The following is a guest opinion from Gabe Elsner of The Checks and Balances Project, which recently launched a new project aimed at increasing transparency at news outlets.

Every day, Americans read the opinion and commentary of seemingly impartial “experts” from think tanks on critical subjects in the pages of the nation’s newspapers.

What these readers don’t know is that the authors of these opinion pieces work for think tanks and organizations funded by the same industries they are “impartially” writing about. Rarely — if ever — are readers informed that the so-called expert has received money from the industry he or she is championing or defending.

Why? All too often, top news outlets don’t ask pundits about these conflicts, and so readers don’t get the whole story.

That’s why, starting Oct. 6, The Checks and Balances Project launched an online petition at TrueTies.org.

As the recession has ground on, many news media outlets went out of business or fled quality journalism. Fortunately, the New York Times did the opposite — it doubled down. That’s why we’re asking the Times, as our nation’s paper of record, to increase transparency on the opinion pages by beginning a practice of asking one basic question of every op-ed submission finalist: “Do you have direct or indirect ties to the industries you are writing about?” And, if the answer is yes, to tell their readers at the time the piece is published.

The case of the “senior fellow”

The Checks and Balances Project — a startup watchdog organization committed to holding government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public — decided to launch True Ties after reading a June 2011 op-ed in The New York Times by Robert Bryce.

Bryce, using the title “senior fellow” at the Manhattan Institute, claimed that renewable energy was bad for the environment and that natural gas was far preferable, despite widespread concerns about the gas industry’s potential contamination of public drinking water supplies. What readers weren’t told, while reading his argument in favor of fossil fuels, is that his host organization, the Manhattan Institute, received nearly $3 million from fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil and Koch Industries.

Wouldn’t it have been better if someone from the Times’ opinion page staff asked Bryce one question about his financial ties? Don’t readers deserve to know that this columnist’s paycheck is funded in part by fossil fuel-tied groups?

Sadly, the New York Times piece by Bryce is not an isolated incident. This problem is widespread — in newspapers, cable television, radio and beyond. Bryce points out that his work has been seen by millions of Americans through “publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Counterpunch and Atlantic Monthly to Oklahoma Stripper.” In addition, he’s appeared on television shows ranging from the PBS “Newshour” to Fox News to “Energy Now.”

Bryce is just one example in a growing industry of front groups and industry-sponsored pundits. These organizations are functionally serving as industry public relations firms, while carrying neutral-sounding names such as the Mercatus Center, Institute for Energy Research and the Cato Institute. They provide a platform not just for Bryce, but for other “experts,” such as the Mercatus Center’s Andrew P. Morriss, to spread fossil-fuel industry talking points while taking fossil-fuel money. Much of the funding for the Mercatus Center comes from the Koch Family Foundations, while the Institute for Energy Research is essentially a joint project of Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. And, similar to Bryce, Morriss, a fellow at the Mercatus Center, works for organizations with sponsors who remain hidden from readers and viewers.

These pundits have the right to be heard, but they shouldn’t get to hide their industry funding. The New York Times, as the standard bearer of journalism, has a responsibility to ensure consumers know all the facts.

What do we do about it?

The clearest step forward is simple: The New York Times and other important media outlets can ask a basic question of anyone publishing opinions on their pages regarding financial conflicts of interest — and then tell readers about the conflicts.

Full disclosure of these ties will increase transparency. More importantly, it will ensure that readers have the relevant information they need to put commentaries into proper context, and ultimately, help inform their opinions on vital issues. By asking contributors like Bryce to answer a short set of disclosure questions, the New York Times can set the industry standard and help their readers get the full story.

Gabe Elsner is a public interest advocate based in Washington, D.C. For the past five years, he has worked with a variety of non-profit organizations to elevate the voice of ordinary people in policy debates. Gabe understands that citizens need to stand up for true American values to restore democracy and to overcome the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups. He joined the Checks and Balances Project in June 2011 to help increase transparency and inform the public on critical issues, especially related to energy.

UPDATE (10/10/11): In response to a comment, Gabe Elsner sent along a longer bio to be more transparent about who he is:

Gabe Elsner is a public interest advocate based in Washington, D.C. For the past five years, he has worked with a variety of non-profit organizations to elevate the voice of ordinary people in policy debates. Gabe understands that citizens need to stand up for true American values to restore democracy and to overcome the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups.

Prior to joining the Checks & Balances Project, Gabe planned and implemented the first statewide campaign for the California Student Sustainability Coalition to defeat Proposition 23, a California proposition on the 2010 ballot funded by big oil companies. The Power Vote California effort mobilized tens of thousands of voters prior to Election Day around the message that energy companies should not be writing California’s public policy.
Gabe also trained and rallied college students on campuses across the country to have a voice on Capitol Hill. His organizing efforts around Power Shift 2007 and 2009 resulted in the largest citizen lobby days in U.S. history.

He graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley after writing a thesis on the energy security crisis of the early 1970s. In his free time, Gabe tends a “victory garden” in his front yard, providing a seasonal supply of fresh vegetables for the neighborhood.