It’s Not Just Industry Pushing Back on Climate Prosecution Campaign; Major Media Outlets Weigh in Too

As questions continue to mount about the propriety and legality of the activist-led campaign to get Democratic officeholders to prosecute groups and companies with which they disagree on climate issues, one of the primary spokesmen for that effort on Capitol Hill took to the Senate floor today. To hear U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) tell it, the only folks who are raising any issues or concerns about the strategy are a bunch of right-wing “denial” groups and the industry itself. To wit:

“There are obvious similarities between the fossil fuel industries’ denial of its products’ climate effects and the tobacco industries’ denial of its products’ health effects. These similarities are sufficient that a proper inquiry should be made about pursuing a civil lawsuit … I have made that suggestion and wow did that set off an outburst.  The right wing climate denial outfits and the fossil fuel industry mouthpieces went into high gear.”

Left unmentioned, of course, is that a number of big and important media institutions and commentators have also pushed back on the campaign. Here, for the benefit of Sen. Whitehouse and others, is a quick (and inexhaustive) list:

Editorial Boards

Financial Times: Legal basis for AG investigation is flimsy, free speech implications are alarming. “The investigations launched by the attorney-generals of some US states and the Virgin Islands set a troubling precedent for other policy debates, and threaten to undermine the cause that they aim to support…The legal basis for these actions seems flimsy…Beyond that, the implications of the investigations for free speech on public policy issues are alarming. Everyone ought to be able to take part in policy debates without worrying that their opponents will be able to use the law to go on fishing expeditions through their private communications, looking for embarrassing tit-bits that can be used against them…Climate change campaigners argue the seriousness of the issue means extreme measures are warranted, but the exact opposite is the case. It is precisely because the stakes are so high that all arguments must be heard. The actions by the attorney-generals can only degrade the quality of that debate.” (Editorial, 4/24/16)

USA Today: ExxonMobil has a right to its opinion. “Schneiderman’s push is based on an extraordinarily powerful New York law known as the Martin Act. It only requires prosecutors to prove a factual error – not fraudulent intent. This is the type of law that should be used with great caution for critical public purposes. There lies the irony in using a law designed to protect investors to go after the oil giant. The investigation won’t push Exxon to reevaluate its public stance on climate change so future investors won’t be misled. The company did that years ago. And the most likely effect of a costly legal examination of Exxon’s past statements is a lower stock price, hurting current investors.” (Editorial, 11/22/16)

Bloomberg View: Investigation is ‘Dangerous Arrogation of Power.’ “Much as one may sympathize with Schneiderman’s desire to encourage stronger action on climate change, this is not the way to go about it…Engaging in scientific research and public advocacy shouldn’t be crimes in a free country. Using the criminal law to shame and encumber companies that do so is a dangerous arrogation of power.” (Editorial, 11/10/15)

Washington Post: Exxon ‘Didn’t Commit a Crime,’ Science Depends on Allowing Criticism. “Perhaps Mr. Schneiderman’s investigation will turn up something damning. But there’s also a risk whenever law enforcement holds the prospect of criminal penalties over those involved in a scientific debate. Legitimate scientific inquiry depends on allowing strong, even unfair, criticism of the claims that scientists make. As the Exxon investigations show, respecting that principle will not lead to positive outcomes in all cases. But it nevertheless demands that the government leave a sizable buffer zone between irresponsible claims and claims it believes may be criminally fraudulent.” (Editorial, 11/14/15)

Wall Street Journal: Walker investigation crosses the line. “Mr. Walker belongs to this climate prosecution club and so he unleashed his subpoena attack on CEI, as well as on DCI Group, a Washington-based PR firm that represents free-market and fossil fuel groups. His demand for a decade’s worth of papers on climate research is a form of harassment. The process is itself punishment, intended to raise the cost of speaking freely on climate policy lest it invite legal bills and other political headaches. Mr. Walker is also over the line in demanding the names of nonprofit CEI’s donors, who can remain secret under federal law. Anyone on the list will become a new target for the Schneiderman climate posse.” (Editorail, 4/29/16)

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: ‘Climate thug’ AGs are molesting the legal system. “The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act came into being in 1970. Better known simply as the RICO Act, it was established to provide ‘new remedies to deal with the unlawful activities of those engaged in organized crime.’ Surely there’s some clever legal eagle out there who can figure out a way to apply it to 17 state attorneys general who have chosen to molest the legal system and to collude with the federal government to advance the latter’s evisceration of the First Amendment in pursuit of its climate agenda. Wednesday last, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, accused the AGs of a ‘misuse of power.’ No, Senator, this is rank abuse of power. And should it go unchecked, free speech will become a dead letter and scientific inquiry will be rendered into a quaint notion.” (Editorial, 5/7/16)

Detroit News: ‘Lynch’s actions blatantly trample the Constitution.’ “Even if the science of climate change is as settled as proponents contend, Lynch’s actions blatantly trample the Constitution. The First Amendment protects even the most hateful and nonsensical speech because individuals in a free and liberal society understand the detrimental effect of stifling dissent…What Lynch and Whitehouse are hoping to do is silence skeptics with the threat of prosecution to make it easier to push through a radical agenda to combat global warming…[Whitehouse’s] efforts are an offense to the very principles this nation was founded on, and Lynch should suspend immediately any action her department has taken to chill free speech in the United States.” (Editorial, 3/19/16)

