A self-described national ethics organization has asked the New York Times' public editor, who essentially serves as the newspaper's ombudsman, to investigate its controversial front-page series deriding the shale gas industry.
National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) Chairman Ken Boehm told NGI's Shale Daily that the organization found several problems with reporter Ian Urbina's "Drilling Down" series (see Daily GPI, June 29; March 1). In the latest installment, Urbina used anonymous emails and unnamed sources to describe the industry as a "Ponzi" scheme, and drew parallels to collapses at Enron Corp. and the dot.com industry.
"It seemed as if [Urbina] was overselling what in fact he had," Boehm said Friday. "When you look at the actual evidence, it seemed that the two figures most prominently mentioned were not shale gas industry insiders. That's not anything that a professional journalist should be doing."
Boehm also noted in a letter to Arthur Brisbane, the Times' public editor, that one of the main sources advised investors on short selling, and questioned a quick dip and rebound in natural gas company stocks following publication of the articles.
Boehm, along with Peter Flaherty, founded the NLPC in 1991; both men previously worked for Citizen's for Reagan, according to SourceWatch, which describes the NLPC as a conservative watchdog.
According to Boehm, the sources are Arthur Berman of Labyrinth Consulting Services in Sugar Land, TX, and Deborah Rodgers, a full-time goat farmer and owner of Deborah's Fort Worth Farmstead Goat Cheese.
"If I was the editor, I would have told [Urbina] to go out and interview real industry experts," Boehm said. "It's impressive to have lots of emails that are perused, but when they are heavily redacted you don't really know who [the authors] are or what they are. This doesn't really support what they're saying."
Boehm said he wrote to Brisbane on Thursday with his concerns about the two sources. In his letter, Boehm said Berman "is the creator and leading popularizer of the shale gas 'bubble' critique embraced by Mr. Urbina, and seems to have been his main source" for the most recent article. As for Rodgers, Boehm said "her opposition may stem from a personal grievance she has with natural gas producers, [and she is] someone with [a] clear personal economic stake in the outcome in this controversy."
Boehm said he immediately received what appears to be an automated response from the New York Times, promising to look into the allegations.
Although Boehm had not yet heard back from Brisbane, the newspaper appears to have mounted a defense of the series. According to New York Magazine, Times National Editor Rick Berke sent Brisbane a memo defending Urbina's reporting.
The magazine said Berke started his memo to Brisbane by stating that "the goal of the natural gas articles 'has been simply to force a broader and more candid discussion by raising issues that aren't being aired fully.' In response to a claim that the Times is simply anti-gas, Berke wrote 'not correct.'"
Boehm remained steadfast in his criticisms of the series.
"We felt that there needed to be a whole lot more credible statements by people who were insiders," he said. "More specifically, we looked at the emails and saw that quite a few of them didn't quite meet the standard that was being represented, that the emails represent a broad cross-section of insiders within the shale gas industry."
In his letter Boehm said, "Perhaps most egregiously, the Urbina stories also neglect to mention that Arthur Berman makes his living providing investment advice based upon his own position as a shale gas critic. I am troubled that The New York Times would obscure the fact that Mr. Berman is apparently the author or recipient of many of the emails cited as the basis for Mr. Urbina's story.
"In these emails, Mr. Berman appears to be corresponding with, among others, investors who missed out on the boom in shale gas and stand to gain, financially, from a devaluation of the natural gas industry," Boehm said in his letter. He added that Berman's investment advice is "consistently espousing views supportive of short sellers.
"Whether Mr. Berman's clients took short open positions based on his public statements is not public information, but what is certain is that related natural gas stocks took a hit on the Times page 1 report, before bouncing back, indicating that traders likely took advantage of a very quick reputation hit, nothing more," the Boehm letter continued.
Boehm said that the NLPC had worked with the New York Times on a number of stories in the past. "There are a number of reporters over there that I know and I trust," he said. "I think in general they do a good job. But that's why this story seemed to stick out all the more."
Asked for his personal opinion of the New York Times, Boehm said, "They are one of those that do have established ethics policies. I wouldn't put them as objective or as reliable as the Wall Street Journal because I have found that the Journal puts a lot more time into complicated stories and they seem to have more sensitivity to knowing if a particular story is going to have a widespread business effect."
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