, levied that claim Friday against the president.  (“Census books cooked to boost Obamacare? ” April 18)

The style of the column was off-putting enough. McArdle referred to herself with the word “I” 18 times over 13 column inches – “I’ve been saying…,” “No, I’m not kidding. I wish I was,” “I just don’t get it.”

Beyond that, and perhaps in part because of that, the premise of the column raised red flags that it might warrant some background checking. The Journal itself had not provided background by way of a news story from which one could gauge the column’s merit.

As stated in her column, McArdle’s piece was a response to The New York Times’ (April 15) report, “Census Survey Revisions Mask Health Law Effects ,” which is worth a read in its entirety to understand what McArdle is railing against.

In her defense, her original column appeared as a blog that not only linked to the Times piece for reference but included whole block-quoted paragraphs from the article that ran in the Times.

As a column atop the Op-Ed page in the Journal, however, there was no news story to refer to, and even the blog-quoted Times’ paragraphs were excised, leaving it strictly as opinion response.

Readers of her blog might have thought McArdle was raising an interesting point about the timing of changes at Census, because it had context, which would give some credence to the provocative premise in its headline, “Is Obama Cooking the Census Books for Obamacare?”

But readers of the Journal were likely left with just the railing part – and saw blame left solely with President Obama. Using essentially the same headline as the blog, the Journal included a sub-headline that offered this summary: “A good way to judge ACA is to look at census data, but the White House has made the information unavailable.”

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Covering New Mexico’s Second ‘Scathing’ Report of the Month

April 17th, 2014 · state government

By Denise Tessier

By now, most know that the U.S. Department of Justice wasn’t the only group issuing a scathing report related to New Mexico this month. Mother Jones’ article about Gov. Susana Martinez  was a hot story on national media sites Wednesday and made same-day news on all the local television stations (although KRQE held off on the story until 10).

The Albuquerque Journal could not avoid running something on this political fireball this morning, and it did run a story, placing “Mother Jones takes on Martinez” at the bottom of the front page.

But it’s interesting that the emergence of Mother Jones’ highly critical and politically explosive article, coupled with the Martinez camp’s lightning swift reaction, did not merit any mention Wednesday via the Journal’s electronic news alerts – even though local TV stations KOB and KOAT already had stories up on their web sites during the day.

This omission indicates the paper’s editors were hesitant, even reluctant to promote it, despite its real importance and the traffic it would have driven to the Journal’s web site.

(This is not to say the Journal should release stories just to beat the competition – although in reality the Journal has not made an effort to “scoop” much of any of its reporting, even when a story is written and waiting, a malaise that dates to the waning circulation days of its historical rival, the Albuquerque Tribune.)

But it easily could have issued an alert that could have led to a few short lines about the Mother Jones story and Martinez camp reaction, as the Journal has done in the past and with stories of far less importance.

This omission has led to complaints that the Journal continues to promote/protect Martinez.

It would likely be more accurate, however, to speculate that the omission reflects more on the Journal protecting itself, loathe to trumpet that national media was able to get more on Martinez – the damning audio tapes, her appointment schedules – than local media had.

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