Reporters Attacking Exxon Didn’t Always Disclose Funding From Environmentalists

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Columbia University journalism school reporters responsible for articles critical of ExxonMobil’s past stances on global warming haven’t been as transparent as they claim when it comes to disclosing funding from left-wing groups.

Columbia’s Energy and Environmental Reporting Project did not disclose funding from left-wing foundations until after it published its first article in The Los Angeles Times critical of Exxon’s handling of climate science, according to an archived webpage found by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Columbia’s environmental project came under criticism for taking money from left-wing foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) which is opposed to fossil fuels. But the university’s journalism dean wrote in a heated letter to Exxon Tuesday their funding is “prominently disclosed” on the environmental project’s website.

But archived screenshots obtained by TheDCNF show Columbia’s website did not disclose its funding sources as late as Oct. 10, 2015 — one day after journalism school reporters published their first piece in The LA Times.

Columbia October

Screenshot of Columbia University’s Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship from October 10, 2015


Columbia's current website

Screenshot of Columbia’s Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship from Dec. 1, 2015

Columbia’s eco-project’s website currently lists the organizations that fund it, including “the Energy Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund” as well as two other foundations.

Columbia has been criticized for taking money from Rockefeller Brothers Fund to hire reporters to investigate Exxon’s past activities. RBF is a major funder of anti-fossil fuel campaigns, including a major effort to get institutions to “divest” from coal, oil and gas investments.

RBF’s president Stephen Heintz says there’s a “moral imperative” to “end fossil fuel investments” at the United Nations global warming summit currently happening in Paris.

“It’s no secret that big liberal money is funding the so-called grassroots environmental movement to block domestic energy production, and in turn, kill American jobs,” Louisiana Republican Sen. [crscore]David Vitter[/crscore] told TheDCNF last month when news first broke that Columbia journalists were backed by environmental foundations.

The Los Angeles Times is also criticized for not disclosing the Columbia reports’ funding in the articles published in the paper. A Los Angeles Times spokeswoman told Politico earlier this week there is no need to include a disclosure in its stories that the Columbia reporters are funded by left-wing foundations since the information is on the school’s website.

But The Times must have had a change of heart because it added a brief mention of what groups are funding Columbia reporters at the bottom of the second anti-Exxon story, published Oct. 23, 2015. The change was made after reports highlighted Columbia’s connection to RBF. The Times, however, did not update the disclosure statement at the end of the first Exxon piece published by Columbia reporters.

LA Times Nov. 29

Screenshot from The LA Times’ Exxon article from Nov. 29, 2015


LA Times December

Screenshot from The LA Times’ Exxon article taken on Dec. 2, 2015

Columbia’s journalism dean Steve Coll did not respond to TheDCNF’s inquiry as to why no such funding disclosure is on its website when the first anti-Exxon story was published. Likewise, the LA Times did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment.

In recent months, Columbia journalists and InsideClimate News have put out reports detailing how Exxon was conducting climate research in the 1970s and 80s, but then went on to fund groups skeptical of global warming and opposed to environmental regulations.

Democrats and environmentalists used these reports to bolster calls for the government to prosecute Exxon for deceiving the public on global warming. New York’s attorney general launched an investigation into Exxon’s disclosure of climate science to its investors.

“It appears that Exxon knew its product was causing harm to the public, and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts in the public discourse,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders writes in a September letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “The information that has come to light about Exxon’s past activities raises potentially serious concerns that should be investigated.”

Exxon recently hit back against reports it was deceiving the public on global warming, sending a scathing letter to Columbia University claiming reporters “violated principles” laid out in the school’s own research policies for not disclosing their funding, “distorting” documents and misrepresenting themselves to former Exxon employees.

“Columbia’s team ignored statements, included in the same documents they cited, demonstrating that our researchers recognized the developing nature of climate science at the time, which mirrored global scientific understanding,” Exxon lead spokesman Kenneth Cohen writes to Bollinger in a letter obtained by Politico.

Columbia fired back at Exxon, claiming its reporters did nothing wrong. The university notes many of Exxon’s criticisms of the story have to do with the company wanting reporters to interpret factual information differently.

“Your letter disputes the substance of the two articles in a number of respects, but consists largely of attacks on the project’s journalists,” Coll writes to Cohen. “I have concluded that your allegations are unsupported by evidence.”

Update: LA Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning responded to TheDCNF’s request for comment.

“With each story, we have clearly noted that the reporting was done by Columbia University’s Energy and Environment Reporting Project with the Los Angeles Times. A list of the project’s funders has been available on the project’s website. To provide greater transparency, we have also included the list of the project’s funders with the stories and in an “About This Series” tab that accompanies the stories on The funders have had no involvement in or influence over the stories. The stories have withstood intense scrutiny and have made a valuable contribution to the public discourse. We look forward to publishing additional stories on this important subject in partnership with the Columbia journalism team.”

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