Oil and gas industry officials and regulators looking to influence media coverage of fracking, a controversial method for extracting natural gas, have received advice from someone who really knows how newsrooms work: a former Denver Post investigative reporter.
Karen Crummy, the onetime reporter, moved on to a new role as spokeswoman for two pro-fracking groups in Colorado. This past May, when industry insiders gathered in a Denver Marriott ballroom for a meeting of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, she offered suggestions on how to discredit her former colleagues: Dig into their pasts, call them out on social media and complain to their editors.
An attendee provided a recording of the talk to The Huffington Post as well as a partial list of those at the meeting, which included state regulators and lawyers who work for the oil and gas industry.
Crummy suggested that her listeners should comb the web for any evidence of potential “bias” that could be used to undermine a journalist’s reporting. “If you are really having a problem with a certain reporter or something, go do some oppo[sition] research on them,” she said. “Are they contributing to campaigns? Are they a member of, you know, a business group or environmental group?”
A year and a half earlier, Crummy bragged, she had found something she felt was incriminating on a reporter’s Facebook page, which she printed out and took to the Denver Post’s editor-in-chief. She wanted attendees to feel similarly empowered.
“A lot of times people still believe ‘don’t fight with people who buy ink by the barrel,’” she told the assembled industry bigwigs. “Those days are over.”
Crummy knows what she’s talking about. She was a reporter at the Post for about a dozen years before leaving in 2014 to work in public relations. She became the public face of the pro-fracking nonprofit Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED) and its political arm, Protect Colorado. Both groups are the creation of PR firm Pac/West and received initial funding from Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Noble Energy.
A lot of times people still believe ‘don’t fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.’ Those days are over. Karen Crummy
Of course, there are plenty of reporters who go on to become PR specialists, and it’s fairly obvious why industry interests would want to hire someone with such experience to lead their communications work. But this kind of behind-the-scenes look at industry’s playbook is rare, and people contacted for this story have concerns about influence being wielded over Denver’s biggest newsroom.
Nancy Lofholm, a 17-year veteran of the Denver Post who retired two years ago, said she was “not totally surprised to hear” about Crummy’s advice to the oil and gas industry. Lofholm remembered Crummy sending the newsroom a lengthy email demanding corrections and clarifications to one fracking story she wrote. Crummy attacked the credibility of sources Lofholm used in an article about a spike in infant deaths near fracking sites, she said.
Lofholm also recalled hearing from colleagues in the newsroom that Crummy had been speaking with her editors, as had another former Post staffer, Dan Haley. Haley was in corporate communications at the time and now serves as CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the industry’s trade group in the state.
Although her own decision to retire was motivated more by disagreements with an editor, Lofholm said that responding to Crummy’s attacks, calls for corrections and attempts to “shake down” editors added to the difficulties in her final year at the paper. She noted that the Post did recently run a four-part series on fracking.
Electa Draper, a reporter who covered health, science and other beats for the Post for 18 years until taking a buyout last summer, confirmed much of Lofholm’s story. She observed that Crummy’s deep knowledge of how the paper works has surely helped in the ex-journalist’s new career.
Crummy’s side-switching is also part of a larger trend shaping how the public receives information. While newspapers have struggled in recent years to maintain revenues and prestige, the public relations industry has flourished. In 1980, there was one reporter for every 1.2 PR specialists in America. By 2004, the gap had widened to one reporter to every 3.2 PR specialists. Today, there is one reporter for every 4.6 PR specialists.
The reporters who are left are expected to produce more articles per day than they did in the past. That means they’re more reliant on outside sources, including PR people, to suggest stories. Meanwhile, ex-journalists are taking jobs in PR. That means industries are increasingly likely to have advice from sophisticated former insiders like Crummy — people who know exactly how to get them the coverage they want.
‘Throw It All Over Twitter’
Crummy ran through all of her best journalist management tips at the May meeting. Try to charm reporters by offering them exclusive stories, she advised: “Reporters like nothing more than feeling special.” Do not overlook business reporters when you’re peddling exclusives, and be sure to consult with former journalists to prepare responses in the face of potential scandals.
She encouraged her audience to make sure their rank-and-file employees are wary of talking, even to neighbors, and definitely not to the press. “There’s so many reporters [who] will just start dialing people who work somewhere,” she said. “And people don’t realize they’re saying anything that can come back later to harm them.”
