While the New York Times can barely conceal its glee at the phone-hacking scandal embroiling the rival Murdoch empire, The Scrapbook confesses to a certain schadenfreude of its own at the Gray Lady’s latest embarrassment. The Times’s slanted coverage of the natural gas industry continues to generate radioactive fallout.
Steven F. Hayward explained round one in our August 1 issue (“New York Times Passes Gas”). In a pair of long front-page stories in late June, the Times purported to expose the prospects of the “gas revolution” as not just hyped but likely fraudulent: Industry dissidents were likening the shale gas boom to the dot-com bubble and a Ponzi scheme.
Hayward’s chief criticism of the series was its “stupefying economic ignorance and disregard for any data analysis.” But he also faulted its reliance on “the sensational views of two would-be whistle-blowing ‘insiders,’ along with leaked emails and documents.” The Times posted online hundreds of pages of source materials but took care to black out the names of email senders and recipients.
The series brought a hail of criticism, including from the paper’s own ombudsman. His column in mid-July argued that “such a pointed article needed more convincing substantiation.”
In particular, he deplored the misleading identification of one of the few sources actually named, Deborah Rogers. Far from being an energy industry insider, Rogers is a goat farmer proud of her prize-winning artisanal cheeses. While the Times correctly stated that she once worked as a stockbroker and is a member of an advisory council to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, it failed to note that this group of business-people, academics, and local notables meets twice a year to offer thoughts about business conditions, for which participants receive $100 a pop. Also left out was Rogers’s personal clash “with Chesapeake Energy, a leading shale gas producer, over its drilling on land next to hers” and her activism with the anti-shale-gas Oil and Gas Accountability Project.
Oddly, the author of the piece, reporter Ian Urbina, and his editors, instead of admitting missteps and moving on, dug in their heels. National editor Richard L. Berke defended the story as “deeply sourced, meticulously reported and measured.” The editors, he said, “would not change a word.”
Time for round two, or “Why Redacting E-Mails Is a Bad Idea.” That headline announced the second column by ombudsman Arthur S. Brisbane on July 30. By now, Brisbane had read, unredacted, the internal emails from the Energy Information Administration, the independent data branch of the Department of Energy, of which the series made extensive use. He found that some redactions of content had distorted the writers’ meaning. Most preposterously, an intern hired out of college in 2009 and promoted to an entry-level position this past March had been given pumped-up billing. Wrote Brisbane:
One of his emails was attributed to “one official” who said the shale industry may be “set up for failure.” Later, he was an “energy analyst” wondering, “Am I just totally crazy, or does it seem like everyone and their mother are endorsing shale gas without getting a really good understanding of the economics at the business level?” Next he was “one federal analyst” who said, “It seems that science is pointing in one direction and industry PR is pointing in another.”
Brisbane concluded with admirable restraint: “Anonymous material says to the reader: Trust us. But if the reader ends up feeling burned—if, for example, an ‘official’ proves to be an intern—the trust won’t be there the next time.”
Conceding nothing, the editors stand by Urbina, whose latest contribution to a well-rounded view of his subject is an August 3 piece on the only publicly documented instance of contamination of a drinking well by the controversial drilling process known as fracking—which occurred, as he reveals in paragraph 11, in 1984. When he finishes speculating that evidence of similar atrocities may lie hidden in sealed case files somewhere, Urbina no doubt - will unleash his reportorial zeal on the technological advances in gas extraction made in the past 27 years.