The Shale Gas Hit Piece: The New York Times (minus public editor Brisbane) Doubles Down on a Bad Bet
When New York Magazine reported earlier this month that the national editor of the New York Times had sent an internal memo laying out a “surprisingly detailed” defense of reporter Ian Urbina’s latest front-page attack on natural gas, the hope was that the memo would spur an equally detailed response by Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ public editor.
That hope was realized when Mr. Brisbane’s 1,100-word piece was postedon the paper’s website over the weekend, a column in which Brisbane takes square aim at the Times for going “out on a limb” and “lack[ing] an in-depth dissenting view in the text” (see the Appendix below for more of his piece).
The Brisbane piece is remarkable for a number of reasons and on a number of levels, continuing the healthy scrutiny that spontaneously emerged from various respected experts over the past three weeks.
Just yesterday, in fact, the head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) told the U.S. Senate that “the data clearly show that shale gas is rapidly becoming a significant source of natural gas supply” – a direct hit to the Times. According to POLITICO, he went on to tell the lawmakers that emails from EIA cited by the Times as part of its reporting “came from an entry-level staffer who had been hired as an intern in 2009.”
Digging In and Doubling Down
Notably, as the criticisms of the Times have continued to pile up — most recently from paper itself — the response on the part of the reporter who authored the piece (and the editors who allowed it to run on the paper’s front-page) has been to dig-in and double-down. In an interview on public radio last month, Urbina sought to defend his story by characterizing it simply as a way to advance a “full and candid discussion of all the factors that play into the long-term viability of [natural gas].”
Urbina’s editors took a different tack, basing their defense on the notion that, since it took him six months to do it, and since it includes lots of emails from “industry insiders,” it must be good. Of course, activity isn’t the same thing as achievement. Just like volume isn’t the same thing as veracity.
Brisbane Weighs In
But all that aside, what really caught our eye in the Brisbane piece are the sections in it capturing the responses he received from the paper’s editors, and Urbina himself.
In one exchange, Brisbane asked the reporting crew why it didn’t think it necessary to give ExxonMobil a call, one of the world’s largest publicly traded companies and a major player in shale gas development in the United States and abroad.
If shale is just one big Ponzi scheme, as the Times’ channeled sources suggests, then why (as Brisbane asked) would a company like Exxon invest $41 billion – more than the GDP of Guatemala – to purchase a major shale producer like XTO?
Now, if these Times guys had any real conviction on the issue, they would have responded back to Brisbane in a straightforward manner – sticking to their guns and dismissing the Exxon investment as further proof that even the biggest companies, conducting the most intensive due diligence, can easily get swept up and led astray by the “irrational exuberance” of shale. Sure, they would have still been wrong. But heck, at least they would have been consistent.
Instead, Urbina and deputy national editor Adam Bryant chose a decidedly less courageous response path – telling Brisbane that their beef wasn’t with Exxon or the other majors at all, but rather with “independents” that continue to be “the most vocal boosters of shale gas.”
But then again, if the independent producers are the real problem here, if independents are the ones responsible for creating the “bubble” trumpeted by the Times, then how does the paper square that view with the fact that Exxon (and Shell, and Chevron) established its foothold in the Marcellus by purchasing – wait for it – an independent?
Unfortunately, the majors never got the chance to answer that question for the piece. Because it wasn’t asked. Because what the reporters would have learned by posing it would have undermined the predetermined path of their narrative. And that’s no fun at all.
Of course, it’s also no fun to be publicly called-out for shoddy reporting by your paper’s ombudsman, something the Times’ editors would never have predicted possible given the relative impunity they experienced following all those hit-pieces previously filed by Urbina attacking natural gas.
Plainly put, these guys thought they’d skate by unnoticed, even while violating the most basic standards governing fair reporting and proper sourcing. No one quibbles with including the well-known perspective of Deborah Rogers in your piece. But the fact that you consider it unnecessary to mention that Ms. Rogers is affiliated with the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, one of the most aggressively anti-shale activist groups in the country, is just bizarre. And yet: The Times continues to stand by that and other curious decisions it made.
