Not long before Jared Cohon became the president of Carnegie Mellon, he advised a tobacco industry front group designed to manipulate public opinion about secondhand smoke.
The nonprofit watchdog group I direct, the Public Accountability Initiative, reported this for the first time in a recent report on the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which provides environmental certifications for fracking operations, and which Mr. Cohon chairs.
Our report suggested that CSSD bore the hallmarks of an industry front group designed to put an environmentally friendly spin on fracking — similar to the tobacco group that Mr. Cohon advised. If Mr. Cohon was complicit in an industry effort to downplay smoking hazards, would he do the same for fracking?
An Aug. 10 editorial (“Sloppy Screed”) in response to our report failed to consider this question, offered no criticism of Mr. Cohon and instead criticized PAI for not mentioning his career at Carnegie Mellon early enough. It is an absurd charge, like saying that all context must be conveyed in an article’s lead.
The editorial ignored ethical questions throughout the piece, deploying overheated rhetoric and similarly weak “gotchas.” A CSSD funder should not have been criticized for oil and gas ties because it gives to other causes, it argued — as if Philip Morris absolved itself of guilt for manipulating tobacco science by giving to the arts. Its director should not be criticized for having been an oil and gas attorney because she once worked for the Environmental Protection Agency — for four years in the 1970s, before she began suing the EPA on behalf of polluters.
Nonprofit Quarterly took issue with the editorial and defended our disclosures, calling them “tiny counterweights to the deep-pocketed industry’s role in the Center’s research and advocacy.”
The Post-Gazette has attacked our work on CSSD before. Last year, the editorial board said PAI went “to extremes” in our criticism of the conflict of interest of former Heinz Endowments president Robert Vagt, who both chaired CSSD at the time and sat on the board of a gas pipeline company. Heinz disagreed: Mr. Vagt resigned and the foundation withdrew from CSSD. The editorial made no mention of this.
From tobacco to fracking, industry misinformation efforts rely on a pliant press to boost their messages. A little common sense and journalistic gumption can stop them in their tracks. I remain hopeful that the editorial board can find some and turn a critical eye on the Center for Sustainable Shale Development.
Kevin Connor is director of the Public Accountability Initiative (email@example.com).