There’s no doubt that the Times’ climate journalism is both independent and brilliant. The problem is that the Times risks undermining its credibility when it contradicts what it reports by surrounding it with fossil fuel ads.
Quality journalism’s reliance on fossil fuel money is a real, structural problem, yet advertising in general makes up an ever smaller part of the Times’ revenue. Most of its income comes from subscribers. And the Times will retain and attract subscribers as long as the paper seems trustworthy and free from conflicts of interest. Fossil fuel advertising threatens the New York Times brand and therefore its business model.
This is not just about people being fooled by individual ads - it’s about the long-term brand association that’s created by seeing The New York Times logo next to an ad that spreads disinformation about fossil fuels and oil and gas company practices.
It’s also unclear whether the Times has any significant data on what its readers actually think about its advertising for fossil fuel companies. One study not specific to The New York Times found that 77% of people shown native advertising did not even realize the ads were ads, for example.
Oil and gas companies tout low-carbon solutions to the climate crisis in order to engage in greenwashing, the propaganda practice of covering up their dirty practices with a climate-friendly picture of them as partners in a clean-energy transition. The truth is that in 2019, over 99% of oil and gas companies’ capital investment was in continued and new extraction of oil and gas. Only 0.8% of their budgets were spent on research or deployment of renewables or carbon capture and storage. These ads painting fossil fuel companies as climate friendly are false advertising, and the Times is helping them spread it.
In the words of Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the Chairman of the New York Times, after the company banned tobacco ads in 1999: “The First Amendment gives the press the right to publish what it chooses to. It doesn’t force the press to publish something, whether that’s a news story or an advertisement.”
As one of the most widely read newspapers in the world, the New York Times’ brand has a tremendous amount of power. By creating and funning fossil-fuel ads, the company risks boosting oil and gas companies’ social license to continue massively contributing to the climate crisis. Rival news outlets and the social media giants that support fossil fuel ads also bear responsibility—and other groups are already running campaigns to hold several of them accountable. But when The New York Times first banned tobacco ads, it didn’t wait for everyone else to act—it led the way. It should do so again today, especially when the stakes are even higher.
It’s up to each outlet to decide where they draw the line to remain true to their values and their brand.