Is coverage of the gulf oil spill declining, especially from local TV? And if so, why?  And if so, is there a reason to follow the money which might logically  lead to the BP advertising juggernaut?

In the days and weeks immediately following the oil spill there was a gush of coverage on both network and local TV.  Regional and national reporters crisscrossed from Louisiana to Florida.  Today, 100 days since the disaster, the urgency except for  spill-impacted areas, has naturally diminished.  But is that due to an editorial decision or is it due to the huge buy of advertising time by BP?

This is my question… is there any relationship between BP’s advertising buy and the decision by stations to turn down the spotlight’s glare?  These are economic tough times in the ad world.  On local stations where the community’s automotive dealers were once counted on the purchase up to 30% of the local advertising space, and where nothing else has become a one-for-one replacement for the absence of such dealer ads, BP has obviously found a welcomed reception for its branded ad campaign about what it’s doing to repair the damage and sustain the environment.  Was there a quid pro quo?  Was there a condition, or a wink between the station and the media buyer that stipulated the news department scale back its oil spill coverage?  In exchange for a media buy was there a request, a demand for kinder editorial treatment?

I am not suggesting stations are choosing not to cover the spill but have they scaled back from two or three stories a night to a single story, often not even the lead story?  Is this coincident?  Or is the story fading on its own merit?  That is, except for efforts at sea to cap the well, there really isn’t much that seems substantively different from stories produced a week, two weeks or even three weeks ago.  Is this an editorial decision that with fewer new stories there is less to report, less reason to invest precious air time, or is there something more sinister at play?

We know that TV has limited commitment to many stories.  TV media hs been criticized for having the attention span of a small child.  And as a colleague has critically said about complicated stories, “TV does not handle complex carbohydrates well.”  And perhaps it is simply a case that audiences appear satiated on the spill story; perhaps minute by minute ratings provide evidence that many audiences have ‘tuned out’ from the story and therefore, with less interest comes decreased demand and fewer stories.

But is there something more?  I don’t know.  I haven’t access to such proprietary information on either side.  I am just wondering if any one has information to prove whether this is real, coincident, or unfounded.

It worked for Al Capone… why not Tony Hayward and so many other oil executives?   Remember the adage that you’re never punished for the crime but you’ll be doomed for the cover-up?  The oil spill is horrific but what’s more damaging has been the response, the obfuscation, the denials, and the apparent path of half-truths.

It seems apparent there will never be enough money to pay for all the losses, the hardships, the heartache.  Besides fines are merely money paid by a corporation and diddled about on a balance sheet.  In an age where we mourn the absence of real responsibility, make the crime personal, not just business.

Al Capone was never convicted for crimes regarding prohibition but for tax evasion.  What’s the crime committed by the oil executives?  Perjury!

Follow the logic.  Or perhaps better phrased, follow the money.  In order to gain government leases, in order to win approval of countless drilling plans, even when testifying before Congress following the disaster on Transocean’s Deep Horizon drilling rig it seems evident the executives from BP systematically misstated the facts (lies, fibs? white lies, convenient truths?) on government forms, contracts, plans and in testimony.

And that, ladies and gentleman of the jury, is perjury.

$20 billion dollars will never be enough as a set aside for damages.  BP is already claiming they have spent 10% of that on containing the spill alone.  What will happen when gulf beaches become oil stained gooey sand dunes, devoid of tourists for years?  Or what will happen to spring-break-centered towns like Panama City when no students return next year?  Or for anyone who bought condos on a once white-sand beach who will never be able to unload those albatrosses?  Imagine the devastation from the first hurricane in the gulf which inhales oil soaked sea and distributes that as rain hundreds of miles inland, not to mention the storm surge, both of which will leave an oily residue hundreds, perhaps a thousand miles from the spill?

