Scholar: Anti-Oil Activists Have Taken Over Columbia’s Journo School

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Chris White Tech Reporter
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Noted publicist, author, and opinion writer Fraser Seitel called the Columbia School of Journalism a “one-sided” subjective journalism outfit Monday for authoring articles showing ExxonMobil hid knowledge of global warming from the public.

Columbia has jettisoned 100 years of teaching strong journalistic principles for the “subjective rat hole” of modern journalism, Seitel wrote in the magazine O’Dwyer’s.

What’s worse, he argued, the school is now more interested in ridding the world of fossil fuels than teaching journalistic principles.

“Now, there’s nothing wrong with good, solid investigative reporting pursued in the cause of finding the truth,” Seitel wrote, referring to a series of stories by reporters at Columbia University and environment news outfit InsideClimate News. 

Both the school and InsideClimate News receive funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The Rockefeller Brother Fund called divesting fossil fuels a moral imperative.

“We all have a moral obligation,” to find ways to confront global warming, Valerie Rockefeller Wayne, the chair of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), told the Guardian last year. “Our family in particular – the money that is for our grant-making, and what we are doing now, and that helps fund our lifestyles came from dirty fuel sources.”

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, according to a report from the Guardian, implored ExxonMobil in the early 2000s to give up its global warming denialism and take so-called man-made global warming seriously.

“We were really begging the company to look harder at what they were doing. They were still into climate denial and funding deniers and really against any positive steps,” Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, the co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, told The Guardian.

The report he referred to shows ExxonMobil had early knowledge about global warming but chose, instead, to continue refining millions of barrels of oil.

Exxon later labeled the November reports “inaccurate and deliberately misleading,” but the reporting created a public relations nightmare for Exxon, culminating in New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opening an investigation into Exxon.

Seitel, who once applied to the school’ graduate program, continued to harangue Columbia University in his post, suggesting that the school’s reporting on Exxon highlights “troubling ethical questions, not only about the integrity of Columbia University’s ‘research,’ but also the kind of scholarship the Columbia Journalism School now advocates.”

The fossil fuel divestment campaign has taken it on the chin recently, even after declaring major divestment victories at Stanford University and Syracuse University. Bill McKibben, the titular head of the fossil fuel campaign, claimed last year that 500 institutions representing $3.4 trillion in assets have divested fossil fuels.

Christopher Helman, a critic of the McKibben campaign, noted in a Forbes article last year that the divest campaign has divested $125 billion, not the $3.4 trillion that championed. The number McKibben quoted, Helman wrote, is the total amount of assets held by companies, not the number of assets divested.

The push back against institutions clamoring for schools to divest fossil fuels culminated last year when University of Michigan president, Mark Schlissel, told the divest campaigners that the University would not, under any circumstances, divest from fossil fuels.

“I do not believe that a persuasive argument has been made that divestment by the U-M will speed up the necessary transition from coal to renewable or less polluting sources of energy,” Schlissel said in a statement on the University of Michigan website in December.

He added: “At this moment, there is no viable alternative to fossil fuels at the necessary scale. In addition, most of the same companies that extract or use fossil fuels are also investing heavily in a transition to natural gas or renewables.”

After criticizing the school’s reportage on Exxon, Seitel went on to question the objective nature of t Columbia School of Journalism dean Steve Coll. According to Seitel, Coll is an “unabashed” critic of fossil fuel companies, ExxonMobil in particular.

He cited Coll’s authoring an anti-Exxon treatise titled “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power” as reason enough to be wary of Coll’s objectivity on the matter. “Needless to say, it wasn’t a love letter to the oil company.”

Seitel concluded his screed by arguing that the kind of advocacy journalism that Columbia’s journalism school supposedly uses, right or wrong, has become a staple in the media.

“Advocacy journalism in the 21st century — hether an “independent news service” attacking climate change deniers or an ‘actor journalist’ protecting a murdering drug lord — has become an accepted fact of life,” Seitel wrote.

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