Drilling Down: Is 'The Times' Giving Proper Credit?

new york times1 Drilling Down: Is 'The Times' Giving Proper Credit?Who do you have to frack to get some credit around here?

That’s what we’re wondering after a recent New York Times series on the latest hot-button environmental issue–hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. “fracking.” The Times series is packaged as a slow-cooked exposé, but a small team of reporters from ProPublica had been doggedly covering the practice since 2008–before it was even a beat, let alone the celebrity cause
of Mark Ruffalo.

The Times series undeniably breaks new ground. But the papers’ sources, “never before reported” E.P.A. documents, were authored in response to ProPublica queries. One document actually contains data ProPublica compiled independently.

Was journalistic kleptomania to blame?

Last month, The New York Times published a primer on computer scammer Dennis Montgomery, which noted (in the 14th paragraph) that an earlier story in Playboy had also raised hints of his fraud. In fact, the nudie mag had broken open the story with some daring undercover reporting more than a year earlier. In December, an internal memo penned by AP oil reporter Harry Weber blasted a Times A1 story that claimed to “finally piece together” the narrative of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. Mr. Weber, who with his colleagues had spent months “piecing together” the disaster’s arc, suggested pre-Pulitzer “amnesia” was to blame for The Times’ “patently false” fist-pumping.

On the fracking front, The Times gave ProPublica their due 20-odd paragraphs in (approximately 18 deeper than the average Sunday Times reader will plunge). Some considered the slight particularly untoward because, as a nonprofit newsroom, ProPublica largely relies on partnerships with traditional media outlets. One such partnership with The New York Times Magazine, “The Deadly Choices at Memorial,” by ProPublica’s Dr. Sheri Fink, won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2009.

Asked about the fracking series, Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy, replied, “ProPublica and other news organizations have done important work on the subject, but The Times is independently pursuing a number of angles in our series on natural gas.”

ProPublica expressed satisfaction that The Times had jumped on the issue. “We’re delighted that a news organization with this kind of readership is out there doing this story,” ProPublica editor and former Times editor Stephen Engelberg said.

But a ProPublica reporter on the story couldn’t resist a veiled shot at the competition.

“We’ll continue to cover it and break news,” Abrahm Lustgarten said, adding, “What we write, you won’t have read anywhere else.”

kstoeffel@observer.com