Don’t miss Jane Mayer’s excellent probe into the Koch brothers in this week’s New Yorker. It makes a persuasive case that David and Charles Koch, owners of Koch Industries, are the country’s most important conservative political donors — and the ideological and financial fathers of the Tea Party movement.

Sometime around 1980, the two brothers, weaned on the politics of the John Birch Society, began to see elected officials as merely “actors playing out a script”; they set about to rewrite it. Over the past thirty years, Mayer reports, they’ve spent more than $100 million on dozens of far right political and policy groups, many of which they direct, from the monied Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank with more than a hundred paid employees that dates back to the 1970s, to Americans for Prosperty, founded in 2004 and a Tea Party hub. Many of these organizations promote skepticism on climate change, as the advance of policies to mitigate global warming is seen as a formidable threat by the brothers who made their billions on oil. Indeed, as one critic points out, the positions of Koch-funded nonprofit think tanks “all coincide perfectly with the economic interests of the funders.”

Over time, the brothers became specialists in AstroTurf campaigns, well-heeled top-down advocacy efforts that masqueraded as citizen initiatives, whether to combat tax hikes or health care reform. The Tea Party movement is their great political triumph, the first time actual citizens have taken up their political cause of total deregulation.

Mayer takes a gentle jab or two at New York magazine, who, just by coincidence, published a flattering profile of David Koch shortly before Mayer’s piece appeared. Center for Public Integrity founder Chuck Lewis, speaking on Democracy Now! this morning, was more direct in his criticism: “The Koch Industries company and the Koch brothers essentially planted a very fawning profile of the Koch brothers in the New York magazine days before as a way of preempting the New Yorker article,” he said. “They never consent to interviews. I tried to interview them for two different Buying of the President books and they had no interest whatsoever in talking and in one case they threatened to sue.” While New York‘s Andrew Goldman got extensive face time with David Koch, neither brother even returned Mayer’s calls.

In effect, Mayer has painted a portrait of the collapse of American democracy, where plutocrats can, with little or no transparency (“without getting dirty themselves” as one political strategist says of the Koches), use their vast wealth to rewrite national politics. The recent Citizens United decision will only make matters worse — and make more urgent the need for this kind of deep investigation into this country’s unelected political powerbrokers.

UPDATE 8/26/10:

I just spoke with New York mag reporter Andrew Goldman, who says that Charles Lewis was off base in his remarks on Democracy Now! Goldman says that he’s been on the trail of David Koch for this profile for at least two years, and that the idea of the profile was his. “I’m no corporate shill,” he says. “I try to meet guys on their own terms, but I don’t think I cut him any slack.” My apologies to Goldman for repeating the allegation without checking in with him first.

I then reached out to Lewis about my conversation with Goldman. Lewis told me that he’d not yet read Goldman’s story when he sat down for the Democracy Now! interview, but was rather responding to the surprising level of access David Koch had granted to Goldman and to the coincidence of the story’s timing. He also sent me the following note, with permission to post:

I did not know that he [Goldman] had worked on this story for two years, and first talked to David Koch in 2008. I honestly don’t know how exactly the timing of the two NY magazine stories about the Koch brothers occurred, how one came out weeks before the other, why access to the principal was granted in one case and not another, etc. Nonetheless, I shouldn’t have assumed that it was merely a PR maneuver to deflect a major investigative New Yorker piece. And I certainly meant no disparagement personally of the journalist Andrew Goldman or of his magazine. I regret my offhand comments about this.