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NYT Editor Criticizes Shale Gas Story

A New York Times article last month, which slammed the shale gas industry using unnamed industry and government sources, was sharply criticized over the weekend by the newspaper's public editor.

Arthur Brisbane, who acts as the "readers' representative," wrote an opinion piece in the Sunday Times following accusations by critics that the newspaper and reporter Ian Urbina had used "fear mongering" to disparage the industry, comparing it to a "Ponzi" scheme with a future like Enron Corp. or the dot-com bubble (see Daily GPI, June 28). Brisbane researched the methods used by the reporter and editors and followed up with his commentary.

"No question, the article challenged conventional thinking, and perhaps some of the shale gas independents will eventually founder," wrote Brisbane. "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."

Brisbane began his term as the Times public editor last August and his opinions and conclusions are his own, according to the newspaper. Brisbane "works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about articles and other content published in the paper and online," the Times noted in his biography.

The Harvard College graduate has been a journalist since 1976. Before coming to the Times he had worked as a reporter and an editor for the Washington Post, Kansas City Times and Kansas City Star. Knight Ridder in 2005 named Brisbane senior vice president with responsibility for overseeing operations of its newspapers in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Fort Worth, TX, and Charlotte, NC.

Urbina's article, Brisbane wrote, "was the kind of story you wished the Times had written about Enron before it collapsed. Or about Bernard Madoff," because the article "was clearly intended to offer that kind of signal" by specifically mentioning Enron, 'Ponzi schemes' and 'dot-coms' in the early paragraphs."

However, to raise the "prospect of a fall...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."

Brisbane pointed to the negative reaction to the article from industry, analysts and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as the positive reaction from environmental groups. He asked Urbina and his editors to address the article's complaints and asked, among other things, why the Times "didn't include input from energy giants, like ExxonMobil, that have invested billions in natural gas growth. If shale gas is a Ponzi scheme, I wondered, why would the nation's energy leader jump in?"

Urbina and an editor responded that the article's focus had not been "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."

But this fact "was lost on many readers, including me," said Brisbane. The article's sourcing also was questioned. "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."

In response national editor Richard L. Berke said the article "challenges conventional wisdom and a powerful industry, so we expected criticism. But it is deeply sourced, meticulously reported and measured, and we would not change a word."

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