Friday, July 1st, 2011

We Confront Reuters on Advocacy Journalism

Reuters has been using an environmental activist to cover Koch Industries and is misleading readers by pretending he is objective. This is dishonest and journalistically irresponsible.

We first raised the issue after Reuters published news items about Koch Industries by David Sassoon at SolveClimateNews.  SolveClimate is a website focused on “key climate solutions . . . that will have immediate and measurable impact on the pollution-causing climate change.”

When we asked why Reuters permits Sassoon and SolveClimate to cover Koch they told us,

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.”

In a response, we presented Reuters with evidence that Mr. Sassoon and SolveClimate are promoting a single point of view on climate change under the cover of objective journalism.

  • David Sassoon operates a commercial enterprise called Science First in addition to SolveClimate.  Sassoon described Science First on his LinkedIn page as a “communications consulting practice devoted to helping organizations working in the public interest to advance their agendas.” Sassoon removed mention of his Science First affiliation after we presented Reuters with this obvious conflict. (The cached LinkedIn page is here).
  • Mr. Sassoon wrote a report for Greenpeace in 2009 as “President of Science First Inc. and publisher of SolveClimate.” Greenpeace, of course, is an advocacy group that pursues particular policy outcomes on the very issues Mr. Sassoon covers for Reuters.
  • Mr. Sassoon has authored numerous advocacy articles including one for The Huffington Post in which he says, “Denial of climate science will no longer work, and so the fossil and free market guns are focused on fear-mongering over pocketbook issues. Scientific facts never stood in their way;”

In light of Mr. Sassoon’s various conflicts of interest – both financial and ideological – it stretches all credulity to accept that he is reporting as a disinterested observer.

Yet, even after reviewing this information Reuters is not persuaded.

“We remain of the view that SolveClimate is a legitimate news organization that meets our standards for inclusion as a content provider to Reuters.com.”

We present our full correspondence with Reuters below so that you can examine the same evidence and draw your own conclusion.


Our correspondence began with an email to Mr. Jack Reerink, Managing Editor of Reuters News.


Mr. Jack Reerink
Managing Editor
Reuters

Dear Mr. Reerink:

For the second time in recent weeks, Reuters has permitted an agenda-driven advocacy organization, SolveClimate, to run an article on your news agency about Koch Industries that is factually inaccurate and beneath Reuters’ standards. Here are links to those two articles:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/10/idUS292515702420110210

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/25/idUS336798587820110525

Let me be specific about our concerns:

– We have stated publicly and repeatedly, including last week when questioned by staff of Congressman Waxman, that we have no financial stake in the pipeline that is the subject of the reporting and we are not party to its design or construction. We are not a proposed shipper or customer of oil delivered by this pipeline. We have taken no position on the legislative proposal at issue before Congress and we are not cited in any way in that legislation.

– These core facts have been omitted from the reporting and instead, we are presented — in headline and content — as though we are central party to the issue. What’s more, both articles report that increasing the supply for oil production will somehow raise prices and thus benefit our company. Not only is this economically nonsensical, it benefits us no more or no less than any other buyer or seller of oil.

– Although these facts above are easily verified, we have never been contacted by the “reporters” from SolveClimate, nor anyone else at Reuters — not for input, reaction, or fact-checking.

– SolveClimate is 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 to do or not do.

– Despite all these disqualifying factors, the article is actively and specifically being cited by Democratic members of Congress as a “news account” that somehow justifies Congressional investigation. Then, absurdly, the second article appears indicating that we are “stonewalling Congress.”

I would like to request some explanation for how Reuters justifies such obviously distorted and agenda-driven copy to be presented to its readers as though its actual, hard news? How is it possible that articles like this got past editors without even a basic request for input from us, let alone a cursory fact-check? I would also like some assurance that Reuters management will take some measures to prevent SolveClimate from disparaging us through your agency in the future.

Sincerely,

Philip Ellender
President, Government and Public Affairs
Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC

cc:
Stephen Adler, Editor in Chief, Reuters
Jim Impocco, Executive Editor of website
Lea Eichler, Online Editor in Charge
T. J. Svensson, Assistant General Counsel


Richard Baum, the General Manager, New York & Canada, Reuters News at Thomson Reuters, responded quickly.


