Confronting the New York Times on Inaccurate, Unverified Misinformation

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

UPDATE — NYT Public Editor Responds

The Public Editor at the Times has responded to our concerns with a letter (see below) that concedes fault in some places but either obscures or avoids other shortcomings in the Times’s reporting. He agrees, for instance, that the paper’s failure to call us for input was “problematic” and created flaws in the story. He also agrees that the misleading wording would “lead many to conclude that the $25,000 [grant to Heartland] was climate-related, when it was not.”

But Mr. Brisbane did not respond to one question that we presented to him. The article stated, “The documents say that the Charles G. Koch Foundation…was expected to give $200,000 this year [to Heartland Institute.” But those documents and whoever created them are wrong – the Foundation has not made any such pledge and we have said so in writing to the Times repeatedly. But the paper still won’t include that salient fact. Editor Nancy Kenney insists that we make our statement “more explicit” and Mr Brisbane says only, “It would seem appropriate that if you have any further information to support [that a document was fabricated] that you provide it to Ms. Keenan at the Times.” However, both of those suggestions ignore the obvious – that we already provided that information and we then queried Mr. Brisbane on why the Times hasn’t included it in its reporting.

In a story that centers on disclosure and integrity, it’s disappointing that the Times seems unable to set the record straight.

———————————————————

The following was sent by Art Brisbane, Public Editor, at the New York Times on February 28, 2012:

Ms. Mullins: I have had a chance to discuss this with Sandra Keenan, the environment editor. Let me walk you through my findings:

The $200,000: The Times reported that the documents said the Koch Foundation was expected to contribute $200,000. As you know, that is factually correct because the documents did say that. Ms. Keenan told me she has sought to engage with you on the various issues you raise but has not been successful. With respect to the $200,000 issue, the article was accurate.

Failure to contact Koch Foundation: Ms. Keenan acknowledges that The Times should have contacted the foundation prior to publishing this story. I agree that the failure to do so was problematic. Had The Times spoken with Koch Foundation first, the article might have clarified whether, in fact, the foundation would be giving the $200,000 and what the specific purpose of the $25,000 had been.

The purpose of the $25,000 gift: I would agree that the article left the impression that the $25,000 was for climate-related work. However, a close reading of the article also reveals that The Times broadened the context in ways that permit an interpretation – which is Ms. Keenan’s interpretation – that the $25,000 gift was not identified specifically with climate-related work and that it was presented in the broader context of a range of “libertarian issues.”

The Times article included this paragraph:

“Although best-known nationally for its attacks on climate science, Heartland styles itself as a libertarian organization with interests in a wide range of public-policy issues. The documents say that it expects to raise $7.7 million this year.”

A bit lower in the article, The Times addressed the $25,000:

“Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Heartland documents was what they did not contain: evidence of contributions from the major publicly traded oil companies, long suspected by environmentalists of secretly financing efforts to undermine climate science.

“But oil interests were nonetheless represented. The documents say that the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation contributed $25,000 last year and was expected to contribute $200,000 this year. Mr. Koch is one of two brothers who have been prominent supporters of libertarian causes as well as other charitable endeavors. They control Koch Industries, one of the country’s largest private companies and a major oil refiner.”

Ms. Keenan said this about the $25,000:  “We believe that despite the adjacency of the Koch paragraph to a graf related to climate science denialism, other context provided in the article makes it clear that the money could have been used for a range of purposes. As you note, we report that the Heartland Institute promotes a variety of causes. And the article points out that some of the corporate donations we inquired about had nothing to do with climate curriculum or climate science. And then there’s the Koch graf itself, which says that the foundation gives to libertarian causes, plural.”

My own view is that the language of the article left room for different interpretations.

The matter of the “fabrication”:  as of this date, Ms. Keenan tells me, the question of whether a document had been fabricated is unresolved. It would seem appropriate that if you have any further information to support this that you provide it to Ms. Keenan at The Times. Please note the blog citation below this, which addresses the fabrication question.

Andrew Revkin’s blogpost re Peter Gleick: Mr. Revkin blogs for the Opinion section of NYTimes.com, which is separate from the news-side blogs. On the news side can be found the Green blog. While I recognize it is confusing for readers – trying to discern which content is on the Opinion side of things and which is on the news side – it is the prerogative of Mr. Revkin to express his personal opinions on his blog, as he is working on the Opinion side of the house.

