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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Rolling Stone journalist and Koch Industries exchange barbs over fairness

A Rolling Stone’s contributing editor and Koch Industries recently got into a battle of conflicting reports regarding Koch Industries’ practices and history, raising questions of subjectivity and objectivity.

Tim Dickinson, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone writing primarily on National Affairs, recently wrote an in-depth story outlining how Charles and David Koch, the CEO and Executive VP, respectively for Koch Industries, amassed their wealth and the allegedly illicit practices that the company has engaged in over the years.

Dickinson focuses on a wide array of topics, from the history of the Koch family all the way to their expansion into high finance. Many of Koch Industries wrongful actions are highlighted throughout the piece, painting the picture of the multi-billion dollar private corporation as a classic business empire bent on achieving the most wealth as possible.

When this story was released, Koch Industries was quick to release a press statement regarding the exposé on their company. In their press release, Koch was adamant in their opposition of what Dickinson used in his story, saying that based on what they saw as, “past distorted and dishonest coverage of Koch” Dickinson would not be “fair and objective” with them.

The press release then went on to target Dickinson himself, citing his, “willful omissions” of answers that the company provided for him, as well as attacks on his credibility as a journalist, saying they felt Dickinson, “was simply regurgitating and cribbing from past pieces hostile to Koch,” and cited his career at “left-wing outlets like Mother Jones” for his biased views.

Dickinson himself then responded to the press release, pointing out major discrepancies from the press release, such as the fact that a supposed off-the-record email was published as a part of the press release.

Through this exchange of heated words between a journalist and his source, both sides seem to be to an extent accurate in their arguments.

Dickinson, throughout his piece, cited huge amounts of information regarding about Koch Industries allegedly illicit past practices and disregard for the safety of citizens in order to increase their profits. Salon posted an article summary clearly outlining eight points of key information that Dickinson shared about Koch, including when they were found to be stealing oil from Native Americans.

Dickinson, however, omits some information that may have made the article more objective. In their press release, Koch cited several articles that showed that in some respects, they were working with communities to improve plants and refineries owned by the company, such as this one by the Star Tribune. With these omissions, Dickinson is seemingly only focusing on the negatives that Koch has done, thus falling short of attempts to minimize his story of any bias.

Koch, on the other hand, does not stop at refuting Dickinson’s claims. In their first few paragraphs of the press release, Koch aims to paint themselves as the good guy and Dickinson as a biased journalist with a hidden agenda. Instead of simply providing details to counter some of the claims of the articles, Koch aims to diminish Dickinson’s image and reputation as a journalist. They further muddied the water by publishing information from what they earlier agreed were off-the-record emails.

In the case of this back and forth “he-said, she-said” debate, both sides appear to be at fault in some sense. Dickinson seems to have fallen short in his attempt to remain objective, while Koch chose to go after Dickinson personally.  Unfortunately, sources and their spokespeople are not really bound to ethical standards in the same way journalists are.  As such, while subjects may lob ad hominem attacks at journalists, journalists are best served letting their reporting speak for itself.

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