After over a year of continuous denial, two members of the Rockefeller family appeared this morning on national TV to own up to the fact that they specifically paid the Columbia School of Journalism and InsideClimate News to write hit pieces on ExxonMobil, in what can only be characterized as a pay-to-play attack on the company.
A segment that aired on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose featured interviews with David Kaiser of the Rockefeller Family Fund and Valerie Rockefeller Wayne of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, reporting:
“The charities [the Rockefellers] run funded investigations that appeared in the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News.”
In yet another sign that the Rockefellers have suddenly decided to embrace their bankrolling of #ExxonKnew publically, NPR published a column over the weekend by Marcelo Gleiser who even attributed the hit pieces to the Rockefeller Family Fund, not InsideClimate or Columbia. As Gleiser put it,
“The investigative report from the RFF is quite clear in its findings.”
This admission is especially striking considering that the Rockefeller foundations that are bankrolling this campaign – primarily the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Fund – have maintained that they have “hands-off” relationships with InsideClimate and Columbia, and therefore didn’t exercise any editorial control over the results of their Exxon climate “investigations.” As Lee Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund said in an interview with Reuters last March,
“No specific company was targeted in our push to drive better public understanding and better climate policy.”
That same month, InsideClimate News reported:
“Rockefeller Family Fund Director Lee Wasserman said the charity supports public interest journalism, including InsideClimate News, but keeps at arm’s length from the work being done.
‘We first learned about it when everybody else read about it,’ Wasserman said. ‘The information that was unearthed was stunning and struck us as beyond the pale of what a corporation interested in protecting the public interest would do. … As a matter of good governance, we felt it imperative to sever our tie with the corporation.’”
And, of course, InsideClimate’s website claims: “Donors who support our award-winning environmental journalism do not have access to our editorial process or decision-making.”
The Columbia School of Journalism has also denied that the Rockefellers had any say in what they’ve been up to. In fact, the Columbia Journalism Review interviewed Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Steve Coll, and reported the exchange this way:
“Both the [Los Angeles] Times and Coll have reiterated that the project’s funders had a hands-off relationship with its journalism…In addressing those complaints in his written response to Exxon Mobil, Coll mentioned the energy giant’s support of Columbia University research in other fields: ‘You therefore understand that the issue is not who provided funding for this or any other Columbia University project, but whether the work is done independent of the funders…The fact is that this reporting was not subject to any influence or control by the funders, the Times maintained full editorial control over all that it chose to publish, and your letter provides no information to doubt that this is so.’” (emphasis added)
Coll went on to explain,
“It’s similar to the ethics that had to be managed in the days when this kind of work was supported by commercial advertising,” Coll says. “[Advertisers] were very financially important to the newspaper, but the publisher and the editor in the newsroom figured out how to build a wall between the advertisers and the work. And that’s exactly what we have to do here: We have to build a wall between the funders and the work. That’s what I’m responsible for.” (emphasis added)
Failure to disclose
The Rockefellers haven’t always been so forthcoming about their involvement in these hit pieces. In fact, when the Columbia stories appeared in the Los Angeles Times last year, there was no mention whatsoever that the Columbia School of Journalism was funded by Rockefellers. Only after Energy In Depth and other news outlets called them out did the outlet quietly add a correction noting the funding source, but that happened several months after the stories were published.
It wasn’t just an oversight by the LA Times, either. Even the website of the Columbia Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship did not originally disclose its Rockefeller funding according to an archived copy of the page. But once again, after they were called out, the fellowship’s website was quietly updated to include its financial connections to the Rockefeller Family Fund and other #ExxonKnew organizations.
After this disclosure problem came to light, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that it raises ethical questions, specifically about funding sources for non-profit organizations that produce what many might mistake for objective reporting. As the CJR explains,
“But the practice also raises questions of balance in what subjects get reported, as well as appropriate disclosure of the outside funders and their political leanings. In the case of Columbia, The Energy and Environmental Reporting Project is funded in part by a group of philanthropic organizations, at least one with a clear advocacy bent on the issue. The names of the funders were not listed on the two articles when they were published by the Los Angeles Times, though they were later added online.” (emphasis added)
Some have even suggested that the Columbia School of Journalism stands to lose its once sterling reputation in the wake of this scandal.
Forced to come clean?
Considering all the things that the #ExxonKnew campaign has tried to keep hidden, owning up to bankrolling the entire #ExxonKnew effort was likely not in the original plan. But since they’ve been exposed to this great extent, they’ve pretty much had to come clean. That’s why they’re appearing on CBS This Morning and writing columns like the one that appeared in New York Review of Books in which, Lee Wasserman of Rockefeller Family Fund admitted that his organization “paid for a team of independent reporters from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to try and determine what Exxon and other oil and gas companies had really known about climate science, and when.”
This new strategy has put the spotlight on the family and revealed dissent among their ranks by those in the Rockefeller family that feel the campaign against Exxon is “deeply misguided.” In the CBS segment today, Ariana Rockefeller of the Rockefeller Foundation (which is the flagship foundation and is separate from Rockefeller Family Fund and Rockefeller Brothers Fund) said the Rockefellers bankrolling #ExxonKnew “do not speak on behalf of all 200 family members.” She also told the New York Times Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Rockefeller Family Fund’s efforts are “counterproductive to our goal of protecting the environment by undermining Exxon’s ongoing good work in clean and renewable energy.”
The Rockefeller’s decision to come clean as the masterminds behind the #ExxonKnew campaign has not had the effect they had hoped for. It has exposed a deep rift within their family and raised serious ethical questions about editorial control in non-profit journalism. In an interestingly timed email, InsideClimate News announced it is seeking donations “to ensure that our award-winning nonprofit news organization remains fiercely independent and courageously persistent.” (emphasis added) That ‘fierce independence’ apparently doesn’t apply when the Rockefellers are signing the checks.