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ExxonMobil, Columbia University Clash Over Student Journalists' Reports


We're also tracking a backlash to revelations about ExxonMobil. Faced with an awkward news story, the company is questioning the messenger. The story questioned what Exxon knew about climate change and when. Students at Columbia University reported it. Now, the company is demanding Columbia investigate the students, and their dean is pushing back. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Steve Coll, is no stranger to ExxonMobil. He wrote a 700-page book about the company. Coll says he got a tip to look at its research into the business implications of climate change, and he passed that along to students.

STEVE COLL: They came across some old archives that ExxonMobil and a subsidiary of ExxonMobil in Canada had established many years ago. And the reporters simply turned up, spent many weeks on site digging through boxes.

FOLKENFLIK: Led by a veteran investigative reporter, they found Exxon had been planning for the consequences of a warming climate on oil exploration in the Arctic, even as it cast public doubt on the reliability of climate change science and lobbied against some proposals designed to address those concerns. The Los Angeles Times edited and published the articles. They had a big effect. New York's Attorney General launched an investigation into whether Exxon misled investors. ExxonMobil publicly objected. Alan Jeffers is media relations manager for the company.

ALAN JEFFERS: I think there's a lot to answer for here from Columbia, which has this incredible reputation as above reproach.

FOLKENFLIK: On November 20, Exxon demanded a formal inquiry by Columbia into what the company called research misconduct.

JEFFERS: We're a science-based company, and we take great affront to this allegation that we somehow lied about what we learned, covered it up and did junk science.

FOLKENFLIK: Exxon accused a Columbia reporter of failing to identify herself as a journalist, an editor of giving it little time to respond and the entire project of failing to adequately disclose the financial backing of a foundation that advocates a shift from fossil fuels. The university's president referred the matter to Coll. His detailed rebuttal quotes emails from the project's editor, seeking comment over a period of weeks. Coll says there was no deception by reporters and no influence from any underwriters. Coll says none of Exxon's complaints stand up.

COLL: They've really crossed a line from advocacy into a kind of harassment in which they have attacked the credibility and the professional conduct of Columbia journalists.

FOLKENFLIK: Coll says the company just didn't like the stories. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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