Journalists Attend Secretive Big Money Koch Brothers Gathering, But Agree Not To Name Donors

Aren’t they a big part of the story?

By Michael Calderone
The Huffingon Post (8/2/15)

NEW YORK — Several news organizations gained rare access Saturday into a private gathering of influential Republican donors hosted by Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit organization backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.

But journalists covering the three-day event, held at a luxurious California resort, had to agree to an unusual restriction. They weren’t allowed to report the names of any of the 450 donors attending without the individual’s permission.

The Washington Post’s Matea Gold disclosed in a Saturday night piece that her paper was “one of nine news organizations allowed in to cover the traditionally private confab, on the condition that the donors present not be named without their permission.” Politico’s Ken Vogel also noted the ground rules in his story published around the same time.

The New York Times, which ran a front-page story Friday on the Koch brothers, and closely covers money and politics, notably did not attend the weekend gathering. Times executive editor Dean Baquet declined to comment.

The Koch brothers, and affiliated groups, are expected to spend $889 million on the 2016 race. So the weekend gathering is a key stop for big-time Republican donors and presidential aspirants.

Journalists agreeing to the rules are provided a rare glimpse into typically closed-door proceedings and may get the opportunity to speak with donors, even some willing to allow their names in print.

The problem is that the ground rules could restrict journalists from reporting what’s right in front of their eyes. If, say, Rupert Murdoch, or even a lesser-known billionaire, walked by, they couldn’t report the person’s attendance without permission. So it’s possible journalists end up reporting largely what the event sponsors want, such as fiery speeches and candidate remarks criticizing Democrats, but less on the power brokers attending who play key behind-the-scenes roles in the 2016 election.

Given the big-money donations at play, several Republican presidential hopefuls took a break from the campaign trail to attend.

On Saturday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina took part in an onstage question-and-answer session. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will do the same Sunday.

Politico’s Mike Allen is moderating the candidate sessions, which are on the record.

When asked about his role in the gathering, Allen pointed out to The Huffington Post that the candidate session are live-streamed and said that he maintained full editorial control over the questions.

Allen said the arrangement was similar to when ABC News’ Jon Karl moderated forums at a Koch brothers event earlier this year. Some journalism experts criticized Karl’s participation, suggesting that reporters shouldn’t be moderating partisan gatherings that aren’t widely open to the press.

Organizers approached CNN’s Jake Tapper about moderating candidate sessions this weekend, but he declined, according to a source familiar with the event. A CNN spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Freedom Partners did not respond to a request for comment on its journalist ground rules.

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