Dean of Columbia J-School Uses NPR to Push Rockefeller-Backed #ExxonKnew Campaign

Steve Coll, the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, sure loves to talk about Exxon Mobil.

Several years ago he wrote an entire book on the company called Private Empire, and the research team he oversees – while taking money from anti-fossil fuel foundations – has written several pieces on the company’s view of climate change. Despite serious questions about conflicts of interest, Coll has denied any and all accusations of impropriety, even though the funders themselves – the Rockefellers – recently admitted that they funded the series to achieve a particular result.

Coll has been making the media rounds since President-elect Donald Trump announced his nomination of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. Recently, Coll went on NPR’s Fresh Air to discuss Tillerson’s tenure at Exxon.

So what did Coll have to tell NPR listeners?

Some of it might actually come as a surprise. Coll did have some nice things to say about Tillerson’s skills and Exxon’s human rights record – and even noted Tillerson’s good work on climate. In fact, Coll pointed out that Tillerson was responsible for moving the company forward on climate issues:

But Tillerson’s ascension to the top job in 2006 marked a change in the way ExxonMobil communicated about climate and climate science issues…He started talking about climate in a different way. Yes, the risks are there. They’re serious. We should take them seriously.” (emphasis added)

Coll praised Tillerson’s skills and tenure at Exxon, suggesting he is highly qualified to serve as the nation’s top diplomat. According to Coll, Exxon operates “on the level of a nation state” due to its global footprint and connections to world leaders, and this has given Tillerson comparable experience to a Secretary of State:

“…the secretary of state has lots of different functions, but some of them – the day-to-day work – are quite similar to what Tillerson has done for 10 years at ExxonMobil. These include negotiating with foreign leaders about complicated subjects. They include digesting lots of political analysis, intelligence, and trying to figure out what’s true, what’s not, what it means for how to proceed. ExxonMobil has its own, essentially foreign policy apparatus at the headquarters – political analysts, intelligence analysts, some former U.S. intelligence and foreign policy-makers – who replicate the kind of inbox that you’d get as secretary for aiding decision making.” (emphasis added)

Coll also rightly noted that Exxon adheres to the letter of the law. “And I do think that they use the law as a – as an organizing principle everywhere,” Coll said. “And they’re very – very devoted to trying to figure out how not to get outside of the law and also to promote the rule of law internationally…”

He went on to say that Exxon has “incorporated human rights principles in their own operations” and “they’ve done it quite thoroughly,” which completely refutes claims by #ExxonKnew activist Carroll Muffett, who tried to question Exxon’s human rights record this week.

But aside from these few-and-far-between kernels of accuracy, Coll didn’t go on NPR to defend the company or Rex Tillerson. If your research team had produced reports on Exxon that would later spur controversial state investigations of the company and a number of free market organizations, you’re not really in a position to deviate from the script. Indeed, Coll’s media tour – NPR included – seems more about trying to revive the #ExxonKnew campaign.

Although Coll’s NPR interview probably generated a message of satisfaction from the Rockefellers, so much of what was said was just not accurate. Let’s take a look at some examples.

#1. Fails To Disclose Role in #ExxonKnew Campaign

Nowhere in the interview does NPR disclose that Coll has been at the center of a media campaign to try to harm Exxon’s reputation, chiefly through questionable and at times outright dubious claims regarding the company’s climate research. In fact, Coll is the head of the department that produced the anti-Exxon pieces that appeared late last year in the LA Times, which accused the company of suppressing its own research on climate change and funding so-called “denier” groups. At no point does Coll bother to mention those details – even though throughout the interview he repeated many of the same accusations that his research team made in the Times.

As Coll put it,

“Well, ExxonMobil has, as a corporation, a pretty miserable record on climate change. They, during the 1990s and early 2000s, funded groups led by non-scientists to promote the idea that climate science was unreliable. And they’ve continued, from time to time, to support groups that continue to undermine climate science, even without scientists in the lead.”

In addition to Coll’s failure to disclose, this particular claim has come under serious scrutiny, largely by folks who are not funded by the Rockefellers.

For example, Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins wrote earlier this year that this particular accusation “began with investigative reports by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times, both suffering from the characteristic flaw of American journalism—diligently ascertaining and confirming the facts, then shoving them into an off-the-shelf narrative they don’t support.” He went on to call it a “non sequitur,” adding that the few remaining “reporters” who still cling to that thesis are embracing “a role as enforcers of orthodoxy, not questioners of it.”

The Financial Times wrote, “Those stories fell well short of producing the smoking gun that would show Exxon’s senior management took one view of climate change in private while saying something different in public.” The Columbia Journalism Review said the reporting “raises questions of balance” while the New York Post called their reporting “biased and unprofessional.” Meanwhile, other editorial boards from all across the country have observed how that same claim is underpinning a “dangerous” attempt by state governments to harass companies and even individuals based upon policy disagreements.

