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A Missing Report On Exxon Mobil And Climate Change

In this 2010 photo, steam rises from towers at an Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown, Texas. Recently leaked memos from Exxon Mobil have shown that the company knew about climate change as early as 1981 but still funded deniers. Pat Sullivan/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

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Pat Sullivan/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In this 2010 photo, steam rises from towers at an Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown, Texas. Recently leaked memos from Exxon Mobil have shown that the company knew about climate change as early as 1981 but still funded deniers.

Pat Sullivan/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In early July, The Guardian reported that Exxon Mobil Corp., "the world's biggest oil company, knew as early as 1981 of climate change – seven years before it became a public issue, according to a newly discovered email from one of the firm's own scientists. Despite this the firm spent millions over the next 27 years to promote climate denial."

Two months later, the online publication InsideClimate News (along with a short film from PBS's Frontline) followed up its own report on that email with a multi-part series, The Road Not Taken, which was described as an eight-month investigation into the history of:

"Exxon's engagement with the emerging science of climate change. The story spans four decades, and is based on primary sources including internal company files dating back to the late 1970s, interviews with former company employees, and other evidence, much of which is being published here for the first time.

It describes how Exxon conducted cutting-edge climate research decades ago and then, without revealing all that it had learned, worked at the forefront of climate denial, manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed."

In October, the Los Angeles Times, teaming with the Energy and Environmental Reporting Project at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, started publishing its own reporting on the topic, the result of a yearlong research project.

NPR did not report on any of these findings, which has made some listeners unhappy.

Andrew Ratzkin, a listener to the New York City member station WNYC, wrote that the only reporting he heard on the issue was in September, by On the Media, which is produced by WNYC (at the time, the show was distributed by NPR, but that business deal ended Oct. 1 and it is no longer NPR-affiliated). That reporting, examining the InsideClimate News reports, included a contentious interview by On the Media co-host Bob Garfield with Richard Keil, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, who disputed the InsideClimate News claims.

"This is not enough," Ratzkin wrote. "Considering the importance of the issue
and the prominence of Exxon's role, this story deserved, and still deserves, to be headline news on the national broadcast."

No news organization likes to follow another publication's scoop—largely as a point of pride—but NPR does not seem to have that problem, at least as far as I have observed. (See, for example, this All Things Considered interview with Jeremy Scahill about his article in The Intercept, "which reveals secret leaked documents regarding America's 'targeted killings' using drones.")

Other news outlets had mixed reactions to the Exxon Mobil reports. The Washington Post has not followed up, either. The New York Times covered the revelations only in a lengthy post on its environment opinion blog and an op-ed piece, until this past weekend, when its first news story ran. That story reported: "More than 40 of the nation's leading environmental and social justice groups demanded a federal investigation of Exxon Mobil on Friday, accusing the huge oil and gas company of deceiving the American public about the risks of climate change to protect its profits."

I asked newsroom executives for their thinking. Anne Gudenkauf, supervising senior editor for science coverage, told me by email that the story was discussed on the science desk when the InsideClimate News series hit in September, and the decision was that it was interesting but not "terribly surprising. While it might raise some legal issues further down the road, which could also be interesting, we didn't see an immediate need to hop on the story ourselves. And at the desk we were already ramping up for work on a climate special we are doing for the week before the Paris summit." She was referring to the UN's Climate Change summit, which opens in Paris at the end of this month.

(Earlier this year, NPR followed up in two pieces a New York Times report on how a prominent climate change skeptic had accepted fossil fuel company funding, including from Exxon Mobil, to support his scientific research.)

At NPR, stories can be suggested by the topic-specific reporting desks. The producers of the newsmagazines can also ask for those desks to file reports on stories they deem interesting. The stories of the day are discussed at an early-morning meeting, where the various shows and digital operations, including the Two-Way blog, express interest in stories. Gudenkauf said no one asked in this case.

Edith Chapin, NPR's executive editor, told me by email that she believes NPR dropped the ball.

While it was not a major headline story, I think it meets the interesting test and thus NPR should have reported on it in some fashion on at least one of our outlets/platforms. Exxon Mobil is the world's largest publicly traded multinational oil and gas company and the debate and research decades ago is interesting in light of contemporary knowledge and action on climate change. Daily conversations at our editorial hub typically cross a range of subjects and stories from across the globe. It is unfortunate that this topic didn't come up there or in any conversation or email that I was a part of. It should have been flagged by someone so we could have discussed it and made an intentional decision to cover or not and if so, how.

My take: The story was on the radar of at least some in the newsroom, but it seems to have fallen through the cracks. Given the latest repercussions—Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is among those calling for a federal investigation—the lapse was unfortunate. But the issue is still a live one, and it's not too late for NPR to find some way of following up.

Updated Nov. 9, 11:25 a.m. ET: On Nov. 5, NPR's All Things Considered host Kelly McEvers interviewed one of the authors of the InsideClimate News report, following news that the New York attorney general was investigating whether Exxon mislead the public and its investors about climate change. A separate report was posted online, and Morning Edition covered the story, as well.