Earlier this year, a stream of investigative pieces, released first by the nonprofit website InsideClimate News and later the Los Angeles Times, called into question ExxonMobil’s role in deliberately misleading the public about the dangers of climate change. The investigations suggested that Exxon, the world’s largest oil and gas company, knew about the link between fossil fuels and global warming as early as 1977, and yet spent decades funding public misinformation campaigns and misleading private investors.
The revelations have not been good for Exxon: the company now faces a growing chorus of activists and Democratic politicians calling for a federal investigation into the company’s activities, as well as a subpoena issued by New York’s attorney general.
Now, Exxon is firing back. In a letter sent to Columbia University — whose journalism school was involved in the production of the Los Angeles Times investigation — Exxon accused Columbia journalists involved in the project of cherry-picking and distorting information from the company to create “inaccurate and deliberately misleading reports about ExxonMobil’s climate change research.”
In the letter, which was sent to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger on November 20, Exxon’s Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Ken Cohen accuses Columbia of ignoring Exxon’s statements, which the company felt contradicted the thesis of the Times investigation. Cohen also accuses the school of giving the company less than 24 hours to comment on the piece, misrepresenting the role of a reporter in the research process, and underwriting the work with funds from the Rockefeller Brother’s Fund, which Exxon claims has a “stated position and bias against the oil and gas industry” that Columbia failed to disclose.
“All of the above violated principles of objectivity that not only should be expected from representatives of Columbia University but are also required by Columbia’s institutional Policy on Misconduct in Research,” Cohen writes. At the end of his letter, Cohen reminds Bollinger that “ExxonMobil has had numerous and productive relationships with Columbia University for many years.” According to Politico, through its foundation, Exxon gave the university more than $200,000 last year.
The letter does not go into detail regarding Exxon’s requests from Columbia — it only states that the company formally requests a sit down with the president to discuss the alleged misconduct at a later date. But Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was quick to call the tactic intimidation on Twitter:
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 1, 2015
On December 1, Steve Coll, the dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, responded to Cohen’s letter with a letter of his own. In it, he calls Cohen’s claims “unsupported by evidence,” and writes that he was “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.”
Coll, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is familiar with Exxon — in 2012, he wrote “Private Empire,” an investigation into the company’s influence in domestic and foreign policy.
In a post published yesterday on Exxon’s company blog, Cohen cites Coll’s 2012 book as being “critical of our corporation.”
“I was shocked to read in the Politico story that Mr. Bollinger has tasked Journalism School dean Steve Coll — the person in charge of the very entity whose seeming malfeasance deserves special scrutiny — with handling the response to our charges,” Cohen wrote in the post. “Perhaps President Bollinger might consider changing its name to something more accurate — how about the Columbia University School of Journalism Activism?”
The conflict between Columbia and Exxon coincides with the publication of two new studies looking at Exxon’s role in public misinformation campaigns by Yale sociologist Justin Farrell. The first study looks at how Exxon’s corporate funding has contributed to the polarization of climate change in the United States, concluding that funding by Exxon (as well as the Koch Family Foundations) has strengthened polarization relating to climate change over the past 20 years. The second study, published Monday in Nature Climate Change, argues that Exxon, as well as the Koch Family Foundations, have been at the center of these misinformation campaigns, acting as the most powerful underwriters of climate misinformation.