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.”
I don’t mean to sound suspicious of Simmons, but this bears disclosing light of the fact that this Checks and Balances Project campaign happened to pick a critic of renewable energy as its poster boy. In fact, the campaign’s website has a page dedicated to Bryce, who it says “has been successful in hiding his ties to fossil fuel money from news outlets and their readers. This means that he is free to attack clean energy while readers are led to believe he is an unbiased source.”
Does the above information negate Elsner’s comments about
not having a stance on energy policy this being about disclosure and not fossil fuels? In the spirit of his initiative, I leave that up to you to decide for yourself.
See how that works?
What matters is that my questions about funding and related items were an essential part of our interview. They also form an essential part of this column. Is the same true for opinion pieces published by news organizations?
Of course it is.
We should move to standardize the way contributors are asked to disclose potential conflicts of interest and relevant related information. Once that information is provided, we should meet a higher standard of disclosing it to the public.
Times as a Target
Elnser and his colleagues may not know it, but their choice to focus first on the Times has some history behind it.
(Let me also pause and say that Brisbane is in no way able to require the paper’s op-ed section to adopt this proposal. He could choose to write about it. He could even endorse it. But it’s up to top editors at the paper to decide if they want to make it happen. I pointed this out to Elsner when I first met him a few weeks ago at the Online News Association conference.)
The first bit of relevant Times precedent relates to corrections. The reason that so many American newspapers publish corrections on page two is because the Times started doing it in the early 1970s. The media universe has greatly expanded since then, but the Times is still a paper that other news organizations look to as an example.
The second notable bit of Times history is that it instituted a similar questionnaire for its freelancers back in 2006. A memo sent to staffers in April of that year explained that writers “will be asked to fill out a questionnaire about their affiliations, work history, financial and personal connections and any past instances when questions were raised about the accuracy or originality of their work.”
Yes, that sounds very familiar. I don’t know if the paper uses the same or a similar questionnaire for its op-ed contributors. What is clear, however, is the bios appended to at least some of those contributors could benefit from increased disclosure. So, too, would the public.
One of the last questions I asked Elsner was what he thought the reaction would be for readers if they read the Bryce op-ed and also saw a note about the Manhattan Institute’s funders.
“Yeah, it’s a really good question about how readers would react to that,” he said. “I think the important thing is that readers would be provided a little bit more background, and hopefully [that] gets people to actually do their own research and look beyond just this one article or one opinion piece.”