Rockefeller Foundations Enlist Journalism in ‘Moral’ Crusade Against ExxonMobil

Media squeals when corporations sponsor self-serving reporting but lap it up when agenda squares

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil and Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state.
Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil and Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state. Flickr Creative Commons

When corporations and right-wing business groups fund think tanks and non-profits they are invariably called out, quite rightly, for trying to buy and shape media coverage. Journalists tend to dismiss the paid-for studies and reports as tainted and, if they cite them at all, flag said studies and reports with consumer warnings about their problematic origins.

No industry has been more criticized for seeking to influence the media than oil and gas, and no single company more targeted than ExxonMobil. The company’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, is of course Donald Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state, and ExxonMobil is the world’s largest oil company.

An NPR story last year thrashed the company for “pouring millions and millions of dollars” into dozens of groups, “some of which were transparently industry front groups, and some of which were right-wing economics advocacy groups, that themselves spent decades in various degrees of climate denial.”

However, when liberal advocacy groups and foundations fund journalism directly, there’s less discussion about potential conflicts of interests or the integrity of the work product — and especially if the journalism embraces a beloved cause like climate change and attacks a popular villain like the fossil fuel industry.

A case in point is how two Rockefeller family foundations have been involved in an advocacy campaign that accuses ExxonMobil of covering up what it knew about climate change in order to maximize its profits while endangering the American public. Part of the campaign has been to bring legal action against the company, on the grounds that it acted similarly to tobacco companies that hid the link between smoking and cancer. Meanwhile, Rockefeller foundations have funded journalism enterprises that have produced stories that overlap with the advocacy agenda.

For the most part, the Rockefellers have not only avoided criticism but have had their liberal do-gooder brand polished by, among others, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and NPR (whose funders include the Rockefeller Foundation). And while the Rockefellers have portrayed their fight as one purely driven by ethics and virtue, crusading against climate change hasn’t been bad for foundation business either.

(Note: Not all individual members of the 200-plus Rockefeller family have endorsed the campaign, but I’m using “the Rockefellers” for shorthand at times in this story because many of them have and two of their foundations have funded and supported the Exxon campaign.)

Back in 2014, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund was showered with commendations after announcing that it would no longer invest its $818 million portfolio in fossil fuels. The divestment decision, which was seen as a role model and has since been embraced by other large foundations, was portrayed as a profoundly moral one. “It became increasingly uncomfortable to be fighting global warming on the one hand [through charitable grants] and then investing in businesses that cause global warming,” Fund president Stephen Heintz said.

Earlier this year, the Rockefeller Family Fund announced it would dump its ExxonMobil stock, referring to the company’s “morally reprehensible conduct” in suppressing information about global warming. This, too, was greeted with lavish praise and seen as a sign of enhanced Rockefeller benevolence because family patriarch John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, of which ExxonMobil is the largest direct descendant.

Valerie Rockefeller Wayne.
Valerie Rockefeller Wayne. Screenshot

In 2015 Valerie Rockefeller Wayne, chair of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, explained the divestment to The Guardian: “We all have a moral obligation. Our family in particular – the money that is for our grant-making, and what we are doing now, and that helps fund our lifestyles came from dirty fuel sources.”

It’s all quite heartwarming, yet there are a few reasons to be at least a little bit skeptical. First, the two foundations took these steps almost a century and a half after Standard Oil was created. Family members have made a lot of money in the meanwhile and it seems pretty late in the day to win plaudits for dropping fossil fuel investments.

It’s also unlikely that divestment will have any adverse impact on family members’ lifestyles—the Rockefellers are the 23rd richest family in the U.S. with a fortune of $11 billion, according to Forbes—or on their foundations’ bottom line. Oil prices had already started dropping when the announcement was made in 2014 and have generally plunged since, tanking the shares of energy stocks. As an industry, energy stocks were the worst performers of 2015. ExxonMobil’s share price has dropped by more than 10 percent in the past two years.

Meanwhile, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund didn’t drop fossil fuel investments entirely and has said it would only do it—and ramp up promised investments in renewables—on a phased-in basis. Heintz has said it would only fulfill the pledge when it figured out how it could be done “without causing harm to the overall performance of [our] investment portfolio” (The fund still has about $24 million in fossil fuel investments, which represents 3.1 percent of the endowment—when the process started, 6.6 percent of the endowment was invested in fossil fuels. The fund has invested $100 million in alternative energy sources over the same period).

Beyond that, charities, not just corporations, deserve scrutiny when it comes to their donations. The Rockefellers are a powerful family, and historically they haven’t been shy about throwing money around to promote a political agenda that has not always been altruistic.

