An El Paso Times story last week involving El Paso businessman Paul Foster and a meeting organized by the Koch brothers has drawn more reaction than any other recent story.
Reporter Marty Schladen researched and wrote the story after the website Mother Jones posted a list of more than 40 prominent business leaders who attended a California political conclave hosted last month by Charles and David Koch. They are the principles in Koch Industries, a $115 billion conglomerate.
Mother Jones, an avowedly liberal publication, obtained the list from an unnamed hotel guest. Its authenticity hasn't been disputed.
The list said Paul Foster was scheduled to meet with Charles Koch and two others involved in Koch-backed political activities.
The feedback I've received on the story falls into two broad camps: the Times showed great courage in reporting on possible ties between the controversial Koch brothers and one of El Paso's leading citizens; or the paper did a hit job on Foster.
I don't think either interpretation is accurate.
Perhaps the most important role of media in a free society is to bring transparency to those intending to influence the political process. That is especially true of those – such as the Koch brothers – who seek influence while evading transparency.
The Washington Post and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics last month reported reported that a network of groups backed by the Koch brothers spent $407 million on the 2012 election. Because of current law, we generally don't know the money's source.
“The resources and the breadth of the organization make it singular in American politics: an operation conducted outside the campaign finance system, employing an array of groups aimed at stopping what its financiers view as government overreach,” the Post reported.
That one of El Paso's leading political donors apparently attended a meeting of this network is of interest to El Pasoans.
Schladen repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, sought comment from Foster and spokesmen for the Koch brothers.
One of the state's most-respected political scientists, Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University, told Schladen that ties to the Koch brothers could complicate one of Foster's most important roles for El Paso and the state, serving as chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents, because of the Kochs' reputation for partisanship. That concern also is something El Pasoans should know about, even if some disagree with the assessment.
Critics raised the familiar cry of media bias, saying the story was written because the Kochs and Foster are conservatives.
Ideology didn't play a role in our decision-making process.
When I was editor at the Fort Collins Coloradoan during the 2006 and 2008 elections, the paper closely tracked the political efforts of Pat Stryker, a billionaire philanthropist and leading citizen of Fort Collins. She was also a major – and often secretive – donor to Democratic and liberal causes.
Foster and Stryker are marvelous philanthropists who have done incalculable good in their communities. They are rightfully lauded for their generosity and involvement, and media extensively report their good works.
But that doesn't exempt them from scrutiny of their efforts to shape the political process.
Both Democrats and Republicans relied heavily on “dark money” in 2012, and will do the same in 2014 and 2016. The nation's campaign finance system is an opaque mess, making it difficult for the public to “follow the money,” as the old saying goes.
But we must try.
Robert Moore is editor of the El Paso Times.