WaPo Environmental Reporter Married to Liberal Climate Lobbyist; Ombudsman Skims Over Conflicts

November 4th, 2009 11:09 PM

Unlike some Washington Post ombudsmen (ahem, Geneva Overholser), Andrew Alexander deserves credit for raising the question of liberal bias, and reporters’ connections to the liberal movement, even by marriage. But he didn’t tell the whole story. At best, he gets an I for Incomplete. On Sunday, Alexander reported:

Post reporter Juliet Eilperin covers the contentious issue of climate change. Her husband, a noted expert on the subject, coordinates international climate policy as a part-time senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. She has quoted officials from the liberal think tank in her stories, although not her spouse. Climate change is discussed at home, she said, but a "church-state separation" exists for areas where their work overlaps.

This kind of spousal connection would not be easily tolerated by the Post if Eilperin was a married to an expert for ExxonMobil. She would be moved off the green beat. Alexander bows briefly to that notion, but doesn’t really buy it:

Still, would The Post allow a reporter who covers energy to be paid on the side by a big oil company?

Eilperin's case is different. She covered climate issues long before her marriage in June last year to Andrew Light, whose full-time job is as director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University. When they met, he was a tenured faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"I forced him to move to D.C. because I didn't want to give up my job at The Post," she said. Eilperin also noted that Center for American Progress officials quoted in her stories are news sources she dealt with before she met her husband. And her stories sometimes question the group's assertions.

Does it really make a difference how this conflict developed? (In this case, it seems like her demands actually caused him to take a more political job.) Place the Exxon Mobil example in these excuses. Would Sierra Clubbers accept that she covered climate issues before she met the Exxon Mobil expert, and that she speaks to Exxon Mobil experts who are not her husband? Her stories sometimes question Exxon Mobil assumptions? I doubt that would sway a single liberal.

Dig a little further, and Alexander's attempts to skim over real conflicts get more troubling:

Several weeks ago, Quin Hillyer, a Washington Times senior editorial writer and senior editor of the conservative American Spectator magazine, blogged about Eilperin's situation. He's known her for 15 years and believes her to be "a very hard-working journalist who tries very hard to be fair."

Still, he wrote, "she has an obvious apparent conflict of interest...even if she is scrupulously objective." Hillyer urged giving her a new beat, "with a promotion."

It's a close call, but I think she should stay on the beat. With her work now getting special scrutiny, it will become clear if the conflict is real.

But Alexander is editing out where Hillyer agreed with the notion that Eilperin's reporting is biased to the left:

First, though: Yes, Juliet clearly leans left. And she clearly is convinced that man-made global warming is a dire threat to humanity -- and she is wrong on that, while Paul [Chesser] is right....

I myself have read some of Juliet's environmental pieces and found that the underlying assumptions were those of the left. My question is, to what extent has Paul, or anybody else on the climate-change-skeptic side, tried to approach Juliet as if she is fair-minded and as if she will give the skeptic side a fair shake if provided enough info?

Perhaps Alexander ignored these passages because he didn't want to acknowledge Paul Chesser, who was more adamant in his posts on the Spectator blog about Eilperin's connections to the Center for American Progress. He unfurls one that Alexander skipped over:

If Eilperin wrote for, say, The Nation, Grist, or some other ideological publication, she wouldn't be the subject of a blog written by me. That she is the star of reporting workshops sponsored and hosted by the likes of the Center for American Progress (where Eilperin's husband, Andrew Light, is a fellow) proves my point.

Eilperin was singled out as a speaker at a July 9 conference on journalism sponsored by Campus Progress and The Nation magazine. Doesn't Alexander see this as a larger problem in avoiding the appearance of deep friendliness with the husband's lobbying shop? Wasn't it worth addressing in the Sunday paper?

Would Alexander suggest that's not troubling since Eilperin also spoke for these same groups in 2006, before the wedding? Or it's okay, since The Nation proudly touts Eilperin as an "ex-Nation intern"? There's a lot of information left out of this article.