Way back at the turn of the 20th century, John D. Rockefeller recognized the value of family branding and political engineering and spent lavishly to soften his Robber Baron image. “Not even God himself can stop me from giving my money to the University of Chicago,” he wrote, and his investment paid off as the school’s academics duly trotted out studies proving the virtues of the “free market” and the inevitability and ultimately proper capitalist distribution of income that made the few rich and the many poor.

“I have no sympathy…for the Tillerson gang at Exxon, but the Big Green foundations operate in pretty much the same way.” – Jeffrey St. Clair

Back in the 1990s, the Rockefeller Family Fund was run by a man named Donald Ross, who was close to the Democratic Party and who sought to shape the environmental movement’s agenda to match up with Bill Clinton’s administration. The Fund also held a number of surprising holdings with oil and gas companies, mining companies and timber firms. Indeed, the Fund was simultaneously running a campaign — unsuccessful in the end — to protect ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest and holding a strong position in timber firms stripping the region like Weyerhaeuser and Boise Cascade.

“I have no sympathy at all for the Tillerson gang at Exxon, but the Big Green foundations operate in pretty much the same way when it comes to public relations,” Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of CounterPunch and a longtime environmental activist, told the Observer. “It’s not their style to give money away without expecting something in return.”

The Rockefeller Family Foundation (which has an endowment of about $130 million) has long targeted the oil industry and honed in on ExxonMobil last January during a meeting at its Manhattan offices. The agenda was to “establish in the public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution that has pushed humanity (and all creation) toward climate chaos and grave harm” and to “delegitimize” Exxon as a political actor. The ultimate goal would include “getting discovery” from ExxonMobil through legal action brought by public officials, thus “creating scandal” around the country.

Participants at the meeting included activist groups like Greenpeace and Public Citizen, and trial lawyers who have won judgments against the industry before, like Sharon Eubanks, the federal government’s lead counsel in its racketeering case against Philip Morris, and Matt Pawa, a litigator who had won a $236 million verdict against ExxonMobil in 2013 for contaminating New Hampshire’s groundwater.

But to be successful, the advocacy campaign needed to strike a chord in the media, and its key themes were covered by InsideClimate News, “an independent, not-for-profit, non-partisan news organization” that covers energy issues “plus the territory in between where law, policy and public opinion are shaped.”

Back in 2013, it won a Pulitzer Prize, which are awarded by Columbia University, for an investigation into a million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River. It was nominated again in 2016 for a series called “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” which argued that the company had suppressed the danger of climate change for decades. (It didn’t win, but Columbia gave it its John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism.)

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund is one of InsideClimate News’ biggest funders, but it says it knew nothing about the ExxonMobil series until it was published.

Steve Coll speaks at an event about "ExxonMobil and American Power" in Kansas City in 2013.
Steve Coll speaks at an event about “ExxonMobil and American Power” in Kansas City in 2013. YouTube

The advocacy campaign’s argument was also amplified by the Columbia Journalism School and its dean, Steve Coll, a well-regarded, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who had previously been a top editor at the Washington Post, head of the New America Foundation and the author of several bestselling books.

Rockefeller family foundations donated more than $1 million to the New America Foundation after Coll was appointed to run it in 2007. His salary there quintupled over five years to $320,730, nonprofit disclosure forms show. During Coll’s years at the New America Foundation he wrote Private Empire, a sharply critical corporate biography of ExxonMobil. (I liked it and spoke to Coll when he was researching the book because I’d written extensively about ExxonMobil’s sleazy deals with the corrupt dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea, which he covered.)

When private companies give money to think tanks, it’s pretty apparent that it’s part of a lobbying or media campaign. For example, Google CEO Eric Schmidt chaired New America’s board and his company is one of its largest donors. The think tank also had company-paid Google Scholars, as the Washington Post noted in a story titled “Google, once disdainful of lobbying, now a master of Washington influence.” With their lavish endowments and extensive political agendas, one assumes that foundations were also looking to win influence when they donate to think tanks.

In 2012, Coll left New America and the following year signed on at Columbia. The two Rockefeller foundations donated a combined $300,000 to Columbia in 2013 and 2014, which helped underwrite a partnership between the university’s Energy & Environmental Reporting Project and the Los Angeles Times. They teamed up on a series that covered much of the same ground as the InsideClimateNews series and that also was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The stories (written by the students who took part in the fellowship) initially failed to disclose — until after ExxonMobil protested — that the Rockefeller family had donated to the Project, along with other liberal foundations like the Energy Foundation, Open Society Foundations and the Tellus Mater Foundation.

