May 4, 2010; Source: ProPublica | Anyone reading the New York Times this week might have been astonished, maybe even let out a sigh of relief, to see a story that seemed to suggest that the BP oil spill in waters near Louisiana may not turn out to be the environmental disaster everyone fears. But now the Times is coming under criticism for not disclosing that an expert it quoted heads a nonprofit conservation group that has close ties to the oil industry.

According to the investigative news service, ProPublica, itself a nonprofit, the Times failed to let readers know of the deep ties between the Gulf of Mexico Foundation and the oil industry. In its story, the Times quoted the foundation’s executive director saying about the spill: “The sky is not falling. We’ve certainly stepped in a hole and we’re going to have to work ourselves out of it, but it isn’t the end of the Gulf of Mexico.”

On its own, ProPublica found that a majority of the foundation’s board has “direct ties to the offshore drilling industry. One of them is currently an executive at Transocean, the company that owns the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded last month, causing millions of gallons of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico. Seven other board members are currently employed at oil companies, or at companies that provide products and services ‘primarily’ to the offshore oil and gas industry. Those companies include Shell, Conoco Phillips, LLOG Exploration Company, Devon Energy, Anadarko Petroleum Company and Oceaneering International. The Gulf of Mexico Foundation’s president is a retired senior vice president of Rowan Companies Inc., an offshore drilling contractor.”

In its defense, and in response to ProPublica’s probing, Quenton Dokken the foundation’s executive director, said despite the group’s links to oil and gas interests, the industry has “never tried to dictate the direction of the Foundation.” He added, “We’ve always tried to work with every industry. Oil and gas is an industry that always steps up when we need money for educational products or habitat restoration projects. It steps up to plate and says, ‘How can we help?’”

Also suggesting it did nothing wrong by not providing more in-depth coverage, one of the contributors to the Times piece, Tom Zeller Jr., told ProPublica, “it’s probably always better to err on the side of full disclosure but we operate within space constraints as well—and I believe we did link out to the various Web sites, so enterprising readers could peruse their boards and sponsors.” That’s like saying the barrel is only half full, not half empty.—Bruce Trachtenberg