There is simply no way to contain the damage nor provide restitution for all these ‘legitimate’ claims.  How do you put a value on some of the losses, or for deaths of wildlife or fish?  As for the examples like a hurricane BP will most likely argue that flood surge and rain is an act of God and nature and surely they cannot be held responsible for that!  As for the more acute, local claims, one must believe they will follow Exxon’s tact of making every nickle and dime a hard-won fight for those who suffered the loss.
Which brings me back to my principal theme.  In order for any real change there ought to be personal and not just business accountability.  This may seem like some sort of Jonathan Swift parable but change is unlikely to stem from political posturing, Congressional displeasure and environmentalist hand wringing.  For any oil or drilling executive who made their false assertions, who knew that there were not enough booms, or that the valve was not up to par, they should be held accountable for simply this: lying.  They seem to have lied or misled or misrepresented inconvenient truths regularly.  Senior and highly trained engineers at BP and other oil giants should have known better – they to either lied or went mute when higher-ups changed or modified their reports.  They kept their jobs but at an ethical price that is now being borne by others who are quite innocent victims.  Similar assertions of defense and denial echoed at war crime tribunals with only a modicum of success.  Surely we would not be able to jail all of the senior vice presidents, the vice presidents, the senior engineers and on down the line, and some offer value as government witnesses, but the point is simple – let’s make those responsible pay for their perjury.  While we’re at it, perhaps offer an amnesty for all the other oil companies might be considered, for perhaps 90 days, as a period when they could review and revise their plans too.

And this new truth-telling or ethical conduct might be applied to the mining industry… or transportation, or food too as there seem to be countless industries that have grown too cozy with government regulators who  believed we’re paid by taxpayers to protect the public at-large.

The point is this – instead of focusing solely on monetary recover, which is important, let’s not settle for the easy solution – the money alone – but use this disaster as a water shed mark in US history when companies are put on notice that too-close-for-ethical-comfort relationships with K Street lobbyists is not an alternative to the more costly truth; and that doing business well requires ethics.  That success is not judged solely on the balance sheet or an ability to recover from a whoops-moment.

We have suffered through the banking crisis, the housing meltdown, the oil spill and yet it feels as if we haven’t learned a lesson called accountability.  Fiscal, moral, ethic accountability and leadership is what is sorely needed.   We have suffered a hat trick of woe.  Have we learned anything more than, “Wow, it sure is expensive” and “How did that happen?”  Are we that naive?  Are we perpetually doomed to be ostriches?  If we don’t want to put the bastards in jail then let’s break out the old family recipe for mixing tar and start gathering the feathers.

The media has treated each of these events in a episodical way.  The public sees them as disasters each  in their own right.  But I think there may be an underlying cause that transcends all three… greed, a lack of ethics and accountability.  Money wont restore that – not even the most Draconian fine.  Accountability is not s synonym for businesses with deep pockets but rather it should be a maxim for the behavior of a company’s leadership, its C-levels and its Board.

Brilliant?  Tony Hayward and the cast of Gilligan’s Island… brilliant?  Well, perhaps as the Skipper he has left a lot to be desired, but virtually everything else the BP media machine is doing is text-book perfect and likely to be studied as a model for crisis communications and disasters of tomorrow.

BP is using the media, the web, social media and is literally crafting stories right before our eyes.  They have mastered the concept of producing and distributing their own media and communications.  Believing in the long tail of the web BP has hired its own reporters to gather news stories under the guise of journalism. Under banner headlines “BP reporters Tom Seslar and Paula Kolmar are on the ground in the Gulf, meeting the people most immediately affected by the oil spill. Read their regular updates” are an apologia of unimaginable guile and proportion featuring heartfelt reports of clean ups and mitigating the severity of the disaster. BP knows that some of these stories will fall into mainstream media either through a lack of checks and balances or an absence of editorial scrutiny. BP knows that while they cannot rebut all the stories produced by the press the corporation can muddy the water by producing and distributing its own look-like news. Clever. Perhaps even diabolical. Effective nonetheless.

Aggregating electronic media is also used to build what masquerades as a social media-oriented site where true news is co-mingled with corporate pieces.  They create and maintain a look so responsible, so balanced and fair.  Why not?  They cannot prevent the cascade of negativity so they might as well co-opt it to fit their presentation and advantage.  And goodness let’s watch them use You Tube as one of the silos to distribute their material to the main stream.

Union Carbide and Exxon were the poster children for how to bumble and fumble corporate responses to a crisis. Johnson & Johnson, Odwalla, even fast food outlets have done a better, more comprehensive and responsive job in managing a crisis over the recent past. But BP has set a new bar in how to handle the media on the ground, when to stonewall, when to provide selective access to those it favors (most notably FOX news, perhaps based on their British Sky News affiliation AKA Rupert Murdoch?), and now creating content thanks to their own news team juggernaut.

