The New York Times recently published an op-ed attacking renewable fuels from the Manhattan Institute's Robert Bryce without disclosing his ties to the oil industry, despite a directive from its former public editor for the paper to fully disclose its op-ed contributors' financial conflicts of interest.
In a March 10 New York Times op-ed, Robert Bryce falsely characterized the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) as an expensive “tax.” The standard, which requires oil refiners, blenders, and gasoline and diesel importers to blend a set amount of renewable fuel into their gasoline supply, was dismissed by Bryce as a “boondoggle” and a “rip-off.”
But the Times failed to disclose Bryce's financial incentive to attack the RFS, identifying him only as a “senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of a new report from the institute, 'The Hidden Corn-Ethanol Tax.'” The Manhattan Institute has, in fact, received millions from oil interests over the years, including $635,000 from ExxonMobil and $1.9 million from the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, where Charles Koch and his wife sit on the board of directors. Koch made his fortune from oil and currently has significant holdings in oil and gas operations.
Bryce is, in essence, acting as a spokesperson for the oil industry, which has much to gain from weakening or repealing the RFS. The renewable fuel requirement is set to increase over the next several years, potentially replacing up to 13.6 billion gallons of the conventional fuel supply by 2022.
These financial ties might explain why Bryce's op-ed was peppered with industry myths, including that renewable fuel can damage car engines (this has been proven wrong) and is bad for the environment (ethanol's lower greenhouse gas emissions are better for the climate).
The New York Times faced backlash after similarly failing to disclose Bryce's financial interests in a 2011 op-ed attacking renewable energy policies. A letter signed by more than 50 journalists and media professionals expressed concern that such a lack of disclosure is “a growing problem in American journalism” and asked the public editor to “lead the industry and set the nation's standard by disclosing financial conflicts of interest that their op-ed contributors may have at the time their piece is published.”
In response, then-Public Editor Arthur Brisbane agreed that the Times should do better to provide disclosure and singled out Bryce and the Manhattan Institute as a case in point:
I don't think every reader knows what the Manhattan Institute is. So, while I recognize that The Times has limited space in print to provide more disclosure, I believe it should do more to help readers learn about outside Op-Ed contributors.
On NYTimes.com, The Times should include links for these organizational ties so readers can investigate, if they wish. Finally, it would be useful if The Times required contributors to provide a document listing all current paid positions, and publish a link to the document. (I should note that The Times has begun to include online links for contributors who have their own Web site, or online biography.)
These steps aren't as simple as perhaps they sound, and, even if done well, some readers will ask for more. That said, such changes would shed light where it's needed, in a skeptical age.