In case you missed it, the Green blog offered this post on the Heartland Institute matter:

Heartland Institute Under Scrutiny |

The leak of internal documents from the Heartland Institute, a libertarian nonprofit, is reverberating around the blogosphere, with many commentators describing the affair as a Climategate in reverse. Heartland now asserts that one of the documents — titled “2012 Heartland Climate Stategy” — is a fake and that “some of them may have been altered” without offering any specifics. The documents list donors including the Koch Foundation and, among other things, outline financing for development of a school curriculum that describes global warming as a controversial theory.

10:40 p.m. | Updated The New York Times article on the revelations, by Justin Gillis and Leslie Kaufman, is here.

To conclude, I wish The Times had contacted the Koch Foundation in advance. I don’t find a specific correctable error here but I do agree that the wording of the article would lead many to conclude that the $25,000 was climate-related, when it was not. I encourage you to engage with Ms. Keenan on these issues so that future coverage takes your viewpoint into consideration.

Sincerely,

Art Brisbane
public editor

—————————————-

The following letter was sent to Art Brisbane, Public Editor, at the New York Times on February 24, 2012:

Dear Mr. Brisbane:

In previous correspondence with Melissa Cohlmia of Koch Industries, you invited any further examples of flawed journalism on the news side. The Times’s recent piece on the Charles Koch Foundation [Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science; 2/15/12] is one of the more egregious examples to date.  Here are our specific concerns:

  • As soon as we read the piece, we pointed out to editors that they had been misinformed.  The article stated, “The documents say that the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation…was expected to contribute $200,000 this year [to Heartland Institute].”  That is demonstrably false and we said so in writing and on the record in an email.  But editor Nancy Kenney replied a day later to ask if we could be “more explicit” (correspondence attached below).  A public statement from the Charles Koch Foundation had been out for days at that point and the authenticity of the document the Times relied on had been disavowed by Heartland and thoroughly discredited by other news outlets.  Yet, the Times would not update or clarify the story to include these facts.
  • The Times never reached out to us before publication, despite quoting several other parties that were cited. Ms. Kenney claims to “regret that our reporters didn’t call you” and yet when we asked her for an explanation (twice) she ignored the question and the information we provided remains withheld from readers.
  • The piece tried to convey that the Charles Koch Foundation had funded Heartland’s work on climate science – based on the headline, lede, and the sentences immediately preceding and after the mention of the Foundation’s donation, all of which emphasize climate science.  That is false, and we explained to Ms. Kenney that our $25,000 donation was specifically for healthcare research.  Ms. Kenney insists that we are “misreading” the article and that it is somehow “clear from the overall context” that the donation was for “purposes other than climate advocacy.”  Her position is puzzling in light of the actual content and context, yet when we asked for explanation she gave none.

Since the piece ran, it has come to light that some of the documents the Times cited were obtained by an activist who, by his own admission, perpetrated a fraud on Heartland.  One of the documents, a purported cover memo, is now widely regarded as wholly fabricated – a view supported by what both we and Heartland have separately told the paper.

However, the paper’s subsequent reporting still omits any mention of our direct and salient statements to the Times about that apparent fabrication.  Readers are still left with the false impression about the size, duration, and intent of our donation.  Our good faith questions about why the Times failed to call us and won’t include our viewpoint remain unanswered.  Not one of the five Times reporters that have written on the topic – Leslie Kaufman, Justin Gillis, John Border, Felicity Barringer, and Andrew Revkin – even attempted to contact us for input or reaction.

One might expect the Times to have some chagrin about its reporting that was based on material obtained by fraud, motivated by an ulterior ideological agenda, and suspect in its authenticity.  Yet even though that source lied, cheated, and stole – and refuses to answer any further question from the Times or anyone – reporter Andrew Revkin nonetheless found room to praise him, writing, “It’s enormously creditable that Peter Gleick has owned up to his terrible error in judgment.”  Readers would be right to wonder if the Times itself is able to own up to mistakes on this story.

If you could look into this matter we would appreciate your feedback.

