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New York Times Ombudsman Rebukes his Own Paper For Reporting Lapses On Shale Gas

The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, weighed in on the much-criticized reporting on natural gas by Ian Urbina, issuing a sharp rebuke of the staff’s reporting and editing.

The Times has raised eyebrows across the ideological spectrum for its “Drilling Down” series—what has appeared to many a long, un-nuanced attack on natural gas and the shale gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing. A slew of commentators, from liberal Joe Nocera (of the Times) to Scott Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund to almost every energy expert, from MIT to Wall Street, have made hash of claims by a faction of environmentalists that fracking poses extraordinary environmental dangers.

The Urbina “the sky-is-falling” express went off the rails completely on June 25 and 26 with two front page stories asserting that shale gas reserves are being hyped by the natural gas industry. Urbina and the sources he quoted suggested parallels to Ponzi schemes, Enron and the housing bubble.

Scientists at MIT and elsewhere, who have confirmed massive shale gas reserves but whose research was not referenced in the piece, immediately issued sharp rebukes of the Urbina narrative. As I noted in a critique for RealClearPolitics, the Times’ article left out key editorial framing details, such as the dubious credibility of the only two identified sources. And as Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations pointed out in his blog, this latest critique of shale gas consisted almost entirely of cherry picked comments from anonymous sources:

There’s a pattern: Urbina was clearly looking for negative views of shale gas, and had no problem finding them. Given the massive size of the industry, and the number of financial bets being placed upon the sector, that shouldn’t be a surprise. What is a surprise is that Urbina hasn’t done much to put them in context.

Mr. Brisbane criticized the stories for painting a complex issue with “an overly broad brush and didn’t include dissenting views from experts who aren’t entrenched on one side or another of the subject.”

The Times’ only identified shale gas critics were fringe critics. One has been at war with a major natural gas company, Chesapeake, for years, although the Times failed to disclose this.

Mr. Brisbane concluded, “My view is that such a pointed article needed more convincing substantiation, more space for a reasoned explanation of the other side and more clarity about its focus. . . . [T]he article went out on a limb, lacked an in-depth dissenting view in the text and should have made clear that shale gas had boomed.”

Perhaps most distressing was the self-defense response posted by National Editor Rick Berke and his deputy Adam Bryant within minutes after Brisbane’s analysis appeared. They conspicuously failed to address the many omissions and flaws pointed out by Brisbane.

For example, Brisbane made the point that Urbina threw a cloud over the entire natural gas industry; the piece repeatedly referred to “natural gas companies” and “energy companies” as behind a Ponzi scheme-like hysteria. The embattled editors sidestepped the muddled reporting, saying that the article was not addressing all of the natural gas industry but only independents. Yet there is zero evidence from the piece even hinting that that was Urbina’s thesis.

The Times is a great newspaper. Thankfully it has the integrity to wash its dirty laundry in public. That should help make for quality journalism going forward. But if its own editors can’t swallow the medicine and own up to their reporting and ethical failings, then such public acts of cleansing will end up being little more than performance art.

The American, 18 July 2011