NYT Pushes BP’s PR Line on Its Ability to Pay

The massively profitable company's poverty claim hits A1 of the Times—unchecked

I defended The New York Times this morning. Let me lay into it a little bit this afternoon.

On Friday, the paper led its front page with a credulous story headlined “BP Says Limits on Drilling Imperil Spill Payouts.”

BP is warning Congress that if lawmakers pass legislation that bars the company from getting new offshore drilling permits, it may not have the money to pay for all the damages caused by its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The company says a ban would also imperil the ambitious Gulf Coast restoration efforts that officials want the company to voluntarily support.

Oh, noes! BP says it may run out of money if it doesn’t get offshore permits.

It says that, but is it true? Of course not.

Here’s BP’s net income from the last four years:

— 2009: $16.6 billion

— 2008: $21.2 billion

— 2007: $20.8 billion

— 2006: $22.3 billion

Those are free and clear profits.

The Times only gets at those huge numbers indirectly down toward the bottom of the story when it writes this:

He estimated that the gulf generated $5 billion to $7 billion in profits annually for BP, or about a quarter of the company’s total.

And even that undermines the premise of the story, noting as it does that the gulf only generates about a quarter of its profits. And the company is selling off tens of billions of dollars worth of assets to clear up money, too. But the $20 billion fund is in peril?

Come on.

Now, it’s news that BP is lobbying Congress with this nonsense. But such a totally bogus claim doesn’t deserve front-page treatment in the Times, especially when it gets just about zero pushback from the paper. The Times doesn’t make any attempt to show whether BP’s claims are legitimate or just bluster other than a single weak he-said/she-said quote from a congressional aide.

That’s a big miss. Without countering this nonsense, it’s just amplifying the BP PR department’s bogus spin with the biggest megaphone in the world.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.