If companies don’t have an answer when scandal erupts, they should still state publicly that an “investigation is underway,” Crummy said. Whatever they choose to reveal, she cautioned attendees to “tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. I mean, it’s to me the most important in crisis communications: ‘Don’t ever lie!’”
Crummy recommended that fracking industry officials raise their complaints directly with reporters first. If that doesn’t yield the response they want, then go to their editors.
Industries should call out reporters on Twitter so that other journalists will see it. “I will throw it all over Twitter,” she said. “It’s kind of mean that you embarrassed that person, but oh well. I mean, do your job.”
“If I get a correction, I put it on Facebook, anywhere you can,” Crummy said. “That’s the beauty of social media. You can go out and do whatever you want.” She laughed.
Crummy also related stories from her time at the Denver Post to provide a glimpse into the reporting process. So-called “day five” stories, or those that appear after the initial rush of reporting on a major event, can be particularly damaging as the media try to unravel what triggered a catastrophe and where the mistakes were made, she said. Crummy offered an example: After the 2012 mass shooting inside a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, she and other Post reporters put together a timeline for ambulance arrivals and looked over the dispatch tapes. Their reporting revealed that some injured victims had to wait as long as 20 minutes for medical attention.
Crummy also has experience being on the receiving end of complaints, providing valuable perspective she can now offer her clients. In 2012, she told the Columbia Journalism Review that she had been “eviscerated” on websites for covering the influence of money in politics. Her 2013 investigative series on Colorado ski lodges found shoddy safety standards, triggering an angry response on a blog run by a lawyer who works for the outdoor recreation industry.
Toward the end of her May talk, Crummy cautioned attendees that their encounters with journalists should not necessarily begin with a threat. She then chuckled. Someone in the audience can be heard responding, “Well, we do that,” to titters from the crowd.
“I really don’t think they’re the enemy,” Crummy responded. “I know it feels like it sometimes. I think most people in the press want to be fair.”
It’s kind of mean that you embarrassed that person, but oh well. I mean, do your job. Crummy, on using social media to slam individual reporters
When asked for this story about her new role and the advice she gave, Crummy said she was only suggesting that officials push back against stories that they consider factually inaccurate. “I recommended seeking a correction or noting the story on social media to correct the record and so other reporters – who as you know use these mediums consistently ― do not perpetuate the inaccuracies,” she said via email.
Crummy dismissed even her meetings in person with Post staff as par for the course. She said that several years ago she and representatives from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association met with Greg Moore, then the Post’s top editor, to discuss “a number of published stories” that they felt “failed to get a balanced response or had factual inaccuracies.”
“As a reporter for 15 years, and one who was at The Post for 11, I know this is not an uncommon practice for anyone who had complaints,” Crummy explained via email. “The editor’s door was always open to the public who felt there was an issue with coverage. It did not mean Greg Moore would agree, but he listened. That seems to be responsible journalism.”
She also defended her suggestion that interest groups should search for evidence of a journalist’s possible bias, arguing that the Post has “one of the best and most rigorous ethics policies in the country” and that looking into reporters really defends that policy.
“A reporter is not supposed to do things that could be perceived as bias. That includes contribution to organizations they cover, putting up yard signs, signing certain petitions, etc. Most reporters do their job well,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with looking to see if a reporter is doing these things after getting continuous inaccurate coverage. The same rules apply to them that apply to the people they cover.”
A Pretty One-Sided Picture
But it’s unclear what, in Crummy’s mind, constitutes getting something “wrong” in a fracking story.
Last January, Crummy spoke on a podcast run by the Heartland Institute, an industry-funded climate-denying “think tank,” about the kind of guidance she would give reporters looking for information on fracking. “There’s been four studies just done in the last six, seven months from the EPA and Yale and Ohio University, saying that, you know, fracking isn’t hurting groundwater,” Crummy said. “It’s not contaminating anything.” Reporters should also go to CRED to get the facts and not just print sound bites from “extreme groups,” she said.
CRED’s website paints a pretty one-sided picture of the research on hydraulic fracturing, a technique that blasts a mix of water, sand and chemicals into rock formations to release oil and gas. It doesn’t mention any of the incidents where fracking has been found to pollute groundwater or the reports that back up that conclusion, including a study published in March that suggests fracking wastewater contaminated wells in Wyoming. The website mentions seven other studies that found no groundwater pollution from fracking, including one published in April. Crummy did not address questions about their sourcing in response to HuffPost’s inquiry.
