New York Times: Where Journalism and Anti-Fracking Politics Mix

A follow up Energy in Depth analysis of a New York Times series reveals the troubling extent to which the Times relied on a closely knit, politically motivated web of activist sources. Late last year, the New York Times ran a 3-piece series that advanced its now-familiar, highly-critical stance on the U.S. energy revolution. This time their target was North Dakota, known for its strong economy and for having the lowest unemployment rate in the country.

Unsurprisingly, as EID noted, several “facts” in the series were either misleading or simply wrong. Meanwhile, a market analyst from Reuters found that, “The whole article is well worth reading but it tells only part of the story and ultimately fails to present a balanced picture of the costs and benefits associated with oil production.” A nationally recognized and respected local North Dakota blogger too, argued that the “piece is an act of journalistic malpractice.”

Responding to criticism, the Times explained that the “report was nine months in the making, based on rigorous reporting, data and dozens of interviews.” This led EID to take a closer examination of sources. Sure enough, the series is peppered with interviews from members of groups critical of the oil and gas development as well as political opponents of current North Dakota elected officials. In fact, almost all of the sources the Times references in their series, particularly in part 2, have a close connection to former State Senator Ryan Taylor who most notably ran unsuccessfully against North Dakota Governor Dalrymple in 2012. While Taylor himself is not quoted in the series, the Times does rely extensively upon numerous sources that have ties directly back to him.

Let’s have a look at some of the New York Times’ sources, which have more to them than what their coverage suggests throughout the series:

  • David Schwalbe and Ellen Chaffee: Schwalbe and Ms. Chaffee, who are married, are introduced in the article as, “David Schwalbe, a retired rancher, and his wife, Ellen Chaffee, a former university president…” The article begins by noting that Mr. Schwalbe said he had evidence that Jack Dalrymple, Governor of the North Dakota, had a “corrupt relationship with the oil industry.” However, it’s not until much later in the story – 57 paragraphs later to be precise – that the Times reveals that Mr. Schwalbe’s wife, Ms. Chaffee, was running for Lieutenant Governor on the opposing ticket in the election. The Times then reveals that Mr. Schalbe conducted opposition research for the campaign. That’s not all: following Ms. Chaffee’s campaign, the Times reports that Mr. Schwalbe filed a grand jury petition against the Governor after the election in 2013. Later, the Schwalbe family approached the FBI about his accusations against Governor Dalrymple, but as the Times reports, the FBI “saw no federal case to be made.” Today, David Schwalbe is a spokesperson for a political organization, the North Dakota Rural Voters. Interestingly but inexplicably, even Mr. Schwalbe´s cousin (Candyce Kleemann) and her husband (Robert) made it into the Time´s story.
  • David C. Thompson: Thompson is introduced in the article as “a lawyer in Grand Forks.” Yet it turns out that Thompson is another example of a partisan Democratic donor who was actively campaigning against Dalrymple. The Times does disclose that Thompson was approached by David Schwalbe (husband of Democratic Lt. Governor candidate) at a campaign event in which they appeared to have discussed pursuing corruption charges against his wife’s political opponent. Apparently, following that conversation, and discussion with Chafee herself, Thompson worked pro-bono on a report that he would release prior to the election targeting Dalrymple. The Times called this a “bombshell,” yet claims that the Democratic Governor’s ticket (including Chaffee) “declined to use the allegations” and that the news media “showed no interest.”  A judge also “dismissed a grand jury petition, finding a few signatures illegitimate.” Once again, Rob Port with SayAnythingBlog has more of the details about Thompson’s accusations.
  • The Law Firm of Baumstark & Braaten (formerly called Sarah Vogel Law Partners): Perhaps the most egregious failure on the part of the Times is that they did not fully disclose its reliance on a politically connected activist law firm – the Law Firm of Baumstark & Braaten – or the use of their clients in the story. For example, the Times separately cites three of the partners from the firm including Derrick Braaten, Todd Sattler, and Sarah Vogel (now “of counsel”). Two of the firm’s clients are also featured, including Daryl Peterson and the activist group, Dakota Resource Council. Finally, the Times also fails to disclose that Sarah Vogel was “one of the prominent supporters” of former State Senator Ryan Taylor when he was running against Gov. Darlrymple.
  • US Attorney Timothy Q. Purdon: While the Times simply describes Timothy Purdon as “the United States attorney general” other news outlets like the Associated Press identify Purdon as, “an Obama appointee and top Democratic activist.” When it was announced that Purdon would become a US attorney, there was bipartisan concern about his appointment.  As the Bismarck Tribune reported, “Republicans and at least one prominent state Democrat criticized the selection of ‘a political activist and party fundraiser,’ citing Purdon’s position as a Democratic national committeeman.” Yet, what is particularly interesting in this article, given everything else we have learned about the Times’ sources, is that Purdon was also an attorney for the Vogel Law Firm–the same firm mentioned because the Times relied on it for much of their series.
  • Members of Dakota Resource Council: The Times cites a number of folks without disclosing their affiliation with the anti-fracking Dakota Resource Council (DRC).  The organization (self-described as “watchdogs of the prairie”) has frequently criticized the way oil and gas resources are being developed in North Dakota and has pushed for harsher regulations.  For instance, the Times describes Brenda Jorgenson as “a tall, slender grandmother” who stood alone as a protestor at an event “to hear what does not get said.” The series also identifies Rev. Carolyn Philstrom as “a young Lutheran pastor” who was “tempered by her outspokenness because it bothered parishioners.” Likewise, Joletta Birdbear is described simply as “a former postmaster” while Marilyn Hudson is characterized as “a tribal elder and historian.” Of course, Jorgenson, Philstom, Birdbear and Hudson are all members of the Dakota Resource Council – that’s at least four that we counted whose affiliations weren’t disclosed.  By the way, even Inside Climate made this disclosure about Brenda Jorgenson in its reporting, which was done months before the Times
  • Bill Patrie: The New York Times identifies Bill Patrie as “a specialist in rural cooperatives who worked with Mr. Dalrymple to establish a farmer-owned pasta co-op.”  Apparently, Patrie is included in the Times story because he believes the Governor “used his public office for private gain.” Here again, the article includes the line: “Mr. Patrie said the local news media and farmers’ groups did not raise objections.” Given that Patrie has written letters to the editor urging North Dakotans to support the reelection of President Obama, and that Patrie has run for public office as a Democrat, Patrie appears to be yet another source with partisan bias.

The fact that the New York Times relied almost exclusively on these politically motivated sources strikes at the heart of its credibility. Rather than taking an unbiased look at a state that is tackling challenges during an incredible economic boom, the Times sloppily strings together a series that activists likely had served up for them.


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