Latest Paid-For Story from Columbia Journalism School Raises Ethical Concerns

In case you missed it last week, the LA Times published yet another fake news piece authored by students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, this time making the ridiculous claim that the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill was caused by climate change and ExxonMobil should have known it would happen.

We realize that very few people are even paying attention to the completely discredited #ExxonKnew campaign right now; the story barely got any traction, except by those who recognized it as fake news. But since the campaign has resurfaced and given folks a good laugh at the absurdity of their latest attempt to be relevant, we thought it would be worthwhile to take a trip down memory lane and revisit the origin of this political campaign.

To be clear: this is paid-for “journalism” bankrolled by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, as well as the Rockefeller Family Fund and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. And it is raising serious questions about the leadership of a once-prestigious journalism school.

Here are the top four things to keep in mind:

#1. LA Times and Columbia claim the Rockefellers and Soros had no influence over the content in the stories. The Rockefellers have admitted otherwise.

In a disclosure at the end of the Valdez story, the LA Times claims that the funders “have no involvement in or influence over the articles produced by the project fellows in collaboration with the Los Angeles Times.” Yet the funders themselves say otherwise. Lee Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund was forced to admit in December 2016, “we paid for a team of independent reporters from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to try to determine what Exxon and other US oil companies had really known about climate science, and when.”

This wealthy anti-fossil fuel organization admitted that it paid a team of researchers at a prestigious journalism school to write a hit piece on ExxonMobil, yet the LA Times and Columbia not only claim otherwise; they also think the public is stupid enough to believe that their reporting just happens to align perfectly with the desires of their funders.

This has prompted criticism from all angles, even from those who are solidly on their side. Ken Silverstein, who was previously a reporter for the LA Times (and has published articles and a book critical of the energy industry generally and ExxonMobil specifically), wrote an article in the New York Observer with the fitting title: “Rockefeller Foundations Enlist Journalism in ‘Moral’ Crusade Against ExxonMobil.” Using the Rockefellers’ funding of the Columbia reporting as his example, Silverstein writes:

“However, when liberal advocacy groups and foundations fund journalism directly, there’s less discussion about potential conflicts of interests or the integrity of the work product — and especially if the journalism embraces a beloved cause like climate change and attacks a popular villain like the fossil fuel industry…”

“Corporations always have an agenda when they dispense money to shape public opinion. But so do foundations and private donors. It’s hard to argue that it’s only a problem when you disagree with the point of view being promoted.”

The Columbia Journalism Review – a highly-respected media watchdog published by the very same Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism that produced the #ExxonKnew stories – noted the #ExxonKnew reporting “raises questions of balance” and that “Philanthropic organizations often have a topical focus, and grants for subject-specific coverage inherently influence what journalism reaches the public.”

#2. LA Times, Columbia, and the Rockefellers tried to hide their collaboration and funding from the public.

Of course, the LA Times had no choice but to disclose who funded these articles this time around, considering it was highly criticized for previously failing to disclose that the original #ExxonKnew series it published in late 2015 was funded by Soros and the Rockefellers. Here’s how the original #ExxonKnew disclosure looked when it was first published:

It only provided this information after other news outlets discovered the lack of disclosure and pointed it out. The Times later updated the disclosure to read:

To make matters worse, Columbia itself even failed to disclose its Soros and Rockefeller funding on its own website. In December 2015, the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out that there was “no explicit mention of the philanthropic organizations providing financial support” for the Columbia team’s reports on Exxon, as published in the Los Angeles Times. The information was added later, but only after Columbia’s lack of disclosure had been noticed.  

The Columbia team’s editor, Susanne Rust – who is a co-author of this latest LA Times piece – claimed the lack of disclosure was because the project “didn’t even have a website” until October 9, 2015, or nearly a month after their first story was published. But a quick review of the Internet Archive showed that Rust’s claims were not true, as the project had a website – without any disclosure of its funders – at least as early as September 8, 2015.

Here is how the Fellowship’s page appeared on September 8, 2015:

Screen capture of the Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship website as it appeared on September 8, 2015 — one month before the program released the first of its two controversial climate reports. The project’s editor claimed the program “didn’t even have a website” prior to the release of the first story. Accessed via Internet Archive

Steve Coll, the Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and author of Private Empire, a book critical of ExxonMobil, is in charge of the project responsible for the anti-Exxon stories. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Coll said, “We rely on readers to trust that we follow the facts only where they lead.” Yet the Columbia team’s research apparently led them to the exact conclusion their funders paid them to reach.

