New York Times Ombudsman Rebukes his Own Paper for Reporting Lapses on Natural Gas

July 18, 2011

By STATS senior fellow Jon Entine

The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, finally weighed in on the much-criticized reporting on natural gas by DC-based Ian Urbina—and it came as a sharp and almost unprecedented rebuke of the reporting techniques and ethics of its national editor and staff.

The Times has raised eyebrows across the ideological spectrum for its “Drilling Down” series—what has appeared to many to be a year long un-nuanced attack on natural gas and the shale gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing. A slew of commentators, from liberal Joe Nocera (of the very same Times) to Scott Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund to almost every energy expert, from MIT to Wall Street, have made hash of claims by a faction of environmentalists, previously hyped in a series of articles by Urbina, that fracking poses extraordinary environmental dangers.

But the Urbina ‘the sky-is-falling’ express went off the rails completely on June 25 and 26 with two front page stories asserting that shale gas reserves are being hyped by the natural gas industry. Urbina and the sources he selectively quoted suggested parallels to Ponzi schemes, Enron and the housing bubble.

Scientists at MIT and elsewhere, who have confirmed massive shale gas reserves but whose research was not even referenced in the piece, immediately issued sharp rebukes of the Urbina narrative. As I noted in a critique for RealClearPolitics, the Times’ article left out key editorial framing details, such as the dubious credibility of the only two identified sources. And as Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations pointed out in his blog, this latest critique of shale gas consisted almost entirely of cherry picked comments from anonymous sources:

 There’s a pattern: Urbina was clearly looking for negative views of shale gas, and had no problem finding them. Given the massive size of the industry, and the number of financial bets being placed upon the sector, that shouldn’t be a surprise. What is a surprise is that Urbina hasn’t done much to put them in context.

Finally, Mr. Brisbane jumped into the fray and Urbina was put temporarily on ice. The public editor’s conclusions were not pretty. He criticized the stories for painting a complex issue with “an overly broad brush and didn’t include dissenting views from experts who aren’t entrenched on one side or another of the subject.”

The Times’ only identified shale gas critics were fringe critics—one earns her living as a goat and cheese farmer and has been at war with a major natural gas company, Chesapeake, for years, although the Times failed to disclose this. Their views have been knocking around the Internet for years with no takers from serious journalists—until Urbina took the bit.

In what by public editor standards is an extraordinarily harsh rebuke, Mr. Brisbane concluded, “My view is that such a pointed article needed more convincing substantiation, more space for a reasoned explanation of the other side and more clarity about its focus. … [T]he article went out on a limb, lacked an in-depth dissenting view in the text and should have made clear that shale gas had boomed.”

Perhaps most distressing was the shrill self-defense response posted by National Editor Rick Berke and his deputy Adam Bryant within minutes after Mr. Brisbane’s sad but reasoned analysis appeared. The best they could muster was “facts are facts.” They didn’t address the many omissions pointed out by Brisbane.

It was farcical to see them squirming to defend the cherry picking over the credentials of the only identified critics. Deborah Rogers was presented as a Federal Reserve official with experience in finance and energy when she’s a small businesswoman with a self-interested personal and legal conflict against the natural gas company that she criticized.

But most disconcerting was their attempt to rewrite the focus of their badly muddled piece. Brisbane made the point that Urbina threw a cloud over the entire natural gas industry and the defensive non-response was pathetic. As Brisbane noted, the piece repeatedly referred to “natural gas companies” and “energy companies” as behind a Ponzi scheme-like hysteria. In response, the embattled editors sidestepped their muddled reporting, saying that the article was not addressing all of the natural gas industry but only independents—yet there is zero evidence from the piece even hinting that that was Urbina’s thesis.

The Times is a great newspaper—the only remaining consistently reliable news outlet in this country, and probably the best in the world. Thankfully it has the integrity to wash its dirty laundry in public. That should make for quality journalism going forward. But if it’s own editors can’t swallow the medicine and own up to their reporting and ethical failings than such public acts of cleansing will end up being little more than performance art.

Jon Entine is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University and at STATS.


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