This weekend, Charles and David Koch’s Freedom Partners hosted five Republican presidential hopefuls and hundreds of top conservative donors at the St. Regis Monarch Beach luxury resort in California. The tax-exempt organization, which has been dubbed the Koch Brothers’ “secret bank,” allowed nine news organizations to cover parts of the conference.
The New York Times highlighted these invitations last week as evidence of the Kochs’ attempt to change their image as a “secretive” network with a “culture deeply allergic to the spotlight.” But in reality, those reporters who covered the event were subject to numerous restrictions — restrictions one media ethics expert called “outrageous.”
ThinkProgress obtained a copy of the conditions sent by Freedom Partners to reporters. These included demands that reporters “not report on anyone’s attendance at the event unless you are specifically granted an interview request or they are a part of the formal program,” that they “treat their attendance as off the record unless otherwise discussed and approved prior to an interview,” and that “interview requests should only be made through the Freedom Partners communications team.” It also noted that media attendees would have to “stay off-site,” and only be granted access “on-site during the general program hours.”
Only the reporters who agreed to the following provisions would be allowed to attend:
We would like to invite you to cover this private event; however, we ask that you agree to the ground rules below.
1) Media credentials will be given to those covering the event on-site. These credentials must be prominently displayed at all times. Credentials are non-transferable.
2) You have been invited to cover the program, general mood of the event and interviews with program participants, elected officials, and leaders from each group represented at the seminar.
3) The program is strictly pen and pad, with the exception of the one-on-one Policy Leader Discussions with Govs. Bush and Walker and Sens. Cruz and Rubio. Freedom Partners will also livestream the Policy Leader Discussions. We will work with you individually to meet any requests outside of these guidelines.
4) Given the privacy rights of our members and other guests, you may not report on anyone’s attendance at the event unless you are specifically granted an interview request or they are a part of the formal program. You are to treat their attendance as off the record unless otherwise discussed and approved prior to an interview.
5) Out of respect for all event attendees, interview requests should only be made through the Freedom Partners communications team. We are more than happy to help facilitate these requests and help you secure interview opportunities.
6) Media will stay off-site and be granted access on-site during the general program hours.
7) We trust that you will abide by these ground rules and, therefore, we want to allow you to walk around freely at those sessions that will be open to the media. However, not all sessions will be open to media and we expect that you will respect this parameter by not attending or trying to attend closed press events. Our team will be happy to debrief you on closed press meetings and provide you with information that will help inform your stories.
Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said in a email that she found the agreement “outrageous — on the part of the media organizations, that is. The organizers can ask for whatever they want and think they can get. I don’t like it, but it is up to the news organizations to draw the line and to refuse to attend under these circumstances.”
As “the restrictions could stop journalists from reporting what’s right before their eyes,” she added, they reflect “a profound contempt for the role of an independent press, and by extension, the public.”
“The idea that reporting something like a donor’s attendance would be forbidden unless the donor agrees sounds like the European right to privacy on steroids,” Kirtley quipped. “When I think back to how hard the news media fought to avoid restrictions on combat reporting, I really despair. At least in the case of combat reporting, there was a plausible argument that national security was at stake. What’s at stake here is press independence.”
In their coverage of the conference, at least four participating outlets noted, to varying degrees, the restrictions: The Washington Post wrote that it was “one of nine news organizations allowed in to cover the traditionally private confab, on the condition that the donors present not be named without their permission.” USA Today observed: “This weekend marked the first time that the organization has opened one of its twice-yearly seminars to journalists. Reporters are covering just portions of the gathering and face restrictions on their activity. Journalists, for instance, are barred from approaching donors for interviews or identifying them without their consent.” Politico said it “was among the media outlets that agreed to cover the seminar on the condition that the donors present not be named without their permission.” The Associated Press explained that “[a]s a condition of attending, reporters were not permitted to identify any of the donors in attendance.”
It is unclear how closely these rules were followed at the conference.
Lee Horwich, managing editor for government/politics at USA Today told ThinkProgress in an email that his paper “decided on this event that it was better to be there than not given the enormous influence of Koch and his donors,” and noted that they were “transparent in our coverage about the restrictions.”
Fred Brown, a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists who literally helped write the book on journalism ethics, praised USA Today’s more specific disclosure as “the right approach.”
“While the restrictions raise ‘ethical questions,'” Brown said in an email, “if the choice is between covering such an event and not covering it at all because you don’t agree with the conditions, I’d cover it, report the conditions and just see what happens. The placing of those conditions in itself is informative, and it reveals the mindset of the organizers. And at least you’d have the opportunity to see what goes on at one of these previously secret these events, even if you can’t use specific names. But you certainly can remember who was there and let that inform your future reporting.” Brown added that he felt the shorter descriptions used by the Washington Post and other publications did not give enough information to the readers.
Huffington Post Senior Media Reporter Michael Calderone noted in a Sunday column that restrictions like these could prevent an important part of the story coming out: “The problem is that the ground rules could restrict journalists from reporting what’s right in front of their eyes. If, say, Rupert Murdoch, or even a lesser-known billionaire, walked by, they couldn’t report the person’s attendance without permission. So it’s possible journalists end up reporting largely what the event sponsors want, such as fiery speeches and candidate remarks criticizing Democrats, but less on the power brokers attending who play key behind-the-scenes roles in the 2016 election.”
Other media ethics experts were even more critical of the attendees for agreeing to such strict conditions. Robert Drechsel, a professor and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in an email, “Given how serious an issue secrecy and anonymity have become in the context of the flow of dollars to influence election outcomes, I find it especially remarkable that any media organizations would agree to in effect become complicit in facilitating such secrecy and anonymity.”
Dreschel added that, while it was understandable why journalists would want to attend, the agreement to follow these rules sets a bad precedent. “When the Kochs are attempting to give themselves more of a positive public face, why would the media be willing to assist in such image-building by agreeing to conditions on access?” he asked.
The Washington Post’s deputy national editor, Scott Wilson, said in a phone interview that while the Post does not like restrictions like these and often pushes back against them, “Our feeling was that this was as much a source-building and reporting trip as a real-time writing trip,” for its reporter. “This was an investment. We agreed to the restrictions basically on that principle.” He noted that even if a reporter sees something he or she cannot cover at that moment, “we can’t un-know things,” and can often find a way to report it later, without breaking the agreement. “Showing up helps,” he concluded, as “you don’t really know what it’s going to be like when you get there.”
Representatives of Freedom Partners, the Associated Press and Politico did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the restrictions.
In January, media ethics experts raised concerns about ABC’s Jonathan Karl serving as moderator for a similar event. This weekend’s events were moderated by Politico’s Mike Allen, who told ThinkProgress he had received no compensation or travel considerations from the Kochs or Freedom Partners.