The New York Times newsroom, under fire from backers of the natural gas extraction method known as fracking, is fighting back with a detailed defense of its reporting.
In the run-up to a ruling by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which issued a preliminary report last week lifting its fracking ban, the Times deployed muscular journalism that raised serious questions about dodgy gas-industry practices. Not surprisingly, the multi-part series triggered some vocal criticism from fracking backers.
The latest round in the fight between the paper and the gas industry played out June 26, when the paper published a front-page piece by reporter Ian Urbina that painted a bleak portrait of the industry, based on leaked e-mails from industry officials that questioned the economics of extracting shale gas from wells. Urbina quoted an unnamed analyst comparing the bonanza over shale gas to "giant Ponzi schemes." He also quoted a former Enron executive who compared natural-gas companies to his corrupt former employer.
The article created a stir in energy circles, where oil, coal, and gas companies are fighting over billions in federal subsidies. Arrows were fired at the Times from all corners. Predictably, the political right railed that the Times was pushing a pro-green agenda. "The New York Times really hates natural gas," wrote a blogger for redstate.com. Michael Levi, the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, accused Urbina of cherry-picking quotes to push the article's anti-gas bent. Over at RealClearMarkets, Jon Entine, a fellow at George Mason University, accused the Times of being played by anti-gas sources with ties to the rival coal industry. Entine went so far as to allege that the Times quoted sources who had a financial interest in pushing anti-gas stories in the press.
Entine also called for the Times' public editor, Arthur Brisbane, to investigate, and last week, Times national editor Rick Berke sent Brisbane an internal memo defending the gas investigation. According to a copy obtained by New York, Berke wrote a surprisingly detailed rebuttal to the public editor answering nine questions posed by critics and listing eighteen sources who provided input for the Times' articles.
Berke opened the memo by saying the goal of the natural-gas articles "has been simply to force a broader and more candid discussion by raising issues that aren't being aired fully." In response to a claim that the Times is simply anti-gas, Berke wrote "not correct."
The fracas over the Times' gas coverage is playing out as Jill Abramson assesses how she will staff her senior editor team. Berke, who is close to Abramson, is seen as a contender to be the paper's next Washington bureau chief. In the memo, Berke shot down the notion that the Times employed alarmist language in the piece.
"The terms that have attracted the most attention — 'ponzi scheme', comparisons to Enron, 'dot-com bubble' — are not terms that the Times itself used," Berke wrote to Brisbane. "These terms come directly from internal emails that were written by industry officials, market analysts, and others. So that readers could judge the context of these comments, the Times published the emails themselves. The emails are indeed striking in their bluntness. Some of the authors of the emails say they have been 'sounding the alarm bells' about what they see as serious issues that are being ignored. We were further careful to add calibration and qualification language about the emails."
Berke was on vacation and unavailable for comment. Urbina didn't respond to a call for comment.
A Times spokesperson confirmed Berke's defense to the public editor and explained: "This internal memo was prepared to provide the public editor with an omnibus account of the series and to address some of the questions and criticisms that have been raised about it."