Crude Coverage at the Times

News analysis displays gross lack of concern about Gulf spill

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded on April 20, causing the massive oil spill currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, sank two days later, on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day.

Given that a 1969 spill from an oil platform off the coast of Santa Barbara, California spurred the first Earth Day, the rig’s sinking is tragically ironic. As Lisa Margonelli, who has written extensively about crude, observed in The New York Times on Saturday, “The history of American oil spills is the history of the environmental movement.”

Unfortunately, the coverage of Earth Day’s fortieth anniversary, which focused on the “green economy” and “clean energy” business, showed just how much the environmental movement—and coverage of the environment—has gone corporate. Even more unfortunate is the fact that some journalists’ reluctance to question industry’s influence on environmentalism has remained on display since the oil spill in the Gulf began. Nowhere is this more true perhaps, than in a front-page news analysis in the Times on Tuesday.

The analysis, by John Broder and Tom Zeller, Jr., attempted to make the case that the current spill is no “apocalypse.” In order to show, ostensibly, that even environmentalists are not worried about a worst-case scenario, Broder and Zeller quote Quenton R. Dokken, a marine biologist and director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, “a conservation group in Corpus Christi, Tex.” saying that the “sky isn’t falling,” and that while the situation might be troublesome, “it isn’t the end of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Perhaps. But here’s a little something about that “conservation group” that the Times didn’t tell readers: one of its board members is Head of Corporate Responsibility & Environment at Transocean, the company that leased and operated the Deepwater Horizon for BP. Transocean also hosted the foundation’s last board of directors meeting, which took place in Houston in January. The foundation’s current president is a retired senior vice president of Rowan Companies, Inc., “a major provider of international and domestic contract drilling services.” Another board member manages oil giant ConocoPhillips’s exploration and production assets in the Gulf of Mexico and Southern Louisiana. Two more work for Shell and Anadarko Petroleum Company.

[Update, 4:00 p.m.: ProPublica, which also criticized the Times for not disclosing the Gulf of Mexico Foundation’s ties to the oil industry, has responses from both Dokken and Zeller.]

Granted, Broder and Zeller quote a number of other sources that corroborate their thesis that the Gulf spill isn’t that bad, including Edward B. Overton, professor emeritus of environmental science at Louisiana State University. But their failure to provide any background whatsoever on the Gulf of Mexico Foundation makes them look like shills for Big Oil. Instead of holding BP, Transocean, and the like to the fire—the proper role for journalists in situations like this—Broder and Zeller start making excuses for them. At one point they even have the gall to argue that “No one, not even the oil industry’s most fervent apologists, is making light of this accident.” Yet that sentence makes light of the situation. After all, just two days before Broder and Zeller’s analysis appeared, the Times’s own editorial board argued that BP was “slow to ask for help” and that the White House “should have intervened much more quickly on its own initiative … the timetable is damning.”

None of this is to say that the Times should be hyping environmental impacts that have not manifested, but the tenor of Broder and Zeller’s article is way off. They point out, for instance, that “the Deepwater Horizon blowout is not unprecedented, nor is it yet among the worst oil accidents in history,” but does it really matter that this doesn’t happen often or that it’s not the biggest disaster ever? A few lines later, Broder and Zeller themselves acknowledge that “no one knows” what the final environmental impact will be—which is true. All the more reason why industry, government, and, yes, journalists, should be operating under the assumption that a worst-case scenario is unfolding. Doing otherwise will help nobody.

An editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune had it right: “Coastal residents need President Obama to keep the pressure on BP and to use every resource at his disposal to fight this catastrophe.”

It is time for this country’s “paper of record” to do its part to keep pressure on the White House and industry alike.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.