FreaKOCHnomics — How Stephen Dubner botched the opportunity of a lifetime

On June 21st and 22nd, the chart-topping Freakonomics Podcast released a two-part interview with Charles Koch. Charles is the younger of the two Koch siblings, the infamous dark money pair loathed by most as the George Soros-esque duo of the Right and loved by Tea Party poster boy conservatives like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

The Kochtopus (Image source)

Despite their incredible impact on the American political system, the Koch brothers remain hidden in the shadows, rarely appearing in public or giving interviews with the press. Instead, the brothers curtain themselves from the public and spread their ideology by funding free-market think tanks(like The State Policy Network, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, and FreedomWorks, to name a prominent few)and libertarian economists, most notably at the George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. The brothers’ far reaching influence have earned them nickname the Kochtopus brothers.

Given the tremendous amount of secrecy surrounding the Koch brothers, Stephen Dubner was presented with an extraordinary opportunity when Charles agreed to be interviewed for the podcast. Dubner could ask Charles whether or not he and his brother played a role in securing Mike Pence — who they reportedly backed for a potential 2016 presidential bid — as Trump’ pick for Vice President. He could have asked about the brothers’ connection to White House Adviser Kellyanne Conway, who sat on the board of Koch-fundedconservative group Independent Women’s Forum, or about their purported involvement in convincing President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.

Instead, Dubner dropped the ball and produced a 44–minute long puff piece on Charles’s personal philosophy. Not once in the episode does Dubner hold Charles Koch accountable for his enormous influence over the current state of American politics. In fact, Dubner appears to enable Koch to spew out whatever comes to mind by never asking Charles for more detailed responses.

For instance, when asked about his thoughts on Jane Mayer’s expose on him and his brother, Dark Money, Charles simply responds with, “Most of the facts that I’m familiar with are wrong.” Dubner doesn’t ask Charles to provide specific examples about the inaccuracies of Mayer’s book, he just gives Charles the floor to say he wants to say.

Dubner’s failure to probe Charles occurs several times throughout the podcast, but reaches a new level of journalistic inadequacy in its later half, when Charles brings up his disappointment with George Bush Jr.’s presidency:

“And when Bush 43 won, we thought, “Oh my. There might be some hope in having a principled administration, one who would take it in the direction we were urging. And boy, was that an eye-opener because, in fact — although he meant well — President Bush did the opposite. They increased the size of government 50 percent more than Clinton passed, almost three times the number of restrictive regulations…
He even appointed Harriet Miers to be a Supreme Court Justice and, fortunately, we and others were able to stop that.

In that moment, Charles presented Dubner with a gift most journalists can only dream of — a golden opportunity to hold truth to one of the most powerful figures in the world. The fact that Dubner does not probe Charles as to why or how the brothers were able to influence a Supreme Court nomination should come across as extremely alarming to fans of the podcast, as it seriously jeopardizes Dubner’s credibility as a journalist.

According to news historian Michael Schudson, one of the most important functions of journalism in a democracy is to hold people in power accountable for their actions. Good journalism shines a light on the dark corners of democracy; it exposes corruption and ineptitude, and provides citizens with information needed to make tough decisions at the polls. Good journalism should take figures like Charles Koch and lay bare their actions to the public.

The Freaknomics podcast may be lighthearted, educational fun, but this episode begs the question: Is it good journalism?