Why I Believe Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Fellows Aren’t Anti-Fossil Fuel Shills

by William Yeatman on December 6, 2015

in Blog

Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism recently published an investigative report alleging some sort of climate cover-up by ExxonMobil. For my part, I knew the report was not to be trusted the moment I understood that one of its underlying assumptions is the silly notion that Exxon was responsible for “manufacturing doubt” on climate change by funding “denier” groups. I know this is a misapprehension because I work for one such group, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Accordingly, I’m well positioned to know that the claim is without merit, akin to arguing that the New York Times is in the pocket of Chevron for running the company’s ads in its paper, or claiming that Politico is a mouthpiece for the League of Conservation Voters because the LCV “sponsors” Politico Morning Energy. When an “investigative journalist” operates on the assumption that Exxon and the Koch brothers are pulling all the strings, he or she exposes both his/her preconceived ideas and lazy reporting technique.

With all this fresh in the mind, I chortled my cold coffee upon yesterday reading that the School of Journalism’s “Exxon Knew” investigation was funded by the Energy Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Rockefeller Family Fund. These benefactors all are avowed opponents of fossil fuel consumption, and they often cast their opposition in moral terms. They are, as such, extremely partial when it comes to the subject of the investigative report they paid for funded.

Suspiciously, the School of Journalism posted an acknowledgement of the funding only after the first of its stories appeared online. I wonder what led to that?

In a letter to Exxon, School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll addressed the matter, and his missive struck a chord with me. He wrote:

You … understand that the issue is not who provided funding for this or any other Columbia University project, but whether the work done is independent of the funders. In short, did the journalism fellows … follow the information uncovered by the reporting or did they follow the funder’s agenda? The fact is that this reporting was not subject to any influence or control by the funders …

What a sad joke. Coll and his “journalism fellows” take it for granted that think tanks and other policy organizations were mere passive conduits for Exxon’s supposed campaign to fool the American public. Coll et al.’s “evidence” for this allegation is that the funding existed. But when it comes to the anti-fossil fuel zealots that fund his brand of “investigative journalism,” he assures everyone that there is no connection between the money and the end product. He is not, he promises, an anti-fossil fuel shill.

Personally, I believe Coll. Indeed, I don’t think his fellows are shills in the least. Regardless whence their money, I believe they would’ve started with their preconceived ideas and backed them up with research (the latter likely of the Google variety). After all, it’s not like Columbia’s journalism fellows are alone here: Such behavior is common in the non-trade press that covers energy and environment policy. Washington Post, for example, has Chris Mooney on the environmental beat. Mooney is the author of the Republican War on Science, and he used to work for far left publications like Mother Jones and the Nation. Quite obviously, Mooney’s is not straight reporting. Or consider the entire Vox energy and environment team. To a man, they all used to work at left-leaning publications, and now they regularly “explain” why democrats are right and republicans are wrong. So I don’t believe Coll’s fellows are shills; instead, their biases and practices are the industry norm. I should again stress that I’m only speaking about the non-trade press. You can still find sound energy and environmental reporting at InsideEPA and SNL Energy in particular, but also BloombergBNA and, of course, Platts. (Oh, how I miss real energy reporting at Platts Energy Week with Bill Loveless!)

One last note about the School of Journalism’s “Exxon Knew” fairy tale. While Coll’s “journalism fellows” failed to reach out to any of the organizations they wrongly assumed to have manipulated the public’s mind on behalf Exxon, they did cite uncritically the Union of Concerned Scientists, which, from what I can tell after performing a cursory Google search, has enjoyed the beneficence of the anti-fossil fuel Energy Foundation. Coll’s journalism fellows also cited without question Greenpeace, which has benefited from the munificence of the anti-fossil fuel Rockefeller Family Fund (again, I learned this after a two-second Google search). Remember, the Energy Foundation and the Rockefeller Family Fund also funded the Google searching at the School of Journalism that led to the Exxon Knew report.

It’s almost as if it were a vast green echo chamber…

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