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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 01:47 PM ET, 08/01/2011

New York Times on shale gas: Can an intern be an ‘official’?

New York Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane this weekend kept the heat on some energy reporting that his paper did back in June. In his second finger-wagging column on a New York Times investigative series on the natural gas industry, Brisbane took issue with the paper’s numerous redactions of e-mails from people in the Energy Department.

Brisbane argues that redactions provide the reader only a partial view of the story and leave out information critical to newspaper-reader trust. The centerpiece of Brisbane’s attack is the juicy revelation that a key “analyst” cited anonymously in a June 27 New York Times piece turns out to have been an intern at the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Writes Brisbane: “Can an intern be an ‘official’? It doesn’t sound right to me.”

However it sounds, it at least opens the door for some intern-humor-related redaction, as follows:

From the original text of the New York Times’ June 27 piece on natural gas:

One federal analyst, describing an Energy Information Administration publication on shale gas, complained that the administration shared the industry’s optimism. “It seems that science is pointing in one direction and industry PR is pointing in another,” wrote the analyst about shale gas drilling in an e-mail. “We still have to present the middle, even if the middle neglects to point out the strengths of scientific evidence over PR.”

Now, that same passage, redacted to reflect the career standing of the source (intern, that is):

One source who has virtually no standing in the government, describing an Energy Information Administration publication on shale gas, complained that the administration shared the industry’s optimism. “It seems that science is pointing in one direction and industry PR is pointing in another,” wrote the inexperienced short-timer about shale gas drilling in an e-mail. “We still have to present the middle, even if the middle neglects to point out the strengths of scientific evidence over PR.”

There’s plenty more material like this on the New York Times Web site. In its “document reader”supplementing the natural gas piece, the Times refers to the same intern as an “official” over and over. The name of that intern is C. Hobson Bryan, a graduate of Washington and Lee University who joined the Energy Department as an intern in June 2009. The Times couldn’t identify Bryan as an intern when the story ran because the information would have tracked to him.

We now know his identity because following the New York Times story, the government released the same documents that the Times had put in its document reader, an act that shed some sunlight on the Times’ sourcing.

Rick Berke, one of the story’s editors, writes in an e-mail: “Of a 267-page document reader, 11 pages contain e-mails from when Mr. Bryan was an intern, and in the story, only one quote came from that period. The vast majority of the quotes published come from multiple senior agency officials — whose concerns are backed up by an internal E.I.A. presentation.”

After reading through the document trail, Brisbane’s point about the intern looks shoddy and persnickety. What’s clear from the correspondence is that C. Hobson Bryan is participating in important consultations about government policy.

Sure, there are exceptions, as when Bryan talks about life as an intern: “I now have a new computer, and a new phone number that works! Things are looking up.”

But look at this Bryan e-mail, written right in the midst of his internship:

From: Bryan, C. Hobson
Sent: Tuesday, November 03, 2009, 3:36 PM
To: Budzik, Philip
Subject: AEO Basin Estimates
Good Afternoon,
We are trying to find some basin resource estimates for shale gas in order to add them to a shale gas basin map. We don’t think the PGC will let us use their estimates since they aren’t published yet. In the AEO, under the assumptions section, there are some estimates for shale resources on a regional scale. Do you know who in your office I could talk to regarding the source for these estimates? We are hoping that they have estimates on a basin to basin basis that they could share with us. Thanks.
Hobson

Look at that: An intern jamming on the AEO and the PGC in an e-mail to Budzik!

A generational dynamic may explain Brisbane’s disdain for the interns. He’s a lifelong journalist — decades in the biz. Perhaps he views an “official” as someone with comparable experience. Or perhaps someone with a benefits package. Brisbane himself won’t say what might qualify. That’s because “The public editor’s general policy is not to comment outside of his published material. Hopefully this is understandable.” That’s from Brisbane’s assistant, who may or may not qualify as a “newspaper official.”

By the way, the dodge isn’t “understandable,” given that the public editor demands accountability; shouldn’t he be subject to the same rules?

Onward with the point about generational gaps: The world is being transformed by kids in college, just out of college, in grad school, in internships, and so on (See Zuckerberg, Brin, Page). Young people these days aren’t waiting for old people to give them the nod before becoming “officials.” They’re just moving ahead with their plans to change the world.

Such appears to have been the case with Bryan. He managed to get involved in some consequential deliberations at the Energy Department. Had he not, the New York Times wouldn’t have been interested in his work. No wonder that he was promoted to full-time engineer in March 2011.

Resolved: From the day that C. Hobson Bryan stepped into the Energy Department, he was an official.

By  |  01:47 PM ET, 08/01/2011

 
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