Outside Conservatives in Wisconsin? Sinister. White House in Wisconsin? Shrugworthy

The Times again goes after industrialists and conservative philanthropists David and Charles Koch in a long Tuesday story by Eric Lipton, "Billionaire Brothers' Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Budget Dispute." In Lipton's portrayal, the participation in the Wisconsin debate over union bargaining rights by the conservative Americans for Prosperity, a group created by the Koch brothers, is "secretive" and a bit sinister. By contrast, White House participation on the union side was greeted with shrugs.

Among the thousands of demonstrators who jammed the Wisconsin State Capitol grounds this weekend was a well-financed advocate from Washington who was there to voice praise for cutting state spending by slashing union benefits and bargaining rights.

The visitor, Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, told a large group of counterprotesters who had gathered Saturday at one edge of what otherwise was a mostly union crowd that the cuts were not only necessary, but they also represented the start of a much-needed nationwide move to slash public-sector union benefits.

"We are going to bring fiscal sanity back to this great nation," he said.

What Mr. Phillips did not mention was that his Virginia-based nonprofit group, whose budget surged to $40 million in 2010 from $7 million three years ago, was created and financed in part by the secretive billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.


To union leaders and liberal activists in Washington, this intervention in Wisconsin is proof of the expanding role played by nonprofit groups with murky ties to wealthy corporate executives as they push a decidedly conservative agenda.

"The Koch brothers are the poster children of the effort by multinational corporate America to try to redefine the rights and values of American citizens," said Representative Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, who joined with others in the union protests.

The Obama White House is doing its own meddling in the Wisconsin debate through Obama's campaign arm Organizing for America, and the Democratic National Committee is helping the union cause as well. Yet Democratic Party interference in Wisconsin didn't raise hackles at the Times.

Jackie Calmes' Monday story initially took up the issue from the White House end, which downplayed the significance of the involvement of Organizing for America, which Calmes flattered with the label "grass-roots network." The headline was unrevealing: "Wisconsin Puts Obama Between Competing Desires."

Over the weekend, the White House and Democratic Party officials pushed back against criticism from Republicans that Mr. Obama and his political network were meddling in the Wisconsin dispute.

Administration officials said Sunday that the White House had done nothing to encourage the demonstrations in Wisconsin - nor was it doing so in Ohio, Florida and other states where new Republican governors are trying to make deep cuts to balance their budgets.

And, officials and union leaders said, reports of the involvement of the Democratic National Committee - specifically Organizing for America, the grass-roots network born of Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign - were overblown to start with and were being inflated by Republicans sensing political advantage.

"This is a Wisconsin story, not a Washington one," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. "False claims of White House involvement are attempts to distract from the organic grass-roots opposition that is happening in Wisconsin."

You can follow Times Watch on Twitter.