Eric Lipton Responds, and the Verdict Is In (Bumped)

If you missed it over the weekend, Eric Lipton responded to emails from us and our readers, and attempted to justify his article about the “Billionaire Brothers,” Charles and David Koch. My analysis of his response follows:
On February 21, Eric Lipton of the New York Times wrote an article titled Billionaire Brothers’ Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute. Lipton’s perspective on the controversy swirling around Wisconsin’s state finances–it’s all about Charles and David Koch–was an odd one, but consistent with the theme the Left has been peddling. (For a good explanation of how weirdly skewed this emphasis on the Koch brothers is, see Mark Steyn’s piece from last night. Commenting on Lipton’s story, Mark writes: “I find the headline alone so perverse you wonder how, even at the Times, it could have wafted up through six layers of editors without someone saying, “Oh, come on…”)
For his article, Lipton interviewed Tim Phillips, who heads Americans For Prosperity, a grass-roots group to which one or both of the Koch brothers have contributed. That interview led to what turned out to be the key paragraph in Lipton’s story:

Even before the new governor was sworn in last month, executives from the Koch-backed group had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown, Mr. Phillips said in an interview on Monday.

This paragraph was seized on by the Left as evidence that the Koch brothers and their company, Koch Industries, are some kind of shadowy force behind Governor Walker’s effort to get Wisconsin’s labor costs under control. It contained the only statement Lipton attributed to Phillips that was even remotely inflammatory, and yet I was struck by the fact that there was no direct quote. Elsewhere in the article, Lipton did quote Phillips, and so indicated in the usual way with quotation marks. The absence of an actual quotation in the story’s key paragraph was striking, to say the least. Others on the Left remedied the deficiency by simply adding the quotation marks.
When Phillips was asked about Lipton’s piece and his organization’s role in the turmoil in Wisconsin–by the Associated Press, for example–the focus was always on Lipton’s “showdown” paragraph. Phillips consistently denied that he had said any such thing to the reporter. I interviewed Phillips, and he told me that Lipton had tried to get him to say something along those lines, but he didn’t say it because it wasn’t true.
So I sent an email to Lipton, asking him what exactly Phillips had said that he had characterized an admission that AFP had worked “behind the scenes” to promote a “showdown” with the unions. I asked whether he would turn over any recording or notes of his conversation with Phillips to me, so that we could verify exactly what Phillips actually said. You can read the text of my email here. Quite a number of our readers joined in our request to Mr. Lipton.
At the end of the afternoon yesterday, Lipton responded with this email:

I am responding to questions you and others have raised in various e-mails this week about the comments by Tim Phillips.
I do not routinely record my telephone interviews. I took extensive notes on the conversation and I remember it clearly. I asked Mr. Phillips if he and others at Americans for Prosperity had contacted Scott Walker or his staff before he was sworn in as governor to urge them to challenge the state’s labor unions in some way. He said, yes, his group had communicated with the governor-elect’s office and had encouraged them to address issues related to union compensation. However, Mr. Phillips emphasized that his organization had not played a role in drafting a specific proposal.
“We encouraged this effort at pension reform. This is one critical budgetary way to do it,” Mr. Phillips said. “We thought it was important to do.”
Beyond what Mr. Phillips said, there is other evidence that people associated and financially backed by Americans for Prosperity in Wisconsin had been pressing Scott Wilson to confront the state’s labor unions almost immediately after he was elected.
Mark Block, who served as the president of the state chapter of American’s for Prosperity until December 31, 2010, helped create the Wisconsin Prosperity Network, which helped finance with the MacIver Institute, a think tank that has repeatedly questioned compensation and benefits paid to public worker unions. Mr. Block also served on the board of MacIver Institute. Within days of Mr. Walker’s election, on Americans for Prosperity’s Web site, it re-published what MacIver’s call for “a framework to repair Wisconsin’s broken budget,” which included a proposal by MacIver to privatize state union jobs, such as janitors, food service, saying that “the costs of providing compensation and benefits for public employees and retirees are a ticking fiscal time bomb.”
Here are some related links:
The Americans For Prosperity in Wisconsin also published on its Web site in December 2010 a manifesto written by a blogger calling on Wisconsin residents to demand that the state government make changes in union rules in right to work issues now that a new governor has been elected.
Here is what it said:
“While prosperity cannot be legislated, the conditions that bring it about most certainly can be. Here in Wisconsin, the control of state government was taken away from liberal Democrats and given over to conservative Republicans this past November. The liberty coalition that flipped this state did not do so to win a sporting contest for a political party. We did so to change our economic trajectory and reaffirm our commitment to equal rights. Do the Republicans understand why they were given back the reins of government across the industrial heartland? They can show us by enacting Right To Work – and not a moment too soon when they do.”
And Mr. Block, in the weeks after the election, wrote about the push Americans for Prosperity was already starting to make to enact the Taxpayer Protection Amendment in Wisconsin, which necessitated confronting state unions, as they had challenged such an effort in the past and obviously would again.
What I wrote about what Mr. Phillips accurately reflects our conversation. Moreover, these blog posts on the Americans For Prosperity in Wisconsin’s Web site, buttress the remarks he made to me.
I hope this answers your questions.

This response is more notable for its length than its persuasiveness. It is mostly irrelevant, along “here’s the bed” lines: of course AFP has advocated publicly that Wisconsin reform its relationship with public employee unions, but that isn’t the question. The question is whether Phillips actually told Lipton that AFP had “worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown.”
In fact, while Lipton assures us that his characterization was accurate, he is able to quote in support only these statements from his notes:

“We encouraged this effort at pension reform. This is one critical budgetary way to do it,” Mr. Phillips said. “We thought it was important to do.”

We can assume that the words Lipton quoted are the best he has in his notes, the sentences that he relies on to justify his claim that AFP “worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown.” You be the judge: is “We encouraged this effort at pension reform. This is one critical budgetary way to do it. We thought it was important to do” the same as: AFP “worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown?” I don’t think so.
I think Lipton stands convicted of exactly the conduct Phillips suggested. He wanted to write a story about how an organization supported by the Koch brothers was secretly fomenting a “showdown” with Wisconsin’s unions. Phillips wouldn’t tell him that because it wasn’t true, but Lipton wrote the story that way anyway, because without it he had nothing newsworthy.
Eric Lipton and the New York Times owe Tim Phillips, Americans For Prosperity and Charles and David Koch an apology, and they owe their readers a correction.

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