Old Opinions vs. New News
As for the paper’s case itself, it’s based on data and emails dating as far back as 2007 – long before the promise and potential of shale development in the United States, and certainly around the world, had been fully realized.
Today, that potential is being actualized – and no one knows quite how transformative it will prove to be heading into the future. All we know is that it will be transformative.
Indeed, it already is.
APPENDIX: “Clashing Views on the Future of Natural Gas” by ARTHUR S. BRISBANE (July 16, 2011)
A NEW YORK TIMES article last month, “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” warned across two columns at the top of the front page that high expectations for companies drilling shale gas might be headed for a fall. It was the kind of story you wish The Times had written about Enron before it collapsed. Or about Bernard Madoff.
Raising the prospect of a fall, though, is a journalistic gamble. Adding to the risk, the story painted its subject 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.
I asked Mr. Urbina and his editors to address complaints about the article, starting with the broad objection that it cast doubt on shale gas without mentioning that it had grown rapidly as an energy source — rising from 2 percent of all natural gas production in 2000 to 23 percent 10 years later, which the M.I.T. group called a “paradigm shift.” The journalists said The Times had already cited the big picture of a gas boom in the “Drilling Down” series opener back in February and had thoroughly covered it elsewhere.
I also asked why The Times didn’t include input from the energy giants, like Exxon Mobil, that have invested billions in natural gas recently. If shale gas is a Ponzi scheme, I wondered, why would the nation’s energy leader jump in?
Mr. Urbina and Adam Bryant, a deputy national editor, said the focus was not on the major companies but on the “independents” that focus on shale gas, because these firms have been the most vocal boosters of shale gas, have benefited most from federal rules changes regarding reserves and are most vulnerable to sharp financial swings. The independents, in industry parlance, are a diverse group that are smaller than major companies like Exxon Mobil and don’t operate major-brand gas stations.
This was lost on many readers, including me. Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that the article “repeatedly confuses the fortunes of various risk-hungry independents with the fortunes of the industry as a whole.”
He told me he hadn’t realized that the report was focused on independents and read it more broadly, adding, “If I didn’t know they were talking about certain independents, then Times readers — who don’t know what an independent is — they aren’t going to know what they are talking about either.”
This confusion stems from the language in the article, which near the top referred to “natural gas companies” and “energy companies.” The term “independent” appeared only once, inside a quoted e-mail.
The article’s sourcing has also been questioned. The Times presented a large array of e-mails — some recent, some three and four years old — from geologists, analysts, energy executives and others who expressed the belief that companies were exaggerating their prospects. The Times excised the names but not the company affiliations from the e-mails. It was from this trove, which became part of a 487-page online document collection for readers to peruse, that the hot-button references to dot-coms, Ponzi schemes and Enron were pulled for the text of the article.
Mr. Berman, who was described appropriately as “one of the most vocal skeptics of shale gas economics,” told me he had traveled the country giving presentations questioning some companies’ claims for shale gas prospects. It’s clear that some of the e-mails in The Times article came from people who had heard him speak.
Ms. Rogers, a former stockbroker, was described as serving on an advisory group of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. What was not mentioned was that her primary business was a small agricultural operation and that she had clashed with Chesapeake Energy, a leading shale gas producer, over its drilling on land next to hers. Mr. Bryant told me it wasn’t necessary to mention this because the issue had not resulted in litigation and Ms. Rogers was clearly presented as an industry critic.
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. The Times journalists countered that their reporting consisted of more than three dozen interviews with industry experts, and analysis of S.E.C. filings from two dozen companies and data from more than 9,000 wells. The Times also published several dozen e-mails from industry officials and federal regulators voicing concerns.
“The article challenges conventional wisdom and a powerful industry, so we expected criticism,” said Richard L. Berke, the national editor. “But it is deeply sourced, meticulously reported and measured, and we would not change a word.”
No question, the article challenged conventional thinking, and perhaps some of the shale gas independents will eventually founder. But the 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.
Chris Tucker is team leader for Energy In Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). Mr. Tucker and Jeff Eshelman’s point-by-point rebuttal to the Ian Urbina’s Times piece is titled Shale Gas and the New York Times: The Challenge from Energy In Depth (A ‘Dewey-Defeats-Truman’ Energy Moment)?