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ExxonMobil Spat With Columbia University Heats Up

The dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism says ExxonMobil Corp.’s criticism of two articles the school published recently about the oil giant’s climate research missed the mark, finding no factual errors, complaining only that the company disapproved of the stories’ interpretation of Exxon’s scientific research.

“What you dispute is the emphasis of the articles,” Steve Coll wrote in a letter to Kenneth Cohen, Exxon’s vice president of public affairs, who had written to Columbia to complain about the articles.

“You have dressed up this rather commonplace criticism of investigative reporting in academic clothing, alleging violations of university research standards.

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“In any event,” Coll wrote, “the record that I have reviewed does not support your characterization.”

In a Nov. 20 letter to university President Lee Bollinger, Cohen accused a team of journalism students and their instructor, Susanne Rust, of major ethical lapses in the stories published in October in the Los Angeles Times that said Exxon had conducted major research into climate change during the 1980s, but later argued that the company need take no immediate action because climate science was uncertain.

“I have concluded that your allegations are unsupported by evidence,” Coll wrote. “More than that, I have been troubled to discover that you have made serious allegations of professional misconduct in your letter against members of the project team even though you or your Media Relations colleagues possess email records showing that your allegations are false.”

In his own letter, Cohen called the Columbia stories “inaccurate and deliberately misleading.”

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Cohen’s letter said Rust had misrepresented to Exxon the focus of her students’ story, saying she wasn’t planning a parallel report to a five-part series that already had been published by InsideClimate News (ICN). He noted that both the Times’ and ICN’s stories wound up drawing similar conclusions. Both the Times and ICN said their work was independent, but Cohen accused them of collusion.

Further, Cohen wrote, Rust didn’t give Exxon spokespeople enough time to answer her students’ questions; in one case, he said, the company had only one day to respond. And he said one Columbia student hid the fact that she was a reporter, instead identifying herself as an Arctic researcher. Columbia’s Steve Coll dismissed those complaints in his letter.

The controversy isn’t just about Exxon’s image. On Nov. 4, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, spurred by the stories in the Times and ICN, began an investigation into the oil company. The probe will try to determine whether Exxon accurately represented to its investors the financial troubles the company could face because of climate change, as outlined by its own research.

At that time, Cohen responded that Exxon had kept investors apprised of any risks to the company’s fortunes because of potential climate change. “We unequivocally reject the allegations that Exxon Mobil has suppressed climate change research,” he said.

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In its own response to Cohen, the Times said it had “carefully reviewed Exxon Mobil’s complaints and concluded that the articles we published … were accurate, fair and balanced. We will continue working with the Columbia reporting team to publish journalism on this very important subject.”

Exxon’s first response to Coll’s letter came Tuesday from spokesman Alan Jeffers, who said the dean of the journalism school had not convinced the company of the validity of its students’ reporting. He also complained that whenever Exxon has approached the Times about the stories, the newspaper has simply referred it to Columbia.

Jeffers said Exxon has sought to meet with representatives of the university to discuss a path forward.

By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com

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