From: Richard Baum
Sent: Thursday, May 26, 2011 5:26 PM
To: Ellender, Philip
Subject: FW: Recent Reuters stories on Koch Industries

Dear Philip,

Thanks for your email, which we of course take seriously. I’ve spoken on a couple of occasions to a colleague of yours explaining our policy towards the many third-party suppliers of content on Reuters.com. 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.

Our process for handling complaints about third-party content is to direct them to the supplier. We require the supplier to deal fairly with the complaints and to make corrections as necessary. If we are not satisfied with the way they handle complaints, we will review the relationship. If you are not satisfied with the response from SolveClimate, please get back to me.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Baum
General Manager, New York & Canada, Reuters News
Thomson Reuters


We answered Mr. Baum the next day and pressed for a more satisfactory answer.


Dear Mr. Baum:

I appreciate your note, but I must admit I remain puzzled by the response, which still leaves several questions unanswered.

To reiterate, neither SolveClimate nor Reuters contacted any of our company representatives for comment for this story. Did SolveClimate inform you of the date and time of their purported inquiry to us, and to whom it was made at Koch Industries? If so, please kindly send that correspondence to me and I will gladly look into it.

Second, as this story appeared on Reuters, shouldn’t readers have a reasonable expectation your service has approved both the accuracy and fairness of its content? How does Reuters ensure that its balance and objectivity standards are achieved when it allows a self-described advocacy organization such as SolveClimate to publish what it wishes?

We try to engage and respond to inquiries from real news organizations to inform the public of the facts about our company. Reuters meets this standard; SolveClimate does not.

SolveClimate is an advocacy website created in 2007 by CivicActions, a developer of “progressive” websites, based on a proposal from the public relations firm ScienceFirst. This is publicly available information. SolveClimate only publishes information that supports their point of view on anthropomorphic climate change.

Readers would be right to question the accuracy and balance of this story based on the stated views of its source. What’s more, as this story appeared on the Reuters wire service, readers would understandably direct such questions to Reuters itself, not the organization that provided the content.

Respectfully, I would like to request further explanation from Reuters on these important issues. I would also like to request that you or another designated Reuters representative contact us prior to publication in the event a future “third party supplier” plans to write a story about our company on your service. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Philip Ellender
President, Government and Public Affairs
Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC


A few days later, we accepted Mr. Baum’s invitation to express further concerns about Reuters’ choices in third-party content providers.


Dear Mr. Baum,

I appreciate your offer to follow up if we had further concerns about SolveClimate’s adherence to Reuter’s standards and journalistic objectivity generally.  Indeed, we took a closer look at their approach and even a cursory search reveals troubling indications about their qualifications.

Let me offer some specifics:

  • Mr. Sassoon, who runs and edits SolveClimate, also operates a commercial enterprise called Science First, which he describes as a “communications consulting practice devoted to helping organizations working in the public interest to advance their agendas.”  Science First apparently sells advice and content development services to clients and promotes their interests in exchange for fees.  These clients are, of course, the same entities on which Mr. Sassoon purports to report objectively.
  • Science First also receives grants from agenda-driven groups such as the Energy Foundation, which describes its purpose as “providing resources to the institutions that most effectively leverage change.” The Energy Foundation is in turn funded by other organizations such as ClimateWorks Foundation whose stated mission is to “support public policies that prevent dangerous climate change.”  In short, Mr. Sassoon’s funders are advocating for specific public policy goals on the very issues that Mr. Sassoon is covering for SolveClimate and through Reuters.
  • In 2009, Mr. Sassoon wrote a report for Greenpeace as “President of Science First Inc. and publisher of SolveClimate” and was apparently compensated for his work.  Again, Greenpeace is an ideologically-driven advocacy group that is trying to leverage particular policy outcomes on the very issues that Mr. Sassoon is claiming to cover as an objective reporter.
  • Mr. Sassoon also regularly writes advocacy articles under his own byline in which he routinely disparages those he perceives differing with his preferred policy outcomes.  Here are just a few recent examples among many:
  • According to Mr. Sassoon in The Huffington Post, “denial of climate science will no longer work, and so the fossil and free market guns are focused on fear-mongering over pocketbook issues.”
  • Regarding oil sands, Mr. Sassoon declared, “Tar sands are the key to the endless fossil future being envisaged by the oil juggernauts and the lynchpin of the national energy security strategy put in place by Dick Cheney.”
  • Praising a felon who was just convicted of defrauding the federal government, Mr. Sassoon wrote, “a single act of civil disobedience committed by a single courageous individual can raise important questions that society is begging to have answered … the questions revolve around climate, energy and justice.”

