6:13 a.m. May 15, 2013

BuzzBagger Ben

Our story begins late last week when I got a tweet from @AlphaInvictus telling me to go check "who's sponsoring BuzzFeed today."

I wasn't expecting much… After all, BuzzFeed's known for creating custom posts for advertisers, like the "15 Delicious Things You Can Stuff In A Crescent Roll" post it created for Pillsbury. Weird, yes. Possibly even shady, given how BuzzFeed's sponsored content looks almost exactly the same as its regular posts. But given the scandal over the Atlantic's advertorial for Scientology, most sites have become ultra-cautious about allowing controversial sponsors to brand their "content." How bad could BuzzFeed's latest sponsor be?

Pretty bad.

Visiting BuzzFeed.com, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The site's entire "Politics" subsection was plastered with the name of Charles Koch, the world’s scariest billionaire-brother, who runs the biggest private company in America. His name boomed out from every corner. It crowned the top banner and sat prominently atop a column of featured posts, including a link to a page announcing BuzzFeed's "Special Edition Immigration Summit" — an event proudly "sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute."

But that wasn't all! BuzzFeed had also set up an entire customized BuzzFeed page for the Charles Koch Institute. The page featured a fat diagonal banner introducing its sponsor as a place of "Dialogue & Discovery for Societal Well-Being and Progress," and included Twitter feeds for both the Charles Koch Institute and its Economic Freedom Project. If readers followed the links, they'd be educated about the danger of Big Government and "The Disgusting Consequences of Plastic-Bag Bans"…

It was all a bit too much…so I took a couple of screenshots and tweeted them out:

BuzzFeed took a big bump of pure Koch! Feels good!

The tweet weirded a lot of people out, particularly news media types who, like me, had assumed BuzzFeed was a conduit for cat videos rather than Koch propaganda. Those who clicked further got really freaked. BuzzFeed's immigration summit, which would be moderated by Editor in Chief Ben Smith, wasn't just sponsored by the Kochs. It included a host of rabid rightwingers, racists and representatives from a half-dozen Koch-funded corporate frontgroups, including the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation — yep, that's the same Heritage Foundation that just had to fire one of its immigration experts because he believes that Hispanics have genetically lower IQs than white folks.

"No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against," he said — a premise used by the Heritage Foundation to justify limiting low-IQ Hispanic immigration, while expanding "high-skilled" non-Hispanic immigration quotas.

None of this seemed to worry Smith any. "Immigration is at the center of this year’s policy conversation and we are excited to expand the BuzzFeed Brews series to be a part of it," he wrote in a BuzzFeed post announcing the event. The post also included a quote from former tobacco lobbyist turned Charles Koch Institute boss, Richard Fink.

Said Fink, "The importance and timeliness of the immigration debate make the need for such thoughtful dialogue imperative. Sponsoring a productive dialogue on this issue is a natural extension of our commitment to advance a free and prosperous society."

"Importance… timeliness… thoughtful… imperative… productive… free… prosperous…"

Mr. Fink's ability to cram his sentences with meaningless PR apparatchik-speak makes it hard to know what the hell he's talking about. But certainly the man seems to care about society. Indeed, as one of the people who helped Charles Koch pioneer his political and ideological strategies, Fink's career bears this out. Among his many Koch works, Richard Fink set up Americans for Prosperity and the astroturf outfit that later became FreedomWorks. Yes, that FreedomWorks, the organization that orchestrated the Tea Party Movement. He also sits on the Board of Directors at the Kochs' Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a deregulation thinktank that helped scrap environmental protections and pushed all sorts of nasty privatization schemes. Yep, Mr. Fink and the Kochs clearly care about society. And that's exactly that's why BuzzFeed's immigration summit was being sponsored by The Charles Koch Institute. It all made perfect sense.

Libertarian mumbo jumbo aside, I wanted to understand more about why BuzzFeed was getting into bed with the Kochs. Was this just the first step in a Koch brothers’ takeover of everyone's favorite "I Remember The ’90s" site? Is a rebrand as "BuzzKoch" or "KochFeed" on the cards? And where does Ben Smith fit into all of this?

