Full disclosure: After graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism many, many years ago, I was rejected for admission to the nation’s foremost graduate school for budding reporters, the Columbia University School of Journalism.
So I went into public relations.
In the spirit of Groucho Marx’s disdain for any club that would have allowed him to be a member, however, I ultimately admired Columbia for refusing to lower its standards and accept the likes of me.
Columbia, after all, was the crème de la crème of journalism schools, and it had a reputation to protect.
But these days, I’m not so sure.
Under its current dean, former Washington Post reporter Steve Coll, the once mighty bastion of fairness and objectivity has increasingly become a willing spear-carrier for liberal political causes.
Today, what passes for “journalism” is more often the kind of one-sided rabble that Fox News spews on the right and MSNBC spouts on the left. Alas, the Columbia Journalism School seems to have forsaken its 100 years of teaching the principles of unbiased, indifferent reporting and has fallen down that same subjective rat hole.
Case-in-point: Columbia J School’s campaign to rid the world of fossil fuels and that most villainous deliverer of such fuels, ExxonMobil.
Headlining the school’s website is an invitation to read the three-part series that Columbia students, in association with the Los Angeles Times, produced its Energy and Environmental Reporting Project, which accuses ExxonMobil of hiding early knowledge about global warming and deceiving the public for years while it continued to pump out the filthy fuel.
The L.A. Times stories and earlier ones in the pro-climate change newsletter, Inside Climate News, sparked investigations from state attorneys general, like New York’s eager beaver Eric Schneiderman, and provoked outrage from liberal politicians, notably Democrat presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
ExxonMobil immediately cried foul, pointing out that the basis of the reporting came from Exxon’s own publicly-available data, that the data was “cherry-picked”and didn’t at all reflect Exxon’s public statements over time about the evolving causes and risks associated with climate change.
In other words, Exxon accused InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times of publishing hatchet jobs, aided and abetted by a supposedly impartial, distinguished academic institution.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with good, solid investigative reporting pursued in the cause of finding the truth. But the reporting in this case raises troubling ethical questions, not only about the integrity of Columbia University’s “research,” but also the kind of scholarship the Columbia Journalism School now advocates.
Three of the more perplexing issues concerning the Columbia J School Exxon onslaught are the following:
Columbia’s funders are outspoken pro climate change advocates.
Columbia’s Energy and Environmental Reporting Project is funded in part by philanthropic organizations devoted to climate change and the end of fossil fuels. The alignment of the thesis of the articles and the goals of the funders is clear. Less clear was the identity of said funders, which the L.A. Times conveniently failed to list in its articles.
Clearly, journalism schools like Columbia, where it costs a full-time graduate student upwards of $90,000 a year, are suffering severe money woes. Last year, Columbia J School class sizes were reduced and teachers were fired. So the school needs donations desperately.
Still, there’s a real question as to whether this compelling need for donations should lead to research dictated by funders’ desires.
Columbia’s most coveted honor goes to friendly allies
For nearly 100 years, the Columbia Journalism School has awarded the Pulitzer Prize for achievements in journalism. There is no more coveted honor in this field. When a journalistic entity earns a Pulitzer, it gains instant respect, recognition and support.
In 2013, the year Steve Coll became J School dean, the Pulitzer was awarded to InsideClimate News, at that time an obscure online news organization devoted to climate change and the end of fossil fuels. The non-profit news service was funded by the same philanthropic organizations that funded Columbia’s Energy and Environmental Reporting Project.
Two years after its Pulitzer, InsideClimate News led the attack on ExxonMobil with its mammoth five-part series, authored by three reporters, assisted by five associates and based almost entirely on Exxon’s own archival records housed at the University of Texas in Austin.
The series’ breathless premise — that Exxon purposely hid lethal facts about global warming — was seized upon by reporters and politicians as nothing less than the second coming of the cigarette industry’s heinous attempt to hide its own product’s damning connection to cancer.
Columbia’s dean is virulently anti-Exxon.
Perhaps most incriminating about the Columbia Journalism School’s targeting of ExxonMobil involves the status of its dean.
Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism has, for years, been an unabashed Exxon critic. In 2012, a year before he came to Columbia, Coll wrote a 683-page expose, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. Needless to say, it wasn’t a love letter to the oil company. Coll’s former employer, the Washington Post, when describing the book, said “ExxonMobil has met its match in Coll.”
Again, there’s certainly nothing wrong with an investigative reporter focusing his bazooka on Big Oil. But what is curious is that with all of today’s societal targets ripe for investigative research — from income inequality to gun politics, from lobbyist control of legislators to Steven Cohen and the SEC — the one company the Columbia School of Journalism choose to go after was the same one its dean chose to hammer as the subject in his best-selling book.
Advocacy journalism in the 21st century — hether an “independent news service” attacking climate change deniers or an “actor journalist” protecting a murdering drug lord — has become an accepted fact of life.
But advocacy journalism in a university wrapper is another kettle of oil.