Audit Notes: AP Spill, Reporting on Your Parent, Bloomberg Babies

This Associated Press story had me scratching my head.

It says Citgo spilled 265,000 barrels of oil in the Delaware River in 2004—the third-biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

The judge cleared Citgo of liability in the third-largest oil spill in U.S. waters, which occurred when the single-hull Greek tanker struck a rusty anchor long submerged in the riverbed.

Nearly 265,000 barrels of heavy crude oil gushed out as the tanker neared the Citgo dock in Paulsboro, N.J., near Philadelphia, after a six-day journey from Venezuela. The spill hampered shipping and polluted more than 45 miles of shoreline in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Weird that I couldn’t recall that one. It sure seems like a story built for press coverage: Hugo Chavez’s oil company polluting the river George Washington crossed to whip the British—or their mercenaries, anyway; the then-second-largest oil spill in American history a New Jersey Transit ride away from the center of the media universe.

But the AP’s got it wrong. The spill was 265,000 gallons, not barrels, which means the actual spill was 2.3 percent that size.. And it isn’t the third-largest spill. It’s not even in the top thirty, according to this Wikipedia list of big U.S. oil spills.

(UPDATE: The AP has now corrected the story.)

— If you want a model for how to handle conflicts with corporate ownership and/or funding of news, check out how my former Wall Street Journal colleague Theo Francis and Footnoted handled reporting on parent company Morningstar:

From our perspective, the proxy that Morningstar (MORN) filed this year is at once a little more and a little less interesting than the thousands of others that cross our inbox. More interesting because Footnoted is now part of Morningstar, so it’s a mild understatement to say we have a strong personal curiosity about its disclosures.

But objectively, the proxy has been pretty dull, especially compared to others. Even though Morningstar could treat itself as a controlled company under the NASDAQ’s rules — founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Joe Mansueto owns close to a majority of the company’s shares — it still has a mostly independent board. And director pay, at under $150,000 a year primarily in stock (still not bad for part-time work), and a whopping $680 in perks and “other compensation” to all five of its top executives, combined — is a tenth of what some individual executives elsewhere get for financial planning subsidies alone. Mansueto doesn’t bop around on a company jet, and even if he owns a fish camp, Morningstar apparently has never paid him to use it. Dull city.

This year’s proxy, however, has a new wrinkle: two separation agreements, entered into with senior executives who left Morningstar late last year and early this year. As far as we can tell, it’s a first for Morningstar since going public in May 2005.

Before we go further: Morningstar is, of course, our parent company. Any time journalists write about their own, it’s at best a little awkward; for readers, it can be hard to know how much skepticism to apply. In our case, the folks here at Morningstar have been pretty open when faced with the prospect of us writing about them, even if they haven’t necessarily agreed with our conclusions.

Well done.

Francis goes on to report on securities filings at Morningstar and how they raise the interesting question of whether employment contracts for executives are good or bad for shareholders. That’s worth a read, too.

The New York Times pulls an uh-oh from testimony in a discrimination suit against Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.

Sixty-five women are suing Bloomberg, saying the company discriminated against them when they took maternity leave.

Here’s what the suit alleges Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matt Winkler said:

One of the most vivid excerpts involves Matthew Winkler, the longtime editor of Bloomberg News who helped Mr. Bloomberg with his memoir. Complaining that pregnant employees who went on maternity leave often did not return, he was quoted by one plaintiff as saying: “It’s like stealing money from Mike Bloomberg’s wallet. It’s theft. They should be arrested.”

Yikes. And speaking of, here’s some, um, interesting historical context:

Mr. Bloomberg was also sued in 1997 by a sales executive who claimed that after she became pregnant, he urged her to have an abortion, telling her, “Kill it!” Mr. Bloomberg adamantly denied any wrongdoing and settled the case out of court for an undisclosed amount.

(h/t Jesse Eisinger)

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,