“We supported public interest journalism to better understand how the fossil fuel industry was dealing with the reality of climate science internally and publicly,” Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund — and the convener of the January meeting at its offices which laid out the Exxon campaign—told Reuters when its funding was exposed.

After these series were published, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman dutifully launched an investigation of ExxonMobil and the state has issued subpoenas seeking records of the company’s climate research for the past 40 years. Other state attorneys general have also announced investigations of ExxonMobil and several members of Congress called on the Department of Justice to investigate the company using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which was designed to prosecute mob activity and was also employed to investigate tobacco companies in the 1990s.

The company has launched an aggressive counterattack against the Rockefeller foundations for organizing what ExxonMobil calls a “conspiracy” against it. It has gotten a Texas judge to approve subpoenas for foundation communication with its campaign allies. Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, who receives significant political donations from ExxonMobil, has sent a letter to Rockefeller funds with subpoenas for similar internal files.

Alan Jeffers, an ExxonMobil spokesman, has accused the Rockefeller family of financing journalism and seeking to prompt legal action against the company. In an email, he criticized late exposure of Rockefeller funding for the reporting and accused activists and the media of using “cherry-picked statements attributed to various company employees to wrongly suggest definitive conclusions were reached by company researchers at the early stages of scientific investigation of the potential for climate change…To suggest that we had reached definitive conclusions, decades before the world’s experts and while climate science was in an early stage of development, is not credible.”

Jeffers suggested that Rockefeller funding for Columbia and InsideClimateNews weighted the reportorial scales and produced predetermined findings that supported the foundations’ advocacy agenda.

Attorneys general like Eric Schneiderman may have been deceived by a Los Angeles Times story about ExxonMobil.
Attorneys general like Eric Schneiderman may have been deceived by a Los Angeles Times story about ExxonMobil. Twitter

InsideClimate News says all of its work is independent of donors and Stacy Feldman, the group’s executive editor, has issued a statement saying that ExxonMobil has never specified anything “inaccurate or misleading in the series, nor has it requested any corrections.”

Steve Coll told me that the Columbia/Los Angeles Times series was not an initiative of the Rockefellers but grew out of his reporting of Private Empire. “It was entirely my idea, there was reporting left on the table from the book that had to do with what ExxonMobil knew about climate change and when it knew it,” he told me. “I then went out and raised the money for it after I got to Columbia. We gave them updates about the project, but the journalism component was totally independent and Rockefeller had no input or editorial control.”

Coll stood by the series’ findings, which he said were fair and deeply reported. He acknowledged that working with foundations that have advocacy positions created an “appearance problem,” that he said is the topic of an ongoing conversation within journalism, including at Columbia. “Foundation funding is something of a new frontier and there are uncomfortable aspects to it,” he said. “We’re working on a new policy at Columbia to provide to donors, laying out the need for editorial independence and disclosure requirements.”

Heintz told the Observer that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Fund are distinct institutions that share office space but have different boards and operate independently. He said they didn’t coordinate their funding of the journalism projects.

His fund has given InsideClimate News grants of $800,000 over the four years since it was founded, money Heinz said was for general support, not to attack ExxonMobil. The fund gave $100,000 over two years to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism postgraduate fellowship programs, which was used to support the Energy and Environmental Reporting project.

“We knew because of their proposal that they’d be looking at what the oil companies knew and when they knew it, and that they’d be looking at Exxon but we had no input into their work,” Heinz said. “We didn’t know that InsideClimate News and Columbia were working on similar investigations.

The difference between foundation funding and corporate funding, he said, is the profit motive. “Their aim is to make money and that’s a very different starting point than philanthropy,” he said. “Exxon has far greater financial resources than we have and in addition they are able to lobby, which we’re prohibited from doing.”

I’m not attacking the integrity of the reporting on ExxonMobil. And I’m in no position to, since I’ve received foundation and nonprofit backing for my own work — which supported a lot of critical work about the energy industry, including a book called The Secret World of Oil, which was backed by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and includes quite a bit of criticism of ExxonMobil.

But all of this points to a problem in journalism because almost no one funds investigations anymore, except foundations and non-profits. Corporations always have an agenda when they dispense money to shape public opinion. But so do foundations and private donors. It’s hard to argue that it’s only a problem when you disagree with the point of view being promoted.

Rockefeller Foundations Enlist Journalism in ‘Moral’ Crusade Against ExxonMobil