December 18, 2012
Dave Mann, Editor
Piper Stege Nelson, Publisher
The Texas Observer
307 W 7th Street
Austin, Texas 78701
Mr. Mann and Ms. Nelson:
As president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, I must take strong exception to the wholly inaccurate portrayal of our October conference in the December 11, 2012, article written by Melissa del Bosque and headlined "Notorious polluters sponsor a conference for environmental journalists."
The article and headline are categorically wrong in claiming that Koch Industries “sponsored” the conference for SEJ. It also wrongly confers sponsorship status on Waste Control Specialists, which operates a radioactive waste dump in West Texas and was visited by another of our tours.
In fact, Texas Tech in Lubbock was the conference’s host and sponsor, and the university asked a number of local businesses to help it fulfill its $150,000 pledge to SEJ. The Matador Ranch was one of about 15 “contributors” that helped the university meet its financial commitment to host and sponsor the conference. Some contributed money, but several donated in-kind services. The article mistakenly states that both SEJ and Texas Tech took money from Koch Industries but no money was donated as part of Matador’s/Koch’s contribution to the university, only cold cuts and potato salad for about two dozen tour participants at one stop on the day-long tour focused on water issues in West Texas.
Had your reporter done her due diligence these factual errors in her story could have been easily avoided. SEJ’s executive director even asked the reporter to check on details about Matador and another tour involving a nuclear waste disposal facility with other SEJ staff that had more intimate knowledge of the planning done for those tours.
SEJ conference procedure is to alert tour participants about who is providing lunch, and, although participants knew that Matador was owned by Koch Industries they were not informed about the lunch provider. They should have been, even though each person on the tour paid a fee to partially cover expenses. But to suggest, as your reporter does, that that oversight taints the conference’s independence and credibility is ludicrous.
SEJ’s conference agenda is initiated and controlled by SEJ members. SEJ’s conference organizers scrupulously followed longstanding policy that allows only SEJ members to select tour destinations, session topics or speakers. SEJ's university hosts are free to solicit outside support to host the conference, but those donors have no say in the program. SEJ has longstanding financial policies, http://www.sej.org/about-sej/financial-policies, and the highest of ethical standards.
Finally, your reporter makes much of the weak connection of Koch to SEJ, and even asked the question, "What's Koch Industries doing at a conference filled with environmental reporters?"
The field trips especially offer unique opportunities to engage with Koch, and Waste Control Specialists and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and the EPA and all manner of industrial, corporate and government entities. By coming to our conference, members of SEJ gain access and hear diverse viewpoints on the stories they cover. As a service to our members we actively seek participation on tours and in our panels by those with a wide variety of perspectives on environmental issues.
That access was especially important in Lubbock where Texas Tech helped us with industry connections and those “contributors” got us into feedlots, shale oil fracking sites, nuclear enrichment plants, waste dumps and Koch’s Matador Ranch — places where few journalists gain access in their daily work. It is, in no small part, why we chose to bring our conference to Lubbock in the first place.
Society of Environmental Journalists
RESPONSE FROM TEXAS OBSERVER EDITOR DAVE MANN:
From: Dave Mann <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Wed, Dec 19, 2012 at 10:52 PM
Subject: Re: SEJ letter to the editors (email@example.com)
To: "Don Hopey (Google Drive)" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Thank you for your letter. We have posted the entire letter in the comments section below Melissa's blog post along with a letter we received from Roger Witherspoon.
Having reexamined the blog post, I still believe this is a legitimate issue for us to report, and I don't want to quibble about whether someone is a "sponsor" or a "contributor." They're the same, in my view. A Koch Industries affiliate supported an element of the conference—though it was just lunch. However, having said that, I don't believe the piece meets our high standards for accuracy. In particular, I agree with you the piece leaves the impression that Koch Industries and WCS donated money to the SEJ conference when that doesn't appear to be accurate. Melissa didn't write that the companies donated money, but it's contained in a quote from Tom "Smitty" Smith. I will remove that quote from the post and add a correction that makes clear neither company donated money to the conference. I apologize that the post left a false impression on that point.
As I wrote to Roger, we should have contacted him about the WCS tour. Melissa did talk with your executive director twice and quoted her extensively in the post. So we did represent SEJ's perspective. We considered contacting other SEJ members, including Roger, and in the interest of getting the post up, I advised Melissa not to do so. That was a mistake on my part. As you know, we must produce an increasing amount of copy these days. We have to work quickly. This was an instance when I allowed haste to trump doing the right thing. I apologize for that error in judgement on my part.
I hope these actions address some of your concerns. If you would like to talk about these issues in more detail, please call me at (512) 470-3446.