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Koch Comes After the Observer

Koch Industries site calls our story 'dishonest' and 'distorted'.
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Our recent cover story on refinery pollution in Corpus Christi apparently touched a nerve over at Koch Industries.

Kochworld” profiles the fenceline communities bordering the Koch and Citgo-owned refineries in Corpus. Melissa del Bosque and Jen Reel spent months interviewing sick residents living in the shadow of refineries spewing large amounts of known carcinogens such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene.

Koch’s response? Attack the messenger.

The company—owned by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, famous for contributing hundreds of millions to conservative causes, including climate change denial—has posted a lengthy response to our story at kochfacts.com headlined “Confronting Dishonest and Distorted Advocacy Journalism by a Soros-Funded Publication.”

Strangely, though Koch’s response employs the words “dishonest,” “distorted,” “misleading” and “flawed,” I couldn’t find a single challenge to any of the reported facts in our story.

Instead, the Koch folks devote five paragraphs to attacking Melissa del Bosque’s reporting techniques and the Observer’s integrity. Reminds me of the old lawyer strategy: When you don’t have a case to make, attack the other side.

Koch officials’ main complaint is that Melissa misled them about the intent of her story. It’s an unfounded assertion. Melissa was pretty frank with Koch officials that she was working on a story about the impact of refinery pollution on the neighborhoods near their facility and asked for the company’s response to specific resident complaints. She also asked the company to detail its positive impacts on the community. We then quoted the Koch responses fairly and accurately at three different points in the story. But you can judge for yourself: Koch has posted large parts of Melissa’s email exchanges with company spokesperson Katie Stavinoha at kochfacts.com.

Koch officials seem most perturbed that we didn’t include information about health studies they sent us. According to the company spokesperson, “Numerous independent health studies have not indicated causation.”

Notice the careful wording there. They don’t claim that these studies have vindicated Koch’s refinery or shown that emissions have no impact on human health. Rather, it’s “have not indicated causation.”

And that’s true. The studies the company cites—a federal investigation and an ongoing TCEQ study—document the amount of carcinogens released into the community and also discuss health problems in the area, including alleged frequent birth defects, but make no statement on whether the pollution has caused these health problems. Causation, as we write in our story, is very difficult to establish, and there’s no definitive link between Koch Industry’s emissions and the health problems of its neighbors. However, other public health studies, including this one from Houston, have shown that people living near refineries are more likely to endure serious health problems, including elevated rates of leukemia—studies that bolster the anecdotal evidence offered by residents.

As for Koch’s other accusations, well, we do receive some funding from the Open Society Foundations of George Soros fame (though we don’t have any Open Society Fellows on staff, as Koch officials allege; no idea where they got that one). While we do lean left, the Observer certainly isn’t partisan or ideological, as any number of Texas Democrats burned by our reporting can tell you. And we don’t engage in “advocacy” journalism. Our story isn’t advocating for anything; we simply produced a thoroughly reported account—so thoroughly, in fact, that even Koch can’t seem to find factual errors in it—about the lives of people living near the refineries. But don’t take my word for it. Go read the story yourself, if you haven’t already.

Meanwhile, Koch has spread its attack to media sites like Poynter’s Media Wire, using Melissa’s headshot in web ads promoting its aggressive response to our reporting. This isn’t unusual. Koch has used similar tactics to go after other media outlets, including the New Yorker and Bloomberg, for reporting on the Koch brothers’ political activities. So we’re in good company.

 

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.