Smith came to BuzzFeed from Politico, where he'd built up a reputation as a connected, credible reporter who reliably delivered scandalous DC insider scoops. BuzzFeed poached him to beef up the site's news reporting operation and to turn it into a trusted source of news. With him at the helm, BuzzFeed was going to grow out of cat videos and link bait and mature into a sort of Huffington Post for the millennial demographic. And the HuffPost metaphor is not just lazy shorthand for ambition: Buzzfeed's founder and CEO Jonah Peretti was one of Arianna Huffington's key lieutenants at HuffPost, and HuffPost co-founder Ken Lerer is now the Chairman of BuzzFeed.

Here's how a 2012 New York Times profile of BuzzFeed described the anticipated transformation into a serious journalistic enterprise:

[Jonah Peretti] hired Ben Smith, the highly regarded blogger and columnist for Politico, to be his editor in chief. Right after he started in January, Mr. Smith broke the news of Mr. McCain’s endorsement of Mr. Romney for the New Hampshire primary. The message was clear: BuzzFeed was a player in news...

Soon afterward, BuzzFeed raised $15.5 million from Kenneth Lerer’s Lerer Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Hearst Interactive Media, Softbank and RRE Ventures. Mr. Smith immediately began hiring reporters, including Matt Buchanan from Gawker Media; John Herrman from Popular Mechanics; Rosie Gray from The Village Voice, and Doree Shafrir from RollingStone.com. BuzzFeed wasn’t just hiring brand names to serve as lustrous hood ornaments connoting credibility, the way Tina Brown and Arianna Huffington have. The hires at BuzzFeed were more like maypoles: young writers native to the Web who become pivot points for contents because they are bathed in both the ethos and practice of social media.

Aiming to be "a player in news" is a good idea. The question is: How does getting in bed with the Kochs fit into that plan? They are the embodiment of political corruption, and hosting a Koch immigration summit crammed with rabid rightwingers, borderline eugenicists and Milton Friedman groupies seems…odd.

Smith has been curiously silent about the Koch-BuzzFeed partnership, and probably for good reason.

After I sent this news of this to Mark Ames, he reminded me that this isn't the first time Ben Smith has boosted for the Kochs. In 2011, Ben Smith attacked a report published in The Nation by Ames and Mike Elk that exposed how Citizen United made it perfectly legal for the Kochs to begin politically indoctrinating their employees, telling workers how to vote and warning them that they could lose their jobs as a result of big-government policies. Smith yawned at evidence of Koch indoctrination exposed by Ames and Elk, saying that their "quirky, staid newsletter may not swing a lot of votes."

I’d never paid close attention to Smith before, but on scanning his record I saw a surprising consistency: every time the Koch cartel comes under serious criticism, every time someone tries to expose another layer of their toxic influence and political corruption, every time a news item threatens their well-guarded racket, Ben Smith is there, calmly and coolly redirecting traffic and reassuring people that everything is okay. His tactic is simple: downplay the importance of the news and deflect attention.

He did exactly that just a few weeks ago in response to the backlash against rumors that the Kochs were thinking of buying the Tribune Company, tweeting out one "could imagine the Kochs being really excellent newspaper proprietors" and then pointing out that David Koch generously pledged to donate $100 million to the New York City Ballet. See, the Kochs aren't as bad as people say. They care for the arts!

In his role as a palatable, populist defender of the Kochs, Smith has much in common with career Koch apologist David Weigel. If anything, Smith is even more humorless and soulless. In fact, David and Ben frequently join forces to fight for Team Koch.

Here are a few of Buzzbagger Ben's Koch apology highlights from his tenure at Politico:

