The NYT stopped shilling for cigarettes. Why won't it stop shilling for fossil fuels?

As climate disasters devastate America, activists aren't the only ones wondering why the paper of record is still advertising fossil fuels.

For more information on how to help those affected by recent climate disasters, try here, here, and here. Or leave a comment with your preferred organization/approach—and help start a conversation on the best ways to lend support.

Leave a comment

Millions of people will be seeking information this morning about Hurricane Ida, the Caldor Fire, and the Chaparral Fire—three ongoing climate disasters leaving tremendous pain and suffering in their paths.

For timely, trustworthy news on these crises, many will likely turn to the New York Times.

The paper of record’s reporting will undoubtedly be of quality. But readers will have to be careful not to get distracted.

In addition to information about these deadly disasters, Times readers today may also be shown advertisements for the fossil fuel industry—the main industry responsible for making the disasters worse.

These advertisements, many of which are created for the industry by the Times, routinely run on the paper’s website alongside its journalism. They attempt to sell readers not on a product, but on an idea: that fossil fuel companies are helping save the planet.

This idea is false, as repeatedly demonstrated by The Times’ own reporting. Fossil fuel ads are political propaganda, attempts by the industry to placate public outrage about climate change.

This outrage is often sparked by deadly disasters like Hurricane Ida and the wildfires in California—each of which were super-charged by extreme, human-caused heat.

In perhaps the most depressing form of serendipity, a new activist campaign to pressure the Times to stop creating and running fossil fuel ads is launching today. Called Ads Not Fit to Print, the campaign argues that fossil fuel advertisements endanger Times readers’ health in the same way now-banned cigarette ads did—and likely, even more.

“What the Times is doing right now is shameful,” said Genevieve Guenther, whose group End Climate Silence is spearheading the campaign.On one hand, they’re trying to seem like part of the reality-based community who acknowledges the climate crisis and wants to solve it. On the other, they're doing everything they can to keep the fossil fuel economy going because it is one of the sources of their own power and they believe in it.”

Activists aren’t the only ones taking issue with this practice, either. In conversations with HEATED over the last week, several current and former Times newsroom employees expressed concerns about the paper’s practice of creating and running fossil fuel ads. Their concerns ranged from undermining the Times’ own climate reporting, to harming Times readers’ health, to aiding industry attempts to mislead the public about the deadly effects of fossil fuels.

The issue has also been discussed in the newsroom before, according to three current and former employees whose work focused on climate; the earliest recollection was in late 2019. But those conversations have not yet been formally raised with either Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger or T Brand Studio, the Times arm that creates ads for Big Oil companies like Shell, Exxon and Chevron.

The new activist campaign, then, may represent the first time the issue of fossil fuel ads has been brought directly to Times decision-makers. But it’s unclear if those decision-makers really understand climate science, and if they are aware of the paper’s own history of taking a stand against deadly lies.

In 1999, The New York Times made history by becoming one of the first major newspapers to ban cigarette advertising. The move came amid a heated legal battle between states and the tobacco industry over deceptive advertising of its products, which were killing people at an alarming rate.

While other newspapers refused to budge on the issue, the Times drew a line in the sand. “We don't want to expose our readers to advertising that may be dangerous to their health,” Times spokesperson Nancy Nielsen said at the time.

The decision enraged tobacco companies, which accused the paper of trampling on free speech. But the Times’s then-publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., was unmoved. “The First Amendment gives the press the right to publish what it chooses to,” he said. “It doesn't force the press to publish something, whether that's a news story or an advertisement.”

Seven years later, in 2006, a federal judge found tobacco companies had illegally engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to lie to the public about the deadly effects of smoking through advertisements. Today, the tobacco industry still runs ads, but they are highly restricted due in part to that ruling, and most news outlets don’t run them.

Though many media executives in 1999 considered banning cigarette ads an activist issue, the Times understood it was a matter of journalism. Banning cigarette ads was about stopping the spread of misleading information about a product scientists had unequivocally linked to death.

Twenty-two years later, scientists have unequivocally linked the burning of fossil fuels to climate change, a phenomenon that’s already causing mass death across the world. And it’s expected to cause much more death worldwide the more those fuels continue to be burned.

Some newspapers have already banned fossil fuel ads for the reasons described in the new activist campaign. The British newspaper The Guardian did so in 2019, continuing its reputation for setting standards for climate coverage. The British Medical Journal and Swedish publications Dagens Nyheter and Dagens ETC have done the same.

So what’s standing in the way of the Times applying the same logic for fossil fuel ads that it applied to cigarette ads more than two decades ago?

One possibility is revenue. Though Times communications director Nicole Taylor would not say what percentage of the paper’s ad revenue comes from fossil fuels, she said in an e-mail that ads “are essential to our ability to provide journalists with the resources to do important, time consuming work, including the climate reporting that is read by millions of users per week.

But the Times is increasingly relying on reader subscriptions more than ads to fund its journalism, and so some current and former newsroom employees are skeptical that revenue is the reason. Some believe the reluctance to ban fossil fuel ads comes from the paper’s top editors, and their desire to seem reasonable and non-partisan.

“Nobody on masthead understands climate,” said one former Times newsroom employee who worked on climate, who asked not to be named for professional reasons. They said the topic is “seen as an activist issue” by the paper’s top editorial brass, who understand the urgency of climate change but don’t understand the strong scientific connection between fossil fuels and planetary chaos.

It’s hard to know if that’s true from editors’ public statements. Publisher A. G. Sulzberger hasn’t said much publicly on the issue. Shortly after he became publisher in 2018, Sulzberger told Times readers he considered climate change “one of the most important stories of our time.” In a 2019 lecture, he said his newsroom would do “the most creative, ambitious, and important work on climate change.” In 2020, the paper under his leadership was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prizer in Public Service, for its reporting on the Trump administration’s political war on climate science.

But Sulzberger also said in 2018 that “the science can be dense and complicated,” so he prefers visual storytelling. He also said in a 2019 interview with Der Spiegel that “We know [climate change is] happening, we know it's dangerous, but it's really hard to attribute any one storm to climate change.”

Both of these statements are misleading cliches. Unless you’re talking about specifics like what will happen to clouds, the science of climate change is actually pretty simple. And scientists have been able to attribute storms to climate change for many years—which Times reporting has repeatedly demonstrated, from as far back as 2016 and 2017 to just this week.

Three current and former newsroom employees also told HEATED they recalled Sulzberger speaking against the Guardian’s climate rhetoric at an all-hands meeting in 2018. One former newsroom employee, who asked not to be named out of concern over professional consequences, said Mr. Sulzberger called The Guardian an "activist” organization.

Asked by HEATED to confirm and/or clarify those comments, the Times did not provide a response. The paper also did not answer a question about whether Sulzberger’s understanding of climate science has evolved in the years since his 2018 and 2019 comments.

The paper also did not provide responses to questions about how Times advertising decisions are made; what percentage of Times advertising comes from fossil fuel companies; whether editorial staff have ever raised concerns about fossil fuel ads; or why the paper recently banned fossil fuel ads from running on its climate newsletter and in the podcast “The Daily” but not other places.

What Times communications director Nicole Taylor did provide was an e-mailed statement about the paper’s commitment to climate journalism. Here’s the full statement:

The New York Times is dedicated to seeking the truth and helping people understand the world, and that mission is especially important and urgent in our climate change journalism.

We accept ads that range across a wide spectrum as long as they meet our advertising acceptability guidelines, and all advertising, across our print, digital, audio, and other products, supports our newsroom. Those advertising dollars are essential to our ability to provide journalists with the resources to do important, time consuming work, including the climate reporting that is read by millions of users per week.

We continue to produce more coverage of climate change than any other newspaper in the U.S. or Europe, from interactive visualizations of the world’s most polluted cities to multimedia explorations of ways to fight climate change. All our journalists operate with complete independence, in line with our historic commitment to pursue the truth without fear or favor. 

A month before the Ads Not Fit to Print campaign launched, Guenther sent an e-mail to Sulzberger, hoping he might follow in his father’s footsteps. She also sent it to executive editor Dean Baquet, head of Times branded content Amber Guild, and other employees of the T Brand Studio, according to a copy seen by HEATED.

The e-mail informed Sulzberger and the others of the upcoming activism campaign, and asked the paper to reconsider its stance on fossil fuel ads. Guenther says she did not receive a response.

“I don't know that I felt angry,” she said. “I think I just felt profoundly disappointed.”

“Our goal is to get fossil fuel money out of the media entirely,” she said. “But we wanted to begin with the Times because they do seem to be one of the news outlets that really gets a climate crisis.” If the Times stopped running fossil fuel ads, she said, other major news institutions might follow.

Guenther is now hoping that others will join End Climate Silence and other environmental groups in increasing the pressure for a response from the Times—specifically, from Sulzberger, who she believes to be the key to action. She’s asking people to start by signing her campaign’s petition to the paper—which, she insists, is no small act.

“If we can get enough response to this, I think we’ll justified in bringing it back to [the Times] and saying, look, you're going to be losing readers, you're not going to be attracting young readers,” she said. “If you want to continue to be the paper of record as the climate crisis accelerates, you need to put your money where your mouth is, and stop trying to get your readers to consume more fossil fuels.”

“We may not get them to agree today,” Guenther continued. “But the pressure will be on them. And after a while, that pressure is going to break.”

Catch of the Day:

Fish missed you. He’s looking forward to seeing you on Mondays from here on out.