Just a bit after 11 a.m. this morning, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane received an e-mail from the Checks and Balances Project, a nonprofit government and industry watchdog group.
Attached to the message was a letter signed by fifty journalists and journalism educators calling on Brisbane to push the Times to meet a new standard of disclosure for its op-ed contributors. (A website for the campaign also launched today.)
That e-mail marks the start of an initiative by the organization to improve the overall level of disclosure by the authors of opinion pieces at media outlets all over the United States, according to Gabe Elsner, deputy director of the Checks and Balances Project.
“We see The New York Times as the standard bearer of journalism, the nation’s paper of record,” he said when we spoke yesterday. “We think that they can set the standard and everyone else would likely follow. It’s a common sense practice that if there are people putting out opinions, readers should know who they are and where they’re coming from.”
The petition includes this request:
We are asking the New York Times to lead the industry and set the nation’s standard by disclosing financial conflicts of interest that their op‐ed contributors may have at the time their piece is published. By simply asking a few standard disclosure questions, the New York Times can avoid any confusion and ensure better transparency.
Those questions could include things like: Do you have any financial interest or relationship with any of the organizations or companies mentioned in your article? Do you have any personal relationships with any of the people mentioned in this article, or with anyone associated with the organizations or companies you mention in this article?
The idea is the paper would then be able to better determine the value of the contribution, and add necessary disclosures as part of an author’s bio.
The result, Elsner said, is “that readers who are digesting these opinion pieces can really have all the information there to inform their [own] opinion.”
The inspiration for this campaign came thanks to a Times op-ed by Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of books such as Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future. (Coincidentally, the Times review of that book required the correction of a few factual errors.)
The piece, The Gas Is Greener, highlighted what Bryce deemed “the deep contradictions in the renewable energy movement.”
What it didn’t highlight is that the Manhattan Institute received close to $3 million in funding from folks like ExxonMobil and organizations tied Koch Industries and the Koch brothers. This wasn’t disclosed in Bryce’s bio. Elsner said it should have been.
“As an ordinary reader of The New York Times I have no idea what the Manhattan Institute is,” Elsner said. “A little bit more information could really help me to read his commentary and then form my own opinions about the energy industry.”
A Higher Standard of Disclosure
I asked Elsner if his organization is critical of fossil fuels, or if it has a position in the energy debate.
“We don’t have a stance on energy policy,” he told me. His organization’s tag line is, “Holding government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.”
Update, October 6, 2011: Elsner followed up after this column was published to clarify his organization’s view of energy policy. He e-mailed this statement:
While we do not take a position on legislative energy policy, we do openly support and promote the transition to a clean energy economy. We feel that pundits who simply attack the clean energy industry like Mr. Bryce should be open about their support to the fossil fuel industry. We believe that this campaign will help ensure transparency amongst pundits who have clearly taken a position to promote one energy source over the other.”
I asked if his organization is funded by organizations critical of fossil fuels, or that have a particular stake in this debate. He said their sole funder is the New Venture Fund, a 501(c)3 public charity. A quick look at the board of directors for the New Venture Fund showed that it includes P.J. Simmons, the “co-founder and Chairman of the Corporate Eco Forum, a network of senior Global 500 executives focused on best practices in corporate sustainability strategies and execution.” He also “served twice as the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Deputy Chair for Energy & Climate Change and directed the first CGI University climate program.”