  1. Ran damage control for the Kochs after they were profiled by the New Yorker: After the New Yorker ran its devastating profile of the Kochs in 2010, Ben stepped in to personally defend the slighted oligarch-brothers: "…the piece is well worth a read. A couple of caveats: First, I'm not sure it makes sense (nor does Mayer try) to attribute their vast giving solely to practical business motive. Underwriting the early blogging of Dave Weigel, for instance, was probably not the single most efficient way to neuter the EPA." I’m not sure about David Weigel, but President George W. Bush's White House outsourced management of the EPA to the Koch's Mercatus Center. That's a pretty efficient way to neuter it, if you ask me. Two days later, Ben was at it again, defending the Kochs from the evil journalists at the New Yorker by promoting a new reputation-management website for Koch Industries called KochFacts.com. The website, Ben helpfully explained, "offers point-by-point rebuttals to the New Yorker piece"… Thanks for the tip, Ben!
  2. Koch PR circle-jerk: In March 2011, Ben published a post headlined "Labor Harmony at Koch Company" that was like a Zucker brothers satire of East Germany, reprinting a "We love our boss" letter from a Steelworkers Union tool. KochFacts.com later used Ben's post in a letter they wrote to the New York Times about all the happy unionized employees who work for Koch Industries, citing as proof "a March 2011 piece in Politico" — by Ben Smith.
  3. Kochs don't spend nearly as much money on political campaigns as liberals would have you believe: While most Americans were probably shocked by the Koch oligarchs' announcement that they expected to amass $200 million to spend on the 2012 presidential elections, Ben was more concerned with playing the role of hyper-anal copyeditor policing investigative journalism. Ben, along with David Weigel, took the New Yorker to task alleging that they'd falsley claimed the Kochs brothers planned on "spending" $200 million on the presidential campaign, when technically, the Kochs only "plan to steer cash." "This is true," tweeted Ben, retweeting Weigel's "KochFacts has a point here," linking to a KochFacts.com PR statement titled "Holding The New Yorker Magazine Accountable."
  4. Says critics of the Kochs are conspiracy nuts: To Ben Smith, anyone who points out the massive influence the Kochs wield over the GOP is a delusional conspiracy theorist. This "unified Koch theory" doesn't make any sense, says Ben, because the Kochs also fund Democratic campaigns: "Kochs gave $196,000 to Democrats in 2010 cycle." That’s a whole lot of money! What Ben didn't mention was that the Kochs spent over $2 million on Republican candidates — a ratio of 10 to 1. Or the millions spent on GOP think-tank mills.
  5. Ben Smith promoted Charles Koch's political essays: Buzzbagger Ben promoted an essay by Charles Koch, in which the billionaire discusses his favorite President, Calvin Coolidge. He told Politico readers to check out "a brief essay by Charles Koch on the Depression, crystallizing the version of that era that's become current in some conservative circles: Hoover did too much, FDR way too much, and Coolidge was just right." Fact is, Coolidge was one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, largely because his pro-business policies helped destroy the American economy and brought on the Great Depression. Koch Industries tweeted out Ben's article: "@Koch_Industries: Check out @BenPolitico and his link to Charles Koch's column about best US Presidents." Buzzbagger Ben quickly retweeted the Koch Industries’ tweet. It was Koch RT heaven!
  6. Attacked ThinkProgress blogger Lee Fang's work on Koch brothers: In a profile piece on ThinkProgress, Buzzbagger Ben criticized former ThinkProgress blogger Lee Fang for saying the Koch brothers are active in politics motivated by a "desire to boost their profits." Ben alleged that Fang is practically the only "liberal" who believes that the Kochs' political philanthropy is cynically intended to boost their wealth and power, and dismisses Fang’s piece as "an argument even some liberals reject as an overly simplistic caricature." Who are these "some liberals" cited by Ben? Turns out, it’s our very own buddy Glenn Greenwald! Incidentally, Greenwald admitted he was paid $4,000 per hour [prorated] to speak at the Koch's Cato Institute. As it turns out, Greenwald basically agrees with Ben Smith about the Kochs' influence being overhyped writing: "in the scheme of corporate and oligarchical dominance, the Koch Brothers are a small part of that dynamic."
  7. Ben Smith alleges Jews forgave the Kochs for illegally doing business with Iran: Ben Smith ran cover for Koch Industries after the company was busted for illegally doing business with Iran. He wrote, "heavyweight pro-Israel group AIPAC is defending Koch Industries after a report that a Koch subsidiary did business in Iran until 2007 in spite of U.S. efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic." Hey, and if the Israelis can forgive the Kochs for selling millions of dollars of oil equipment to Iran, a country they think wants to wipe them off the map…Well, America should move on, too. Forgive and forget. This is a Christian nation, after all.
  8. Defended Scott Walker after Wisconsin's rightwing governor fell for David Koch prank call: Writing in Politico, Buzzbagger Ben acted as if the prank call was no big deal at all. In fact, Ben seemed downright bored by the whole thing. He argued that the only thing the prank "proves is that Walker doesn't actually know Koch." That's right, Ben. Why would Gov. Walker know the Koch brothers? After all, they were among the biggest backers of his campaign. And politicians never meet their biggest campaign contributors. David Koch even admitted: "We’re helping him, as we should." So David Koch knows Gov. Walker. But why would Walker know David Koch?
  9. Defended Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Scalia against charges of conflict of interest: In 2011, Ben dismissed the allegation that the views of Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Scalia on Citizens United could have been swayed by the multiple financial conflicts of interest the Justices had with the Koch family. What kind of conflicts of interest? Well, among other things, Clarence Thomas broke the law by failing to disclose that his wife took in $680,000 from the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation. Speaking of judges and the conflicts of interest, Ben Smith's father, who calls himself a Hayekian Judge, was nominated to highest court in the State of New York amid serious controversy over campaign donations.

