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NYT Has No Space to Tell You It’s an Oil Industry Group Saying That Spills Aren’t So Bad

May 8, 2010

(This article is re-posted from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.)

The formula for “contrarian” journalism was aptly summed up by Wonkette (1/6/09):

Take a widely accepted belief (e.g., “Dogs make good pets”) and write a cool 600 words arguing why its opposite is SECRETLY truer (“Why all dogs should die”).

Of course, it helps if the upside-down world you’re proposing turns out to be one that is surprisingly cozy to powerful corporate interests.  Thus the piece that appeared on the front page of the New York Times today (4/4/10) arguing that maybe we’re all a little too worried about that oil spill in the Gulf.

To back up this counterintuitive notion, reporters John Broder and Tom Zeller turn to an “expert”:

“The sky is not falling,” said Quenton R. Dokken, a marine biologist and the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, a conservation group in Corpus Christi, Texas. “We’ve certainly stepped in a hole and we’re going to have to work ourselves out of it, but it isn’t the end of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Who is this “conservation group” minimizing the impact of a massive oil spill on the area it specializes in conserving?  That’s what Marian Wang of ProPublica (5/4/10) wondered, too.  Turns out it’s not really a conservation group at all:

At least half of the 19 members of the group’s board of directors have direct ties to the offshore drilling industry.  One of them is currently an executive at Transocean, the company that owns the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded last month, causing millions of gallons of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

Seven other board members are currently employed at oil companies, or at companies that provide products and services “primarily” to the offshore oil and gas industry. Those companies include Shell, Conoco Phillips, LLOG Exploration Company, Devon Energy, Anadarko Petroleum Company and Oceaneering International.

The Gulf of Mexico Foundation’s president is a retired senior vice president of Rowan Companies Inc., an offshore drilling contractor.

Meanwhile, Transocean hosted the group’s winter board meeting in January and sponsored a dinner for the board of directors. Past board meetings have been hosted in full or in part by Anadarko Petroleum Company, Shell Exploration and Production, Valero Refinery and Marathon Oil Corporation.

So it’s not exactly surprising that the executive director of such a group would have a nonchalant view of the impact of oil spills on the Gulf.  What is maybe a little surprising is that the New York Times would present a coalition of offshore drilling interests as neutral experts on the environment.

And it’s not like the Times reporters didn’t know who they were quoting. In an addendum to her ProPublica piece, Wang quotes an email response from Zeller:

We were aware of GMF’s industry partnerships–and for what it’s worth, I believe they also have members from the agriculture and fishing industries, among others. As you’ll note from Dr. Dokken’s bio, the group also includes marine scientists.

You could certainly mount the argument that such co-mingling might influence his assessment of the oil slick and how bad it might get, but as I understand it, the bulk of GMF’s operating budget comes from federal and state grants, so that wasn’t my sense.

So because the group gets government grants, the Times reporters thought it wasn’t worth mentioning that half the group’s board represents the very industry whose damage to the Gulf is being minimized?

“Of course, it’s probably always better to err on the side of full disclosure,” Zeller tells ProPublica–as if revealing that you’re quoting an industry group speaking in its own defense would be bending over backwards–“but we operate within space constraints as well–and I believe we did link out to the various websites, so enterprising readers could peruse their boards and sponsors.”

Here’s a tip for the Times: Next time you are running into “space constraints,” maybe you can free up some room by killing the piece that revolves around an industry spokesperson telling readers not to worry about the damage the industry that employs him has done to the environment.

UPDATE: The New York Times published an Editor’s Note on May 5 saying that the article “should have included more information about” the Gulf of Mexico Foundation: “While the group says the majority of its funding comes from federal and state grants, it also receives some money from the oil industry and other business interests in the gulf, and includes industry executives on its board.” While few readers–“enterprising” or not–would realize from that additional info that offshore drilling interests represent half the group’s board, we suppose it’s better than Tom Zeller’s response.

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