The problems here, with regard to fair-minded, responsible journalism, are several.

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.

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.

And although he insists that his reporting is “independent” and “accurate,” it is in fact shot through with opinion, invective, and a laundry list of policy prescriptions that he prefers.

Meantime, companies like ours which Mr. Sassoon apparently regards as part of the “climate denial communications machine” are expected to respond to him for pieces that will appear with the Reuters imprimatur as though it is fair-minded, balanced reporting.

All of this does a deep disservice to readers and to the subjects of Reuters’ energy coverage like us – and, again, that’s based just on what’s openly available from a basic online search.

As we indicated earlier, we would be glad to have a good-faith interaction with Reuters and are open to fielding any legitimate queries from your reporters.  But if SolveClimate is going to be permitted to publish articles about us under the Reuters umbrella, we would like to know that too – and the reasons why in light of the information above.

Obviously if they continue in this manner, we will be obliged to publicly point out the various objectivity flaws ourselves.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Sincerely,

Philip Ellender
President, Government and Public Affairs
Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC

Cc:
Jack Reerink, Managing Editor,
Stephen Adler, Editor in Chief, Reuters
Jim Impocco, Executive Editor of website
Lea Eichler, Online Editor in Charge
Diedre Stanley, General Counsel
T. J. Svensson, Assistant General Counsel
Pehr Gyllenhammar, Chairman of the Trustee Directors


Mr. Baum responded with the following


Dear Philip,

As I promised to do in my email of June 10, we have reviewed the points you raised about SolveClimate and are happy to share our findings. We remain of the view that SolveClimate is a legitimate news organization that meets our standards for inclusion as a content provider to Reuters.com.

Since Reuters.com began republishing stories from SolveClimate in 2010, David Sassoon assures us that neither he nor ScienceFirst has been involved in any business other than SolveClimate. He says ScienceFirst is a shell company that he uses exclusively as the legal entity of SolveClimate.

In reviewing SolveClimate’s relationship with the Energy Foundation, we consulted the Foundation’s website, which says its most recent grant to SolveClimate was awarded “to support objective, nonpartisan reporting of climate and energy issues in 2010 midterms.” You can see that information here:

http://hgrants.ef.org/?sector%5B%5D=60277a3cd47173fb17f8e8656e7537c1&begin=2009-01-01&end=&filter=science+first&on=all&sort=begin&order=asc

Turning to the writings by Mr Sassoon outside of SolveClimate News, my focus is chiefly with those he has done since the start of the relationship with Reuters.com. The Huffington Post and Greenpeace work predates that relationship, although Mr Sassoon did explain to me the origins of the one-off commission by Greenpeace.

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.

Best regards,

Richard Baum
General Manager, New York & Canada, Reuters News


We found Mr. Baum’s response unacceptable.


Dear Mr. Baum:

In light of all the details we have provided you about Mr. Sassoon’s various conflicts of interest – both financial and ideological – it stretches all credulity to accept that he is reporting as a disinterested observer.  It isn’t good enough to simply declare that he “leaves his personal political views at his front door when he goes to work.”

Mr. Sassoon has been a paid consultant to the very NGO’s he is now covering through Reuters.  He has written countless pieces advocating for specific policy outcomes on those same issues and favored by those same groups.  His disparagements of anyone that differs with him on climate issues are almost too numerous to count.  What’s more, SolveClimate has been claiming to be an “independent,” objective news source since it started in 2007.

Yet, despite all that, you would have us take seriously that, “at the start of his relationship with Reuters [in 2010] he decided to focus his work exclusively on building up SolveClimate as a non-partisan organization” – even as you concede that he has done advocacy journalism for other publications since that time.

That is unacceptable and it would be both irresponsible and inappropriate for us to engage with Mr. Sassoon as though he is a professional journalist from Reuters.

Accordingly, 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.

Sincerely.
Phillip Ellender

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