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Our Tussle With The Wall Street Journal’s Letters Page

By Taylor Lincoln and Angela Bradbery

Earlier this month, we issued a report disclosing some rather remarkable facts about a program at George Washington University called the Regulatory Studies Center. We reported that the bulk of the center’s work comes from authors who have been affiliated with groups funded by the famous petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch and that Charles Koch happens to be one of the Center’s big funders. Though the Center claims to be an unbiased and objective analyst of regulatory policy issues, its work is almost exclusively focused on eliminating regulations, rather than evaluating them in anything resembling a neutral fashion.

We also reported that as far back as the 1970s, Charles Koch and his chief political aide talked about funding deceptively named university programs that would mask their true purposes of winning public support for a limited-government, libertarian system.

On Friday, June 7, less than a week after our report went out, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial (online only) accusing us by way of its headline of “bullying George Washington” and likening our report to a “smear campaign.”

Screenshot of article titled "Bullying George Washington"


Despite the blustery headline, the Journal did not claim that we’d made any factual errors.

Our report likened this Center to a key cog in Charles Koch’s master plan. The Journal editorial countered that we “don’t know Charles Koch,” explaining that Koch’s “philosophy of government is not to have a master plan.” The Journal’s word choice here was not directly responsive to what we said. But any suggestion that Koch does not operate in service of a detailed, strategic plan is preposterous. There might be no living American more noted for carrying out a master plan to influence public policy than Charles Koch.

We responded by submitting a letter to the editor on Monday, June 10, pointing out a few key facts that the Journal omitted and explaining that what we asked of George Washington University was hardly objectionable: that the university disclose the terms of the Center’s funding and ensure that it is acting like a university research operation and not a corporate lobbying shop.

It’s standard practice that when a newspaper attacks an organization in an editorial – particularly if it devotes the entire editorial to lambasting the organization – that the newspaper allow that organization to respond with a letter – and quickly. In the interest of fairness, the organization is given space to defend itself, usually within a day or two.

Several days went by with no acknowledgment of our letter. We called and left a message, than called again on June 14 – a week after the Journal’s attack had run.

The Journal’s letters editor, Timothy Lemmer, picked up the phone and immediately went on the offensive. First he said he was astounded that Public Citizen took issue with a funder providing money to outlets – including university programs – that might dutifully carry out the funder’s  wishes. He began lobbing questions like firebombs – who are Public Citizen’s funders? Don’t we do things our funders want us to do? (The foundations that give us money are listed on our website along with the names of our large donors, but that’s not really relevant; we are an advocacy organization, not a purportedly unbiased university like George Washington University.) Lemmer seemed to treat our letter of self defense as if it had arrived  from outside our solar system – unlike anything that he’d seen in his 34 years at the Journal. It was almost as if the letter was being quarantined for further evaluation.

We pointed out that we could argue the merits of our report until the proverbial cows came home, but that really wasn’t the point of the call. The point was to find out if the Journal was going to allow us to defend ourselves in a published letter.

Grudgingly, Lemmer said that if we trimmed the 304-word letter to 272 words and amended the way we referenced the editorial, we could resubmit the letter. We resubmitted a 270-word version the same day.

Finally, on June 24, 17 days after the original hit piece was published – our letter ran. So much for rapid response.

In an early draft of our response, we expressed surprise that the Journal would have been so shaken by the facts and options expressed in our report. We speculated that perhaps “the forcefield of Koch funding in the conservative milieu even warps the thinking of otherwise independent minds” like those at The Wall Street Journal. We left that out for concision and decorum.

After this episode, though, we wonder if we might have been more on point than we realized.

Taylor Lincoln is research director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Angela Bradbery is Public Citizen’s communications director.