The letter went on to say that Koch had no financial stake in Keystone XL, that it was not a proposed shipper or customer of oil delivered by the pipeline, and that it had taken no position on the legislative proposal to construct the pipeline. It also called InsideClimate “a self-described advocacy organization, which is also easily discerned from the articles since they are littered with opinionated assertions about what it thinks the administration and Congress ought to do or not do.”
Richard Baum, Reuters’s general manager for New York and Canada replied:
We take feeds from several news organizations on the condition that they uphold Reuters standards. We’re satisfied that SolveClimate, which is a news organization, meets those. I have in particular checked that they contact companies for comment. SolveClimate says they have tried to get comment from you repeatedly without success.
Baum added that it was Reuters’s policy to direct complaints about “third-party content” to those who supplied it.
Ellender wrote back expressing dismay at Baum’s response. A few days later, according to the account laid out at Kochfacts.com, he followed up with another e-mail that laid out a variety of specific complaints about Sassoon. They included Sassoon’s ownership of Science First, Inc., which Sassoon once described on his LinkedIn page as a “communications consulting practice devoted to helping organizations working in the public interest to advance their agendas”; the fact that Science First received funding from The Energy Foundation (which supports actions to address climate change); and the fact that Sassoon had written a report for Greenpeace and what Ellender described as “advocacy articles” for The Huffington Post and National Geographic.
“Mr. Sassoon seems to have an active financial relationship with numerous groups that he is reporting on in your pages—and yet he is being presented to Reuters readers as an objective, legitimate news source,” Ellender concluded. “He also takes grants from advocacy groups with the explicit goal of helping advance their environmental agenda—a fact that is being obscured from Reuters readers.”
Baum rejected nearly all of Ellender’s contentions, writing that Sassoon had assured him that since Reuters.com began publishing stories from SolveClimate in 2010, neither Sassoon nor Science First had been involved in any business other than SolveClimate, and that Science First “is a shell company he uses exclusively as the legal entity of SolveClimate.” Baum pointed out that The Energy Foundation described its grant to SolveClimate as supporting “objective, nonpartisan reporting of climate and energy issues in 2010 midterms.”
With regard to Sassoon’s other writings, Baum said the work for Greenpeace and The Huffington Post predated his relationship with Reuters:
Mr Sassoon says that in-between that period and the start of the Reuters.com relationship he decided to focus his work exclusively on building up SolveClimate as a non-partisan organization. I think he made a subsequent misstep with the National Geographic blog post that you mention, but not a fatal one. The post was published this year and concerns an activist who at the time was awaiting trial, not convicted. It was an interesting story covered by many media outlets. This post was not written in a form that would have been published on Reuters.com, but then of course it wasn’t.
The question for us is, does it significantly undermine our confidence in his ability to run a non-partisan news organization? The answer is no. All journalists engaged in non-partisan reporting must be able to leave their personal political views at their front door when they go to work. Our confidence that Mr. Sassoon’s staff do that remains and has been strengthened by his recent appointment of a new executive editor. [In September, CJR wrote about InsideClimate’s decision to hire Susan White, a former senior editor at ProPublica.]
Ellender was displeased, vowing that, “To the extent that coverage by SolveClimate about us appears on Reuters, we intend to point out the conflicts of interest and also that Reuters is apparently tolerating them. And when that coverage is inaccurate or slanted, we will take all necessary action, including alerting readers that the reporting is unreliable and agenda-driven.”
Ellender carried through on his promise. On October 5, InsideClimate and its syndication partners ran an article by Stacy Feldman, which revealed that Flint Hills Resources, Koch’s Alberta-based subsidiary, had told Canadian regulators in 2009 that it had “a direct and substantial interest in the application” to build Keystone XL.