Lee Ann Colacioppo, now the Denver Post’s editor, said she was not in her current position when Crummy raised concerns about a reporter’s Facebook posting and that she could not discuss personnel matters.
“Former members of our staff are found throughout the world of public relations and public policy and we give them the same ear we give anyone else,” said Colacioppo in an email. “It is their job to reach out to us and our job to listen. It is important we not let the fact they are former colleagues give them undue influence. I have no evidence that has ever happened.”
She also pointed to the Post’s recent series on fracking.
Haley similarly downplayed his particular connection to the Post. “I routinely talk to Denver Post reporters, just as I talk with reporters from across Colorado in an effort to give them information about oil and natural gas development in the state,” he said. “If we see inaccuracies or information that is not in the correct context, we reach out to those reporters and editors to seek corrections or to add that needed context.”
Pac/West, the creator of Crummy’s two pro-fracking clients, has a long and well-understood history of launching corporate front groups on behalf of polluting interests. In 2005, PBS reported on the firm’s success in advocating for anti-environment causes, pointing to synthetic organizations like Project Protect, which successfully lobbied to open up national forests to more logging, and the Save Our Species Alliance, which tried (and failed) to pass a law gutting the Endangered Species Act. Both groups consisted of little more than websites, media quotes and ad buys. And both were run by Tim Wigley, who works out of Pac/West’s office in Portland, Oregon.
When Wigley assembled people in a D.C. congressional office in January 2005 to plot Project Protect’s national line of attack, one of the strategists there was prominent climate change denier Myron Ebell, whom Donald Trump has chosen to lead his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.
‘Nothing More Dispiriting’
Fracking has generated national controversy in recent years, and a number of communities have tried to regulate or ban the practice. While both Trump and Hillary Clinton have said communities should have that right, the oil and gas industry has fought local control ― with Colorado as the front line of that battle.
In August, Inside Energy reported that oil and gas interests had collected $15 million to defeat proposed ballot measures in Colorado aimed at allowing local control over fracking. Of the approximately $5 million spent on that PR effort, 97 percent went to Pac/West. (The environmental groups supporting communities that want to ban fracking, by comparison, had a $424,000 war chest.)
Those initiatives failed to make it onto this year’s ballot, and the industry pivoted to spending its funds on another ballot measure that would ban future initiatives against fracking. Protect Colorado has donated $1 million to that latest effort.
Such maneuvering isn’t new in Colorado’s fracking fight. The New York Times reported on a 2014 meeting of the Western Energy Alliance, a Colorado-based trade organization that Wigley now leads on behalf of oil and gas companies. A leaked recording of the meeting revealed the industry’s plan to “play dirty” to win the PR battle over energy development.
At that gathering, Richard Berman, the founder and chief executive of the Washington-based consulting firm Berman & Company, advised oil and gas officials to launch an “endless war” against environmentalists that included researching their personal backgrounds and looking for embarrassing information. Berman also explained how companies can hide their funding of such efforts by routing money through nonprofits that are not required to disclose donors.
Executives from Anadarko told The New York Times that while they attended the talk, they did not support Berman’s approach. The company’s vice president for corporate communications, John Christiansen, said Berman’s advice “does not align with our values.”
But Anadarko is a main funder behind the two Colorado groups that Crummy represents and that appear to be following a very similar playbook. Christiansen denied any discrepancy in the company’s actions in response to a HuffPost inquiry and tried to distance Anadarko from the pro-fracking groups. “In communicating with media, our company’s approach is to be responsive, transparent and respectful,” he said. “The comments you’ve indicated were not made by an employee of our company.”
Perhaps none of this is entirely surprising. Corporations have used “flacks” to spin public opinion their way for more than a century, noted Chuck Lewis, a professor and executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.
Former reporters have often participated in this practice, Lewis said. But he added, “There is nothing more dispiriting or disgusting to me than a former journalist working for a powerful corporation or other institution who has been hired to trash a reporter who is doing his or her job.”
“To me, that is just about the lowest form of life, and an affront to the noble profession of journalism,” he continued.
Crummy’s former colleagues seem similarly dispirited.
“Someone who has been on the inside knows where the vulnerabilities are,” Draper said. Preserving a free press against those who would like to control it has never been simple. As newspapers lose influence, and “many segments of society find it easy to take potshots at reporters, who tend to feel more powerless than ever.”
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story contained two instances where the groups’ stance on fracking was misstated.