Wealthy foundations fighting oil and gas extraction around the country have incorporated ostensibly dispassionate news outlets into their grant-making portfolios, creating what some describe as a self-sustaining environmentalist echo chamber.
Observers see a pattern at work: A handful of wealthy foundations fund environmental activist groups, news organizations to report on the activists’ activities, and groups that then push out those news reports.
The perception of a critical mass of public voices on key environmental issues is frequently picked up by more established news organizations.
Nonprofit news venture InsideClimate News (ICN) teamed up with the Weather Channel in February for a series of investigative reports on oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, in Texas’ Eagle Ford shale formation.
ICN was created in 2007 "to produce clear, objective stories that give the public and decision-makers the information they need to navigate the heat and emotion of climate and energy debates," according to its website.
ICN’s Weather Channel reports were critical of shale oil development, highlighting its supposed environmental and public health dangers.
"People who suffer the effects of oil and gas emissions have few places to turn for help other than to the politicians and regulatory agencies that are often cheerleaders for, and financially beholden to, the industry," one ICN story claimed.
That story featured quotes from environmentalist groups opposed to fracking such as the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthworks, and Public Citizen.
Earthworks then promoted the report after its release, posting the full article on its website.
Other groups such as the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) also highlighted it.
"Their reporting now shows clearly that Texans in the area of Eagle Ford are having trouble breathing, and regulators are having trouble noticing," wrote NRDC attorney Kate Sinding.
All of the aforementioned groups—the EIP, Earthworks, Public Citizen, and NRDC—are financed by the same environmentalist foundations that support ICN.
Dan Gainor, vice president of culture and media for the Media Research Center, said these environmentalist foundations are attempting to "manipulate journalism to accomplish its aims."
"What they do is have one group write on an issue, another quote them or link to them and so on," Gainor explained. "It keeps going until they create this perception that there's real concern over an issue and it bubbles up to top liberal sites like Huffington Post and from there into the traditional media."
At the helm of the effort is the Park Foundation.
The foundation was created in 1996 after the late telecommunications magnate Roy Park bequeathed more than 70 percent of his holdings in Park Communications to the group.
"The foundation is dedicated to the aid and support of education, public broadcasting, environment, and other selected areas of interest to the Park family," its website says.
According to its most recent publicly available financial report, the foundation has more than $330 million in assets. It has granted nearly $40 million to environmentalist groups since its creation.
Political observers see Park as a major force in the fracking debate, especially at the state level.
"We’ve been shut down for five years," New York energy lobbyist Thomas West recently said of that state’s fracking moratorium. "Has the money that the Park Foundation spent been effective? Yes."
"In our work to oppose fracking, the Park Foundation has simply helped to fuel an army of courageous individuals and NGOs," said Park president Adelaide Park Gomer in a 2011 speech.
Critics disputed Gomer’s characterization of Park-funded groups as grassroots efforts.
"When there’s a whole bunch of misinformation and it’s well orchestrated, it’s not just a general outcry from the public," John Holko, president oil and gas company Lenape Resources, told the Albany Democrat & Chronicle. "When you do the digging, a lot of the money is coming from the Park Foundation."
InsideClimate is one of Park’s grantees. It received a $25,000 Park grant last year "to report and publish articles on … air and water pollution related to hydraulic fracturing," among other activities.
ICN denied the Park Foundation’s donation had any influence on their coverage.
"Our donors have zero access to our editorial discussions or decisions," ICN founder and publisher David Sassoon told the Washington Free Beacon in an email.
ICN’s critics said the site receives funding from anti-fracking groups because those groups know it will produce coverage that bolsters the anti-fracking case.
ICN’s funders include financiers of the nation’s largest and most radical anti-fracking groups, such as the NRDC, the Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch, Earth Justice, Ceres, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Those groups are frequently cited in ICN’s fracking coverage.
"Ceres is saying there probably isn't enough fracking water where fracking most wants to happen," warned ICN’s Bob Port in a February report. "And eventually, there will be a price to pay."
Sassoon did not respond to a question about whether donor overlap ever merits disclosure in ICN’s coverage.
Sassoon himself has worked for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), a foundation that provides funding for ICN and a host of environmentalist organizations, including Ceres, NRDC, and the Sierra Club.
RBF has worked extensively to combat the Keystone XL pipeline. It was recently involved in a campaign to increase oil prices as a means to impede development of Keystone and other pipeline projects.
Keystone is "a globally significant threat," RBF program officer Michael Northrop wrote in a leaked document.
ICN has covered Keystone extensively and critically. One 2012 report cast doubt on predictions about the number of jobs the project would create. It quoted an economist from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which it identified only as "a non-partisan think tank."
EPI is typically identified in press coverage as a liberal group and routinely advocates for Democratic policy prescriptions such as raising the minimum wage and resisting reforms to entitlement programs.
It also receives funding from the Ford Foundation and the Energy Foundation, two groups that provide funding for ICN.
ICN’s Keystone coverage routinely quotes groups with which it shares financial benefactors.
A February article on the battle to stop Keystone hailed a coalition of major environmentalist groups that have "rekindled the use of civil disobedience in a way that has not been seen in the environmental movement since the 1960s."
Among those groups and allied organizations mentioned in the article are NRDC and the Sierra Club, which both share seven of ICN’s donors; the National Wildlife Federation, which shares six; and 350.org, funded in part by ICN donors RBF and the Grantham Foundation.
"One of the biggest yet largely overlooked stories is how much money goes into making anti-fracking activism appear more relevant than it actually is," said Steve Everley, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
"The large foundations who fund anti-fracking activism get considerable bang for their buck, mostly through alarmist headlines that shape public perception," Everley said in an email.
"Apparently, these same groups have discovered another mechanism to increase their return on investment: cut out the middle man and create your own echo chamber."