Of course, Coll’s lack of disclosure only continues an unfortunate trend. Coll was the one who recently went out of his way to claim that funding from the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund had no effect on the stories Columbia produced. As Coll told the Columbia Journalism Review,

Both the [Los AngelesTimes and Coll have reiterated that the project’s funders had a hands-off relationship with its journalism ‘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… We have to build a wall between the funders and the work. That’s what I’m responsible for.’” (emphasis added)

But that façade came down pretty quickly last month when Lee Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF) admitted in a column published in the New York Review of Books that they specifically targeted ExxonMobil when it funded the special reporting project at the Columbia School of Journalism. As Wasserman put it,

“[W]e paid for a team of independent reporters from Columbia School of Journalism to try to determine what Exxon and other US oil companies had really known about climate science, and when. Such an investigation seemed promising because Exxon, in particular, has been a leader of the movement to deny the facts on climate change.” (emphasis added)

To make matters worse, when the Los Angeles Times produced these stories, there was no mention that the Columbia School of Journalism is funded by Rockefellers. Only after Energy In Depth and other news outlets called them out did the outlet quietly add a correction noting the funding source, but that happened several months after the stories were published. Even the website of the Columbia Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship did not originally disclose its Rockefeller funding according to an archived copy of the page. But once again, after the funding was revealed, the fellowship’s website was quietly updated to include its financial connections to the RFF and other organizations. In other words, there’s a sustained record of failing to disclose from Columbia School of Journalism throughout this entire campaign.

It’s really no surprise that the guy who heads up a department funded by the Rockefellers would go on radio to convey the Rockefellers’ chosen message. But at the very least it should’ve been disclosed – just like everything else regarding the #ExxonKnew campaign.

#2. Wrong On Sanctions

Steve Coll told NPR that “ExxonMobil has long lobbied against sanctions.” As Coll said:

“I think the other tactical issue that’s certainly going to come up in his confirmation hearings involves sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy. So ExxonMobil has long lobbied against sanctions, both in principle and in lots of specific cases. They’re opposed to them, Tillerson sometimes says, because he doesn’t think they’re very effective. But, of course, it doesn’t take a lot of cynicism to see that ExxonMobil opposes them because they undermine ExxonMobil’s business opportunities. And he has – ExxonMobil, in various stages, has argued against sanctions not only in Russia, which will be a controversy during the confirmation, but also previously in Iran and in Iraq – in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”

Cynicism is actually warranted here, though it should be directed at Coll’s mischaracterization of the situation.

What Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson and the company oppose are sanctions that aren’t applied in a uniform manner – especially ones that would put the United States at a disadvantage relative to policies put in place by the European Union. The 2014 EU sanctions against Russia contained a provision that allowed previous agreements between European companies and Russia to remain in place, while U.S. sanctions required canceling previous agreements.

So even though the assumption was that the sanctions would be applied across the board, what ended up happening was American companies lost economic opportunities, while EU, South American, and Asian companies just continued business as usual. This, in turn, meant that Russia was spared any real pain from the American-imposed sanctions. That’s why leaders from Vice President Joe Biden to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to President Obama himself have said that multilateral sanctions – not unilateral ones – are typically the better way to go.

An honest reading of the situation would have included these details. Perhaps Coll simply wasn’t aware of them, which is better than if he was aware and deliberately chose not to discuss them.

#3. Not Lobbying Enough?

It’s difficult to find more confusing criticism of Exxon than the claim that the company isn’t doing enough to advance a carbon tax, which it supports. Having already criticized the company for spending money to influence public policy, the same activists are also accusing the company of not spending enough money to influence public policy.

Here’s how Coll put it in his NPR interview:

“At least now they were saying that they, in theory, supported policies that would price carbon in order to reduce the risks of climate change. The problem is that seven years have passed. ExxonMobil really hasn’t done anything to advance that position. And though they make statements taking note of how serious the international response to climate risks has become and they don’t actively rhetorically oppose agreements like the recent one at Paris, they really seem to just be stepping back and not leading in this area.”

This claim – frequently spouted by Coll’s fellow #ExxonKnew campaigners and left-wing websites – essentially says Exxon isn’t really serious about climate change, because it’s not spending enough money to lobby elected officials on a carbon tax. That’s right: an environmentalist campaign is criticizing an oil and natural gas company for not working more behind closed doors to pass legislation. The ends truly justify the means.

InsideClimate News – itself funded by the Rockefellers and at least one renewable energy company – recently tried to call out the company for not supporting specific bills that would have imposed a carbon tax. They described legislation authored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and introduced earlier this year, as well as a 2013 bill by Vermont’s socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. “Exxon hasn’t issued a detailed policy position addressing these proposals,” InsideClimate News complained.

Maybe that’s because folks like Senator Whitehouse have spent years comparing Exxon to the tobacco industry and saying they “rig the system.” Senator Sanders similarly accused the company of “lying” and called for a federal investigation.

For Coll and the rest of the #ExxonKnew crew, it’s impossible to see why the company has not reached out to these offices with an offer to work together. For everyone else, isn’t it obvious?

Meanwhile, as to Coll’s claim that the company is “not leading in this area,” we couldn’t help but notice energy-related carbon emissions in the United States are at a 25-year low, thanks mostly to the increased use of natural gas. Who is the largest producer of natural gas in the United States? Oh, right – ExxonMobil. The company has also been investing in carbon capture and storage (CCS), partnering with FuelCell Energy to develop a technology that will also add up to 120 extra megawatts of output to a typical natural gas-fired power plant.

The inconvenient reality is that, for all of the hype about the need to enact the “right” climate policies, the oil and natural gas industry has done far more to address climate change in the United States than any of the #ExxonKnew activists.



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