Sincerely,

Tonya Mullins
Director of Communications
Charles Koch Foundation

—————————————————

From: Keenan, Sandra
Sent: Thursday, February 23, 2012 11:42 AM
To: Mullins, Tonya
Subject: RE: Concerns with inaccuracy in article about Charles Koch Foundation

Dear Ms. Mullins,

We have considered and reviewed your request with several editors at the paper and still don’t see a concrete fact to correct. As Nancy Kenney pointed out in a previous response to you,  the information about funding related to your foundation accurately reflects what was shown in the Heartland Institute’s internal document.

If you would like to shed further light on your foundation’s funding plans relating to Heartland for 2012, I can ask one of our reporters to reach out to you.  Please let me know.

Thank you,

Sandy Keenan
Environment editor
New York Times

——————————————

The following letter was sent to Nancy Kenney, deputy environment editor, at the New York Times on February 21, 2012:

Dear Ms. Kenney:

I am confused by your response.  You refer to the context of other purposes for the giving and yet the sentences in the piece that immediately precede and immediately follow the lines about the Charles Koch Foundation are specifically in reference to the climate science issue — never mind the headline and lede grafs of the piece which emphasize the same.  The piece clearly presents our donation in relation to the climate science issue.

Further you say, “If you are telling us that the Koch Foundation has decided to give nothing to Heartland this year, or to give less than $200,000, that is an interesting piece of information.”  But we stated our position explicitly in our letter to you (which reiterated a public statement we made on Wednesday) so our intentions are clear.

Finally, you say you regret that your reporters did not contact us to verify the information (the authenticity of which is now in serious doubt).  That’s good, I suppose, but our question to you was why that failed to happen?  We would appreciate it if you could explain this, particularly when other groups were contacted?

In the meantime, readers have been misled, and the misinformation that the Times has published about us is currently being cited by many other news outlets.  If you could let me know whether and how you intend to set the record straight and as quickly as possible, I would appreciate it.

Regards,

Tonya Mullins
Director of Communications
Charles Koch Foundation

——————————————-

From: Kenney, Nancy
Sent: Friday, February 17, 2012 3:34 PM
To: Mullins, Tonya
Subject: FW: Concerns with inaccuracy in article about Charles Koch Foundation

Dear Ms. Mullins:

Thank you for your note from Thursday.

Although you have accurately quoted the sentence from our story, you seem to be misreading what it conveys. We related the $25,000 gift without making any statement as to its purpose; it is clear from the overall context of the story that many gifts to Heartland were made for purposes other than climate advocacy.

We accurately reported that the Heartland documents demonstrated an expectation on the part of that organization that the Koch Foundation would give $200,000 this year. We did not say it had happened; merely that it was expected by Heartland.

If you are telling us that the Koch Foundation has decided to give nothing to Heartland this year, or to give less than $200,000, that is an interesting piece of additional information. If you can give us a more explicit statement about how much the Koch Foundation plans to contribute, we will promptly relay that information to our readers.

In any case, we would be happy to contact you the next time one of our articles concerns the Koch Foundation.  We regret that our reporters didn’t call you for this article.

Sincerely,

Nancy Kenney
Deputy environment editor
The New York Times

——————————————–

The following letter was sent to senior editors at the New York Times on February 16, 2012:

Despite the Times’ own explicit standards on sourcing, the Charles Koch Foundation received no opportunity to verify or react to the assertions made about us in a piece by Justin Gillis and Leslie Kaufman [Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science; Feb 15, 2012]. Your reporters called other companies to verify or comment. Why not us?

The piece reported, “documents say that the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation contributed $25,000 last year and was expected to contribute $200,000 this year.” That is not true. As stated in a public statement released yesterday, the $25,000 grant that the Charles Koch Foundation gave Heartland last year was specifically directed to a healthcare research program and has nothing whatever to do with the climate research program at issue. The statement also made clear that the Foundation has made no further commitments of funding to Heartland. Had anyone from the New York Times contacted the Charles Koch Foundation, these points could have been mentioned in the story, or perhaps, your paper would not have made the false statements in the first place.

In addition, as noted in your story, the Heartland Institute itself has issued a statement declaring that at least some of the cited documentation is fabricated. In light of that, it is disappointing that the Times failed to make any effort to verify the numbers in relation to outside parties like ours that were cited.

I would appreciate some explanation for why we were not contacted. I also would appreciate that the Times set the record straight with respect to the assertions about us.

Regards,
Tonya Mullins
Director of Communications
Charles Koch Foundation

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