Bloomberg View, Eric Schneiderman, and Exxon Mobil

Whatever you might think of Michael Bloomberg otherwise, his corporate empire, including Bloomberg News, was built on the insight that big-time investors would be willing to pay top dollar for information that was directly tailored to their needs.

You always want to know your core customers and so it doesn’t surprise me to see the editors at Bloomberg View come out with guns blazing for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

What did Schneiderman do to arouse the ire of the Bloomberg Empire?

He allegedly issued a subpoena to Exxon Mobil asking them to produce documents going back to the 1970’s that might indicate that they knew that burning fossil fuels was harmful and yet failed to warn their investors that profits might be negatively impacted.

This could be seen as akin to nailing Al Capone for tax evasion, since Exxon/Mobil is guilty of sponsoring phony science and deceptive media campaigns intended to mislead not just investors but politicians, regulators, judges, customers, and the general public.

Holding them accountable for just the investors part of that fraud seems like a slap on the wrist and possible justice for the least sympathetic of their victims.

But even this is too much for the Bloomberg editors:

[Schneiderman’s] grounds seem pretty thin. Much as one may sympathize with Schneiderman’s desire to encourage stronger action on climate change, this is not the way to go about it.

Exxon’s critics have argued that the company’s own researchers believed, as far back as the 1970s, that carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels were causing climate change. Yet, as they point out, Exxon has long opposed strong action on emissions, and until a few years ago gave financial support to researchers and campaigners that cast doubt on the scientific consensus.

The company later acknowledged that this was unwise: In 2007, it said it would stop funding such groups. The earlier practice deserved no prizes for good corporate citizenship — but failing to be a good corporate citizen isn’t lying, and isn’t a crime. Not yet anyway. Unless the company deliberately misled its investors, it’s hard to see why its scientific and public-relations efforts should be any concern of New York’s attorney general.

I hope I don’t need to engage here in a semantic debate about the meaning of the word “lying.” And I’ll leave it to lawyers and judges to decide how to delineate the difference between sponsoring false science and media campaigns for the purpose of deceiving the public vs. the purpose of deceiving your investors.

The folks at Bloomberg have their own moral and legal standards:

Regulating emissions is a job for politicians — and they’re failing. That’s frustrating, and in the absence of effective government action, there’s an added moral obligation on companies to act.

Even so, engaging in scientific research and public advocacy shouldn’t be crimes in a free country. Using the criminal law to shame and encumber companies that do so is a dangerous arrogation of power.

See? All they did was engage in research and advocacy!

How could that be a crime?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.