Of course, Ben Smith's shilling isn't restricted to the Kochs. He's a Movement guy — and he's there wherever there's money and PR demand for his service.

Case-in-point: While at Politico, Ben Smith became widely seen in the news media world as a press flak for Michelle Rhee and her astroturf school privatization outfit StudentsFirst. A USA Today report said it straight up: "reporter Ben Smith, who has close ties with Rhee..." When Rhee's first teaching scandal broke, Ben ran Rhee's PR statement as a news item. He then blamed Rhee's increasingly toxic image on an underhanded campaign waged by teachers unions, making no mention the real reason people were turning against Rhee: the fact that her "reform" agenda depended on widespread cheating and deception with children's scores. Not surprisingly, Rhee's StudentsFirst blogged Ben's article as evidence of a union smear campaign against Rhee: "Ben Smith of Politico finds only one voice behind the attack on Michelle Rhee's record in D.C. -- the union."

That's the kind of PR defense racket Ben Smith was running under everyone's nose at Politico, and it appears that he's been setting up the same sort of operation at his new BuzzFeed home.

For instance, on March 12, the same day Ben tweeted out that he thought the Kochs would make "really excellent newspaper proprietors," Buzzfeed's Los Angeles bureau reporter Tessa Stuart published a story seemingly confirming Ben Smith's hunch. Stuart observes that everyone is worried the Kochs will swallow up the Tribune Company into their existing thinktank-industrial complex and turn it into gigantic business propaganda machine, but she reassures her readers that the Kochs would never interfere with editorial decisions.

How does she know? Well, she asked Koch Industries' slightly manic PR flak, Melissa Cohlmia. The article read like sloppy version of a press release. Stuart had no hard questions for the Kochs' PR rep and took her word that the Kochs "promised that — if there is a deal — Koch would respect the outlets’ independence." You can trust Stuart's judgment. After all, she is the same BuzzFeed reporter who baselessly smeared Michael Moore, accusing him of lying about helping the Oscar-nominated Palestinian filmmaker who was detained at the LAX airport on his way to the Oscars ceremony. She demanded Moore provide evidence of the detention.

The signs of the baggerfication of BuzzFeed are many and multiplying fast.

Consider Ben Smith's recent hire of Benny Johnson as BuzzFeed's D.C. editor. Benny Johnson, who likes to wear bow ties and looks like a cross between George Will and Peewee Herman, was previously employed by Glenn Beck's The Blaze and the rightwing media watchdog Accuracy In Media. Benny hit all the usual bagger points, calling President Obama a "committed statist," as well as "an absolutely avowed statist" and described healthcare reform as totalitarian takeover -- it's all "gaining government control over our private lives." Benny (who used to go by "Ben") also produced a tribute video to Andrew Brietbart called "Breitbart Memorial: Man Against The Mob," featuring slow-mo shots of Brietbart rollerskating in Palm Springs.

At BuzzFeed, Ben Smith has put Benny to work creating PR listicles promoting guns and Republicans blowing shit up — it's the bagger equivalent of cute cat videos. Here's one of my favorite Benny posts in which he boosts the NRA, the tobacco industry and the sugar lobby all in one short post:

Sarah Palin Packs Chew, Threatens To Start Dipping On NRA Stage "Sarah Palin whipped out a can of chew during her speech at the NRA convention. … She started packing it like a champ while saying 'Don’t make me do it.' . . . The action was in response to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg announcing he will be seeking a ban on displaying tobacco in stores in NYC."

From apologizing for the Kochs to overseeing cute cat videos for baggers — you've come a long way, Buzzbagger Ben…