Billionaire-bashing: Koch brothers facing competition on the left

By Howard Kurtz
Published April 24, 2014

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Olbermann's taunting tweet
Billionaire-bashing: Koch brothers facing competition on the left
For the two parties slugging it out in the midterms, it’s become a battle of the billionaires.

The Koch brothers, who underwrite conservative causes, have gotten an avalanche of bad publicity.

Tom Steyer, who uses his fortune to push for climate change and other liberal causes, has largely been spared.

Now this may be because David and Charles Koch have been at it longer and have pumped money into a wider range of political battles. And Democrats, led by Harry Reid, have been hammering them, which generates plenty of headlines and cable segments.

But isn’t Steyer also using cash to achieve clout? He is also trying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama just punted on until after the midterms. So potentially, at least, Steyer could have as big an impact on 2014 as the Koch brothers.

The New York Times reported on Steyer’s emerging role in a large upbeat front-page piece:

“A billionaire retired investor is forging plans to spend as much as $100 million during the 2014 election, seeking to pressure federal and state officials to enact climate change measures through a hard-edge campaign of attack ads against governors and lawmakers.

“The donor, Tom Steyer, a Democrat who founded one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, burst onto the national political scene during last year’s elections, when he spent $11 million to help elect Terry McAuliffe governor of Virginia and millions more intervening in a Democratic congressional primary in Massachusetts. Now he is rallying other deep-pocketed donors, seeking to build a war chest that would make his political organization, NextGen Climate Action, among the largest outside groups in the country, similar in scale to the conservative political network overseen by Charles and David Koch.”

No dark Koch-ian overtones in that story. In fact, the only criticism in the piece was a generalized one from Fred Wertheimer about rich guys having too much influence.

In a C-SPAN interview with the Washington Post and Politico, Steyer insisted: “I think there are real distinctions between the Koch brothers and us.” The brothers’ political efforts “line up perfectly with their pocketbooks — and that’s not true for us,” Steyer said.

Politico quoted a Koch spokesman as pushing back:

“That assertion is false and disingenuous, and people can see through that. Koch opposes all mandates and subsidies, even when they exist for businesses in which we operate. In doing so, we act against our self-interest.”

There was one bit of criticism in a Washington Post blog:

“Several conservative news outlets and politicians pointed to Steyer's own investments in fossil fuel as hypocrisy, and Steyer responded by promising to completely divest his portfolio of funds from the Kinder Morgan energy company by the end of 2013.”

More typical of the Koch coverage is this major Post story highlighting the issue of secrecy:

“The political network spearheaded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch has expanded into a far-reaching operation of unrivaled complexity, built around a maze of groups that cloaks its donors, according to an analysis of new tax returns and other documents.”

And the Times editorial page has hammered the industrialists:

“Democrats have for too long been passive in the face of the vast amounts of corporate money, most of it secret, that are being spent to evict them from office and dismantle their policies. By far the largest voice in many of this year’s political races, for example, has been that of the Koch brothers, who have spent tens of millions of dollars peddling phony stories about the impact of health care reform, all in order to put Republicans in control of the Senate after the November elections.”

That editorial praised Harry Reid, who has accused the Koch brothers of lying in ads they finance and of “un-American” conduct in pushing for tax breaks and lesser safety standards.

Perhaps that’s why Republican chairman Reince Priebus used a Fox interview to call Reid “so dirty and so unethical,” saying the Senate majority leader was using his official Senate web page and Twitter account to make partisan attacks. “We’re going to take it as far as we can to make sure people understand that this guy will stop at nothing to lie to the American people,” Priebus said.

Using a Twitter account for unauthorized attacks is like parking in a loading zone, as these things go. But the Republicans hate Reid as much as the Democrats hate the Kochs.

While both Steyer and the Koch brothers deserve media scrutiny because they’re pouring such big bucks into the political system, I have to offer a reality check.

Most Americans aren’t thinking about Steyer or the Kochs. They’re thinking about their jobs and their schools and their health care.

In fact, a George Washington University poll found that 52 percent of those surveyed don’t know who the Koch brothers are, and an additional 11 percent had no opinion of them.

These attacks and counterattacks about behind-the-scenes financiers may make the partisans feel good, but they’re largely inside baseball.

Olbermann's taunting tweet

Keith Olbermann, who left MSNBC in a bitter dispute (before leaving Current TV in a bitter dispute but now happily ensconced at ESPN), doesn't exactly harbor warm feelings toward his former employer.

Consider the following tweet:
Think he has a certain network president in mind?
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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz.