Columbia J-school dean rejects Exxon’s bias complaint as ‘unsupported’

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 3, 2015

The dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in a letter yesterday countered attacks by Exxon Mobil Corp. on the ethics of journalists behind a series of articles about the oil giant’s decades-old research on climate science.

Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, wrote that he was “troubled” by the company’s increasingly personal offensive. The challenges to both the substance of the reports and the conduct of the journalists were “unsupported by evidence,” he said.

Exxon has been under fire for potentially misleading the public on the risks of global warming.

The articles by journalists at Columbia and published in the Los Angeles Times, as well as another series by journalists at InsideClimate News, have helped fuel calls for an official investigation. The New York attorney general has opened a probe into the company for potential fraud, and Democrats including presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Secretary of State John Kerry have called for the Department of Justice to do the same (ClimateWire, Oct. 21). Critics of Exxon Mobil have even launched their own hashtag, #ExxonKnew.

Exxon Mobil has long rejected the narrative that it turned its back on its early knowledge of climate change to instead fund organizations that spread climate denial, citing extensive and continuous research into climate science. But the company has now shifted to also challenge the journalists behind the story.

Last month, Exxon Vice President for Public and Government Affairs Kenneth Cohen sent a six-page letter to Columbia University’s president and trustees, which was first obtained by Politico. He accused the professors and postgraduates working on the story of “cherry-picking” and distorting company statements.

Cohen also wrote that the journalists “violated principles of objectivity” by not disclosing funders to the readers of the Los Angeles Times, citing Columbia’s official research policy. The project, a postgraduate fellowship, is funded in part by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has a “stated position and bias against the oil and gas industry,” wrote Cohen. The fund also backs InsideClimate News, which fielded the other investigative team on the story.

While the Columbia website for the project prominently lists donors, the Los Angeles Times only identifies the Oct. 9 and Oct. 23 articles as collaborations with Columbia.

The president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, tasked Coll, who wrote “Private Empire,” a 2012 book investigating Exxon, with writing a response letter (ClimateWire, Nov. 9).

Coll suggested that the oil giant’s personal charges against the journalists and point-by-point challenges were part of a strategy meant to discredit wider reporting.

Will Exxon continue funding Columbia?

“While presented as allegations of factual errors, in fact what you dispute is the emphasis of the articles,” Coll wrote. “You have dressed up this rather commonplace criticism of investigative reporting in academic clothing, alleging violations of university research standards.”

Emails cited by Coll in response to Exxon Mobil’s complaints show that the professors and postgraduates who were part of the project were upfront about their roles as journalists and gave the company time to comment on the stories once they were set to publish.

He also rejected Exxon Mobil’s implications that undisclosed outside funding may have influenced the direction of the reporting.

“The fact is that this reporting was not subject to any influence or control by the funders, the Times maintained full editorial control over all that it chose to publish, and your letter provides no information to doubt that this is so,” said Coll.

Last year, Exxon Mobil gave $253,229 to Columbia University, according to Politico. At the end of his letter last month, Cohen praised the relationship his company has held with the university over the years, whether through research or recruiting, but cast some doubt over whether it might continue.

“The interactions detailed above are not typical of the high standards and ethical behavior we have come to expect from your institution,” Cohen wrote.

Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said yesterday that the company has yet to determine its next steps but had wanted an opportunity to discuss the allegations further. He was not satisfied with Coll’s response.

“It’s a gross misrepresentation of the company’s history that warrants a deeper investigation than by the guy that was in charge of the program,” he said.

Exxon Mobil has not called for a formal inquiry into research misconduct at the university, he said. He did not offer concrete evidence that the journalists were influenced by the agendas of their funders.