And what’s more, they didn’t provide any links or citations for the documents on which they base their arguments, preventing readers from verifying their work. Coupled with the fact that they didn’t want their readers to know who had paid for the stories, and only updated the disclosure language long after their readers had moved on, the Columbia team’s credibility took a huge hit.

Even the Columbia Journalism Review noted that not disclosing this funding was a huge mistake:

“[T]he rollout after publication was botched. While this particular misstep occurred on the most contentious of stories, the question of when and how to disclose funding for such projects appears widespread.”

If there was nothing inappropriate about Columbia’s paid-for reporting, why did they go to such great lengths to hide it?

#3: These articles are the foundation for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s investigation of ExxonMobil, and a federal judge has suggested “bias or prejudgment” influenced these investigations.

It is this paid for “journalism” that is the very foundation of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s investigation of ExxonMobil. But that’s just the beginning.

Schneiderman has been refusing for months to turn over emails between his office and major donors of the #ExxonKnew campaign – including the Rockefeller Family Fund and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. While the emails are now before a judge who will rule on this move, we do have the log of the correspondence, thanks to a FOIL request made by the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal). These logs show communications between Schneiderman’s aides and the RFF, as well as Steyer’s office, that date back to early 2015, long before the original #ExxonKnew hit pieces were published. To be clear, the Rockefellers – the group bankrolling this “journalism” – were meeting with Schneiderman well before any #ExxonKnew pieces were ever published.

Likely knowing that all of this would come to light, David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund wrote a column published by the New York Review of Books admitting,

[T]he Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF) informed state attorneys general of our concern that ExxonMobil seemed to have failed to disclose to investors the business risks of climate change. We were particularly encouraged by Schneiderman’s interest in this matter, because New York’s Martin Act is arguably the most powerful tool in the nation for investigating possible schemes to defraud.” (emphasis added)

It’s little wonder that a federal judge had issued a discovery order to determine if Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (who launched her own investigation into ExxonMobil) were working under “bias and prejudgment” and conducting a “bad faith” investigation.

Just last week, that same federal judge noted that there’s a pretty clear political agenda between the Rockefeller-funded outlets and the AGs pursuing investigations:

“The attorneys general say now that they are investigating Exxon because of two different periodicals published in the fall of 2015 (arguably trying to pursue the same climate change policy agendas as the attorneys general are)…. The Court is uncertain if it is common practice for attorneys general to begin to investigate a company after reading an article that accuses a company of possibly committing a wrongdoing decades ago. What the Court does know is that Exxon has publicly acknowledged since 2006 the possible significant risks to society and ecosystems from rising greenhouse gas emissions, yet the attorneys general have only recently felt compelled to look further into Exxon’s documents from the last 40 years to see if Exxon knew more than it shared with the public and investors about climate change.” (emphasis added)

#4. Criticism keeps rolling in for Columbia’s paid for “journalism,” and the school’s reputation could be at stake.

New York Post called the Columbia team’s reporting “biased and unprofessional.” The Financial Times wrote, “Those stories fell well short of producing the smoking gun that would show Exxon’s senior management took one view of climate change in private while saying something different in public.”

Author and consultant Fraser Seitel called it the “The Fall of the Columbia Journalism School”:

“Under its current dean, former Washington Post reporter Steve Coll, the once mighty bastion of fairness and objectivity has increasingly become a willing spear-carrier for liberal political causes.”

Richard Osborne, a former reporter who was inducted into the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame, put it this way:

“The criticism that Columbia is drawing cuts to the core of its mission: It faces questions about the ethical standards of its journalism after taking money from major critics of the energy industry and then having its students produce what amounted to a hit job on the industry. The episode is all the more noteworthy given that Columbia’s work was published in, and in association with, yet another venerable institution of the news business, the Los Angeles Times.

“In a sense, Columbia and the L.A. Times are victims of self-inflicted wounds that could have been avoided altogether if these two institutions had abided by basic reporting rules that have guided generations of journalists.” (emphasis added)

Conclusion

This latest Rockefeller- and Soros-funded “investigative reporting” has received well deserved ridicule, according to the Washington Times. “Blindingly stupid,” “climate change fan fiction,” “irrelevant” and “ridiculous” were among the insults hurled at the report.

But there’s something more serious going on, too.

All of this raises important questions about the kind of “journalism” that’s being bankrolled by groups like Open Society and the Rockefeller foundations, all of which have very clear anti-fossil fuel agendas. And even more importantly, it’s raising questions about why Columbia and the New York Attorney General’s office are so desperate to keep information related to this campaign under a lock and key.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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