After Katrina all the networks pledged to establish and maintain news bureaus in New Orleans in response to what was perceived to be the national anguish over the tragedy. Slowly but steadily the New York based, east coast centric news producer’s interest waned until the economic costs of sustaining gulf coverage was deemed to be too high with respect to the newsness and news value of what was produced. No network executive wanted to blink first, that is to be perceived as caring less about the minority impacted city, but inevitably the networks scaled back and withdrew their staffs. Watch for the same in the gulf… the story will move from just Louisiana on to Mississippi, Alabama and ultimately the prize jewel Florida. As the floating story sails the gulf the reports will migrate too, a nomadic news team on the prowl for the oils next landfall. Meanwhile the audience’s attention to oil soaked birds and families-with-ruined-lives will become tiresome. The birds will be featured in pieces on Nat Geo. The families will become features on anniversary occasions and special events such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Cynical perhaps but predictive too. And as time passes the only ones covering the story, crafting and creating faux news will be the one organization with the most money to spend and the most reputation to change… BP.
Watch it and weep.

Frank Rich has written a compelling Op-Ed piece (6.4.10) in The New York Times Don’t Get Mad, Mr. President. Get Even asking if or when the British Petroleum gulf oil spill will finally trigger Mr. Obama’s anger to reach a boiling point. I think for many Americans, especially those living from Texas to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and to Florida, that tipping point passed some days ago.

Doesn’t it bother any one but me that he seems so measured?  So level headed… so unflappable even as pelicans and other shore birds die; just as beaches, industries and communities all slathered in oil may not recover for a generation?  Doesn’t this disaster rise to the level where some one in government, some one in charge, can appear to be righteously pissed off over the event, the handling, the aftermath and the guile of the company and executives in charge?

And then comes the story from The Washington Post Gitmo Becomes $500 million Camp Costly that the government’s investment in facilities at the prison camp includes features that might be considered by some, especially those suffering from the downturn in the current economy, to be lavish by any standard.  Fast-food franchises, an Irish bar, astro turf and playgrounds (mostly unused) litter the base even as its mission is on the decline and the urgency of these constructions seems to be mitigated?

A story in the Seattle Times over the weekend reported fees for the Washington Mutual bank failure have topped $100m and are still climbing.  Of course these are fees that to be paid from whatever is salvaged from the assets even as that means an even smaller fiscal pie is left to pay back to investors.  What was most alarming was the line that attorneys are charging $925. and hour for their services.  That’s a higher rate than most criminal attorney’s charge on capital cases!  Doesn’t any one wonder whether this seems exorbitant?  Is there a better way, a more affordable way?  Should there be?

The lessons learned from the bank failures and the catastrophic consequences of the financial meltdown are still yet to be calculated.  But for those responsible, isn’t tar and feathering an option worth reconsideration?  Shouldn’t many Americans who are living on savings, borrowed money, who have lost jobs and in many cases are losing hope, what little remains, aren’t they justifiably angry?  What’s wrong with showing anger?  What’s wrong with being authentically mad?  Why is showing anger something that seems to be out of place?

I cannot help but recall the lead character from the movie “Network” who asked his viewers to go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take it any more.”

On the eve of election night here in California, as well as other states, I do wonder when the electorate will find its way of expressing its simmering anger… not just in a ‘toss the bastards out” kind of knee-jerk response, but when will we demand and get better?

Technology never fails to amaze me and the BP disaster offers a unique glimpse from their underwater cameras.

There’s an established rule in crisis communications that you round-up your allies and stand together — sink or swim, but both human or corporate  sacrifice is frowned upon as poor sportsmanship.

That rule was cast aside Monday by BP CEO Tony Hayward who threw his Gulf of Mexico drilling vendor Transocean Ltd. directly into the deep water saying, “The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig. It was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people, their processors.”

Oh Mr. Hayward?  How do you feel about companies or people you really dislike?  In an interview on NBC’s Today Show, Mr. Hayward went on to point out that Transocean owned the giant Deepwater Horizon platform and that BP was merely a lessee.  While accepting the burden of paying for clean up costs one has to wonder what Hayward was thinking?  Why was he sitting on national television dissing what until last week was considered a valued partner to BP’s global operations?