Richmond Times-Dispatch: Kiss your free speech goodbye. “This is dangerous business, and not just for conservative groups. If inquisitions like these become accepted practice at one point on the political spectrum, they will soon be adopted by other points along it as well. The result will expose vast swaths of legitimate political discourse on the air, in print, and on the Internet to criminal and regulatory sanction. Then you can kiss your free speech goodbye.” (Editorial, 5/8/16)

Colorado Springs Gazette: AG bullies need to ‘knock it off’. “If attorneys general plan to use our courts to bully climate change skeptics, as has been reported, they need to knock it off. We have the right to express opinions in this country, no matter how outrageous they may seem. To violate that right, by threat of lawsuits and/or prosecution, is to break this country’s most sacred law – the one that protects free speech and the right to challenge authority and conventional wisdom.” (Editorial, 5/6/16)

Wall Street Journal: AG Campaign is an ‘Attempt to Stamp Out All Disagreement on Global-Warming’ Policy. “Sheldon Whitehouse got his man. The Rhode Island Senator has been lobbying for prosecutions of oil and gas companies over climate change, and New York Attorney General and progressive activist Eric Schneiderman has now obliged by opening a subpoena assault on Exxon Mobil. This marks a dangerous new escalation of the left’s attempt to stamp out all disagreement on global-warming science and policy…Even with the fearsome power of the Martin Act, this investigation appears built for media consumption more than courtroom success. There are no “facts” about the eventual extent and impact of climate change that Exxon or anyone else can hide, because inside or outside the company there are only estimates based largely on computer models. And if the Exxon files reveal various competing conjectures, even in New York it still isn’t illegal to conduct scientific research.” (Editorial, 11/8/15)

New York Post: It’s the state AGs who should be investigated. “New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and other state AGs are probing ExxonMobil — but maybe they’re the ones who should be investigated…the anti-Exxon campaign is starting to look like a conspiracy in its own right – pursuing a purely political vendetta in a blatant abuse of office. (Editorial, 4/19/16)

And it’s not only the investigations that have been criticized. The reporting that led to the investigations – articles by the Rockefeller-funded InsideClimate News and Columbia School of Journalism – have been called biased and unethical.

Columbia Journalism Review: LA Times, Columbia J-School Cause ‘Harm’ by Not Disclosing Funders. “The practice also raises questions of balance in what subjects get reported, as well as appropriate disclosure of the outside funders and their political leanings. In the case of Columbia, The Energy and Environmental Reporting Project is funded in part by a group of philanthropic organizations…and one—the Rockefeller Brothers Fund—has taken a particularly strong stance against fossil fuels…There is arguably some harm in not disclosing those funders to readers. While both pieces published in the Los Angeles Times in October credited the Columbia project as its partner, there was no explicit mention of the philanthropic organizations providing financial support for it. After that complaint was made public this week, the Times appended the relevant information to the work online. It’s questionable, though, whether very many readers would have taken the time to visit the Columbia project’s web page to examine its funders. What’s more, there was no such disclosure of funding on Columbia’s website when both stories ran, the first on Oct. 9 and the second on Oct. 23.” (12/3/15)

 New York Post: Columbia Reporting ‘Biased and Unprofessional.’ “Yet the team’s approach appears to be biased and unprofessional. For one thing, it started with the preconceived belief that oil companies are malfeasant for not embracing costly, scientifically dubious amelioration policies… The Columbia project serves as a warning: A premier university hires an activist to run its J-school. It partners with an activist online Web site to target an energy company previously savaged by its new dean in his book. The effort is funded by foundations whose role as fossil-fuel critics was hidden from readers. In the end, the journalists themselves wind up playing defense. The series is a finalist for Harvard’s Goldsmith award and is a favorite for a Columbia-awarded Pulitzer. Such prizes would tarnish those schools and the journalism profession that relies on them as ethical barometers.” (Op-Ed, 3/1/16)

 National Review: InsideClimate News a ‘Mouthpiece’ for Green PR Firm, Signs of Conflicts of Interest. “But its critics claim that InsideClimate News is essentially a mouthpiece run by a public-relations consultancy that gets its funding almost exclusively from groups with an environmental agenda…The little that is known about InsideClimate News raises questions about conflicts of interest as well as about the publication’s ability, and proclivity, to report fairly and without bias.” (12/22/15)

O’Dwyer’s Magazine: Columbia’s Exxon Reporting ‘Raises Troubling Ethical Questions.’ “Now, there’s nothing wrong with good, solid investigative reporting pursued in the cause of finding the truth. But the reporting in this case raises troubling ethical questions, not only about the integrity of Columbia University’s ‘research,’ but also the kind of scholarship the Columbia Journalism School now advocates…In 2013, the year Steve Coll became J School dean, the Pulitzer was awarded to InsideClimate News, at that time an obscure online news organization devoted to climate change and the end of fossil fuels. The non-profit news service was funded by the same philanthropic organizations that funded Columbia’s Energy and Environmental Reporting Project. Two years after its Pulitzer, InsideClimate News led the attack on ExxonMobil with its mammoth five-part series…Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism has, for years, been an unabashed Exxon critic. In 2012, a year before he came to Columbia, Coll wrote a 683-page expose, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. Needless to say, it wasn’t a love letter to the oil company. Coll’s former employer, the Washington Post, when describing the book, said ‘ExxonMobil has met its match in Coll.’” (Op-Ed, 1/11/16)


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