Times Wields Silent Hatchet on DOE’s Chu

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., May 26, 2010 — A breathless article in today’s New York Times outlines ties between U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and, today’s chief villain, British Petroleum. Turns out that BP dropped half-a-billion dollars on Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory for work on alternative fuels when Chu ran the lab.

When he got to DOE, Chu hired the guy who had been BP’s chief scientist, physicist Steven Koonin, a long-time friend, to head DOE’s science program.

Heaven’s is this a conflict of interest? Well, not exactly, explains the Times, noting “no evidence that Dr. Chu or Dr. Koonin have represented BP’s viewpoints in internal deliberations or sought to influence administration policy in a way that would benefit BP….” But then, in classic journalistic “give-em-a-leg-and-take-it-away,” the article observes that “the mere fact of their shared history brought expressions of concern from environmentalists and other critics of the White House’s response to the spill.”

My dictionary defines “innuendo” as “an oblique allusion: HINT, INSINUATION; esp: a veiled or equivocal reflection on character or reputation.” In journalism, this is the use of the invisible hatchet.

Now I have no brief for Steve Chu or DOE. In fact, I’ve never seen an energy secretary I thought did a good job (and I’ve covered them all, since Jim Schlesinger) and I have long called for the abolition of the Department of Energy as wasteful and feckless.

But this article in the venerable Times is, to put it clearly, unfair, and uses puppet figures to make a charge the reporters are unwilling to make themselves: that Chu is compromised by his relations with BP.

They trot out a clueless consumer advocate, John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, to make the point: “From what I’ve seen, the Energy Department’s response has been less than rapid to this oil spill. This whole thing just underscores that corporate interests have created, over time, these relationships that give them unfair access to policy makers.”

Eventually, the article gets around to the vital point in the argument, which should have led the reporters to drop the story, not write it. The U.S. Department of Energy has nothing to do with offshore oil drilling, oil spills, spill reponse or the like.

The White House threw Chu into the fray so it could bask in the reflected glory of his Nobel Prize in Physics and defend against the charge (largely bogus) that the administration isn’t responding well. That makes the White House as cynical as the two Times reporters who concocted this piece of journalistic garbage.