A fair share of the scrutiny?

05963230-afa9-11e3-8787-d7e40bfa09ff_koch_brothersRich people can influence politics by making donations: to candidates for office, to think tanks, to all sorts of campaigns. It is, presumably, why they do it, though, no doubt, the balance varies between those who are passionate about issues and those who are seeking to benefit from public policy. There are a great many rich people who make such donations, though you wouldn’t think so from reading the media. If you made a quick glance of the way political correspondents cover this, you might think there were just two: Charles and David Koch (pronounced “coke”) seem to get most of the coverage.

The word “Koch” gets 668 matches on the Washington Post website over the past 12 months. It is worth noting that this will include at least some mentions of the late New York mayor, Ed Koch (no relation and pronounced “kotch”) who was mentioned during some obituaries of Mario Cuomo earlier this year. Going back to 2005 (a period which includes Ed’s death, but excludes his politically active period) there are 2896 mentions of the name, the vast majority of which will refer to Charles and David.

Well, why not? They donated over $7 million between them to campaigns in 2014, and their campaign, FreedomWorks, spent another $23 million. But they were the tenth and 25th largest political donors during the 2014 election cycle. Tom Steyer, at number one, donated some $75 million. His NextGen Climate Action group spent $20 million. Steyer’s donations were not only ten times the level of the Koch brothers, they were out of all proportion to everyone else on the list. Michael Bloomberg was second with around $11 million. (Bloomberg, it should be noted, is at least somewhat a bi-partisan donor: 95% of his donations were to Democrats; Steyer donated 100% to Democrats and the Kochs 100% to Republicans). 

So why does Steyer get only 317 mentions in the Washington Post, ever? (All of them were in the last 12 months, so during the 2014 cycle he received half as much coverage as the Kochs). 

Well, perhaps it is a matter of ethics? If for example, the Kochs were campaigning for massive federal subsidies and crony capitalism deals for the heavy industries in which they invest, while Steyer was campaigning for federal crackdowns on his businesses, then one could see at least some basis for treating the two differently. After all the Kochs would, in this scenario, be engaged in little more than corruption, while Steyer would be engaged in noble self-sacrifice for his principles. But, if anything, the reverse is the case.

While the Kochs support tax cuts, they also oppose the massive subsidies to energy intensive industries, from which they benefit. The heavily promote criminal law reform which  is unconnected to their business interests. By contrast, Steyer, who is a heavy investor in renewable energy industries, also campaigns for federal subsidies to those industries. His campaigns are much more targeted. He does not promote a broad agenda, but is focused specifically on combating climate change. 

Your columnist sympathizes with the agenda of both, but it is easier to label Steyer’s agenda as self-interested than that of the Kochs. As, by far, the biggest donor – or is that investor? – in American elections, he should get his share of scrutiny. 

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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