Second NYT Reporter Faces Allegations of Serious Misconduct

Does the New York Times have yet another Jayson Blair problem?

Patrick Richardson has kept us all up to date on the battle between the NYT's Eric Lichtblau and Rep. Darrel Issa over an error-filled hit piece Lichtblau launched at Issa. Now it looks like the Times will have to answer for yet another deceiving reporter on its payroll. The Franklin Center today launched a broadside against NYT reporter Ian Urbina for his work on "fracking," work that had a tremendous and negative impact on the natural gas industry. The Franklin Center's letter alleges that Urbina engaged in a great deal of wrongdoing in his reporting:

The letter raises a number of difficult-to-answer questions surrounding Times standards that appear to have been violated by reporter Ian Urbina in two recent articles on shale gas (‘Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,’ June 25 and ‘Behind Veneer, Doubt of Future of Natural Gas,’ June 26).  The reports, which relied heavily on anonymous sourcing, rattled energy markets and raised the ire of federal regulators by suggesting the gas industry and the government were grossly exaggerating shale gas reserves for the purposes of maximizing short-term investment.

The reports relied heavily on several industry critics whose credentials appear now to have been described in a misleading and inaccurate manner.  Furthermore, Urbina left the impression with readers that a much broader cross section of government officials and experts were sourced in the report, when in fact his reports were based primarily on the opinions of three critics whose motivations and biases raise serious questions about their credibility.

Urbina’s reporting errors have already been the subject of the Times’ Public Editor’s scrutiny on three separate occasions (July 16, July 31 and August 6); however, our letter calls on the Times’ Standards Editor to launch a formal inquiry into whether standards established in the wake of the infamous 2003 Jayson Blair affair were violated.  It focuses specifically on Urbina’s apparent violations of standards around his three key sources – Deborah Rogers, Art Berman and C. Hobson Bryan III.

The letter points out that a litany of Times’ standards were violated by Urbina, including failure to “distinguish conscientiously between high-level and lower level executives or officials” and a prohibition against dissembling about sources. In the case of C. Hobson Bryan III, Urbina sources him as “one official,” an “energy analyst,” and “one federal analyst,” without disclosing that these three sources are one in the same.  Nor does Urbina inform readers that Bryan held two low-level positions with the Department of Energy – intern and, later, Junior Engineer; instead, he gives the impression that Bryan was a qualified official in a position to know.

In another instance, Urbina failed to disclose that one of his sources, Art Berman, is a paid consultant to numerous companies and interests that are in direct competition with the shale gas industry. He was identified by Urbina as an industry insider.

Deborah Rogers was presented as a financial industry professional. In fact, she’s an organic goat farmer involved in a bitter dispute with the natural gas industry.

If the Franklin Center is right then pattern here is obvious; in each case, Urbina inflated his source's credentials to enhance their credibility. That obviously gave his story weight it did not deserve. It's not quite fabricating sources as Jayson Blair did, but it's not far from it.

The Franklin Center's nine-page letter is here. The NYT has much to answer for.