On Anti-Exxon Campaign, LA Times Refuses to Hold Those in Power Accountable

Ever since the Los Angeles Times published its reports in 2015 alleging Exxon Mobil “knew” about climate change before the world’s scientists – a series the Times refused to disclose was bankrolled by anti-Exxon activists – California’s largest and most influential newspaper has done its best to keep the fledgling #ExxonKnew campaign alive. The public has stopped paying attention for the most part, but the Times has been desperately looking for some sort of accomplishment for all of its work.

The newspaper’s latest editorial even redefined success, suggesting that the ideal outcome of the campaign is no longer criminal prosecution, but rather forcing the company to “negotiate a settlement.” The newspaper’s willingness to negotiate against itself doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in its case.

Meanwhile, in its narrow zeal to attack “Big Oil,” the Times has eschewed its traditional role of holding those in power to account. It hasn’t just allowed state officials and large environmental groups to change their stories with impunity; it has actively facilitated the deception.

In January 2016, the Times reported that California’s then-Attorney General, Kamala Harris, “is investigating whether Exxon Mobil Corp. repeatedly lied to the public and its shareholders about the risk to its business from climate change – and whether such actions could amount to securities fraud and violations of environmental laws.” The source was an unnamed “person close to the investigation,” according to the Times, although Harris’s office declined to confirm the investigation even existed.

Two days later, the activist group InsideClimate News used the Times reporting in its cover letter to the Pulitzer Prize committee, seeking an award for its own “Exxon knew about climate change” series. The California investigation, according to InsideClimate News, gave its reporting more relevance.

“Most recently, news reports confirm the California attorney general is also investigating Exxon,” InsideClimate News’ publisher David Sassoon wrote on January 22, 2016, to the Pulitzer committee. That extra credibility certainly didn’t hurt, because InsideClimate News was picked as a finalist for the award.

But then something funny happened with California’s investigation: nothing. There were no public statements or routine court proceedings as there have been with investigations in New York and Massachusetts. There was no public backtracking, as with the Virgin Islands attorney general. The California AG’s office was just silent.

Since then, Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Governor Jerry Brown appointed Xavier Becerra to be the next attorney general. Late last year, the Times editorialized that Becerra “should put the Exxon investigation near the top of his ‘to do’ list.”

But in the same editorial, the Times admitted that the Attorney General’s office “has offered no details and her department officially has no comment ‘on a potential or ongoing investigation.’” Despite lacking any proof, the Times assured its readers that “California has its own inquiry underway.”

In February, eighteen Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Becerra asking him to “continue the state’s investigation into what ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies knew about the dangers of climate change.” They wrote that Kamala Harris “began an investigation,” but did not cite any evidence.

In other words, the Times is refusing to hold elected officials accountable for making accusations without proof.

If the unnamed source that the Times cited was in the Attorney General’s office, then why isn’t anyone at the newspaper demanding confirmation from that office? Is it possible that Kamala Harris – who was actively pursuing a place in the U.S. Senate – let the rumors of an “anti-Big Oil” investigation swirl, even if there was no hard investigation underway? If the Times’ source worked elsewhere, then why did the Times give that person’s statement more credibility than the Attorney General’s office itself?

Even the activists at InsideClimate News – having already secured the extra notoriety from the Pulitzer committee – now begrudgingly admit that “Harris never acknowledged an Exxon investigation.” Other environmental activists have moved past the theory that there is or even was anything ongoing, and are now calling on Becerra to launch an investigation.

The Times does not seem bothered by the fact that a single anonymous source declared the existence of a taxpayer-funded investigation, and the office supposedly carrying out that investigation either will not or cannot confirm it. Environmental activists have stopped believing an investigation even exists. The nearly 40 million Californians represented by the Attorney General expect their elected leaders to be honest with the public, yet the Times refuses to be deterred from its anti-Exxon crusade.

Then there’s the letter from 18 members of the U.S. House of Representatives calling for the continuation of an investigation of which there is no proof. Are they above scrutiny as well? Don’t their constituents – many of which are in the Los Angeles area – deserve the truth?

In its latest editorial, the Times makes a plea for transparency and accountability, writing that “holding Exxon Mobil — and any other energy company — accountable for past misdirections would help incentivize corporations to be more transparent, and to take a clear-eyed view of the effect of their business on the environment.”

Newspapers used to do that with elected officials, and investigative journalism used to be about speaking truth to power. But the Times seems determined to turn that on its head, by giving those in power the ability to determine the truth.

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