So much for loyalty.  So much for corporate responsibility.  Hayward could be laying the framework for a legal defense to put as much of the blame, the harsh light of public recrimination and ultimately the public memory onto the shoulders of his Swiss partner Transocean.  To this observer it appears a flimsy and transparent attempt to add to the slimy oil slick also known as the ever-expanding blame game.

Kudos to Mr. Hayward – he appeared sincere and forthright.  He was well-trained and prepared.  But his statements left real doubt as to the corporate courage and conviction of BP… and I bet the blame will be shared by many more before the well or this story is capped.

Numbers Do Matter

May 3, 2010

News has become a playground for worsts and mosts and hyperbole.  News and TV generally from cable shows to even entertainment programs like Dr. Phil make everything black and white, regardless that we live our lives for the most part in the nuance of gray.  It’s not enough to be sad or sick, we want the people we see, read and hear about (and their stories) to be at death’s door.

Reporting numbers and speaking with experts is always challenging, after all, they, in theory, have knowledge that generalists and most journalists do not possess, but why is it that journalists so frequently fail to challenge their hyperbole?

During the weekend’s coverage of the Gulf oil spill one so-called expert from the Sierra Club spoke to NBC News with great emotion and absolute conviction that the spill was far larger than had previously been reported.  He gushed on suggesting the spill could in fact be 50,000 gallons, even 100,000 gallons a day!  Perhaps true, but he didn’t know, and he wasn’t challenged by the reporter who blithely accepted the assertion and proceeded on in the narration.  That’s a significant number and a wide discrepancy of perhaps up to 100%.  It’s OK not to know; it is OK to even speculate, but how about some context or qualification before numbers – any numbers – become misunderstood and the story misreported?

Geraldo (Rivera) on FOX News did it too, breathlessly interviewing guests from a busy Times Square intersection about what could of happened had the car bomb detonated.  Note the verb: could.  One guest, obviously pumped by the opportunity to appear on TV, burst forth that had a dirty bomb gone off “Times Square would be contaminated for anywhere from 50 to 100 years.”  Geraldo and the other guests solemnly but enthusiastically nodded approvingly accepting this assertion as sober evidence of absolute danger and impact.  The fact that the Times Square bomb was not dirty was never challenged while again, just speculating with the numbers between 50 and 100 leaves significant room for debate and discussion.

Speaking of numbers and expert’s assertions, look back at coverage from the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska.  When covering that we heard experts say that the ocean and islands would remain scorched earth and that nothing would ever grow on those shores or under those waters again.  The reality, within 6 months nature started to return.

The point is simple, but it is beyond bad news sells.  Yes it does… and that’s news.  If you want just the good news you should confine yourself, for the most part, to the sports section, although even that has become more difficult in recent years due to scandals and bad behavior.

It is frustrating that contemporary reporting on the oil spill requires reporters to seek out experts who are prompted to say the sea is forever doomed and all creatures will inevitably die, choked by oil and cloaked in a gooey slime unlike any we have ever seen before.  The car bomb isn’t allowed to be a close call but becomes an incident that would surely have resulted in thousands of casualties and a forever blackened a New York landmark.

Each sentence is mired in half-truths and certainly assumptions run amok.  As a journalist I bristle at what I consider to be reckless reporting that appears to hype the story, feed the hysteria, and ultimately deceive the audience.  There are so many other examples – certainly politics and it doesn’t matter whether you favor the left or the right, the administration or the opposition, health care reform or tea parties – my point is that reporters who use numbers and hyperbole unchallenged and unqualified do not serve the public interest, do not serve their profession well, and do more harm to the public discourse.

Green bugs

April 23, 2010

It’s Earth Day and once again TV networks and stations have dyed their little identifying logos, they’re called ‘bugs’, as green as St. Patrick himself.

I know, I know… this is good for reminding the audience about the importance of the global environment, our fragile island home: earth, and it symbolizes their corporate commitment to any and everything environmentally responsible.  Of course.

It just seems to be very feeble and forgive me if I suggest a tad self righteous for global conglomerates who are engaged in a range of businesses to showcase their green-ness with a bug as if that’s all that matters to the audience.

For those networks who are committed to special environmental coverage or news series this week, a tip of the hat.  May your ratings blossom.  For those networks who rely principally if not entirely on re-runs and produce nothing new, or green, may your ratings wilt on the vine.

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