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.

Preventing access as a form of censorship is a dangerous point on the slippery slope toward despotism and government gone wrong. The latest slip and slide in this direction was written last week at the Regents of the University of California meeting in San Francisco when a journalist with a camera was barred from their public event.  The Regent’s defensive argument was he didn’t have a press credential; the weakness to their argument is the press credential per se wasn’t required.  Credentialed or not  any one is entitled to make pictures at a public meeting under Bagley-Keene, a California law since 1967.
To make matters worse UC police instructed that no one was allowed to make pictures of them doing their job, in this case acting as gatekeepers to enforce a decision which was against the law. This is a chilling thought, one I wrote about on June 9th “Use a Camera, Go to Jail” as it seems many jurisdictions are increasingly less interested in public scrutiny of their work than ever before.

From Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle, UC Regents baring of filmmaker draws protest “State law is clear – any member of the public has a right to film and record public meetings of state bodies,” Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, wrote to UC President Mark Yudof.

Yee, who chairs the Senate’s committee on Public Records and Open Meeting Laws, asked Yudof to explain not only why filmmaker Ric Chavez was barred from taking his video camera into the meeting, but why UC policy – which makes no provision for the public’s right to film public meetings – “is in complete contradiction to state law.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of the UC system being difficult toward news coverage. A Santa Barbara based cameraman has written to me about the UC campus there requiring fees for news coverage and offering limited access. This is a public school open to the world which needs to be reminded that coverage of news stories doesn’t come at the point of a pen writing a check.

What happens when something really serious happens… will institutions first ask who’s there to cover it, what their intentions are, their motives?  Perhaps they’d like to see examples of prior work?  How much will be required and how far back would they like to review? Should a network include coverage of the student massacre at Kent State? How about carnage at Virginia Tech?  Neither of those stories is likely to sway an administration’s decision toward openness?  UC Regents would be hard pressed to review the free speech movement at Sproul Hall at UCBerkeley – ah the halcyon days of tear gas in the plaza and riot-helmeted cops in the hallways when the sound of clicking handcuffs rivaled that of chalk on blackboards.

Organizations – public institutions – nor their officials should not be allowed to use access as a guarantee against positive or negative coverage, scrutiny or assessment by the citizenry of the quality of their work and the decisions they make.  It just isn’t a model which protects our right to know, the right to cover, and the rights of all of us to measure and monitor the government we pay for.

Who should decide – at an institutional level – what deserves coverage and what could be potentially embarrassing or liable? Maybe in spite of the open meeting law Regents and others can impound cameras, take away note books and recorders. Hey, why not just go into hiding entirely, star chambers and executive session.

But this is happening… more and more often.  This is distressing. This is dangerous

Public places – San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal, the passenger piers at San Francisco International airport – both operated with public funds – use both real and rental-cops to move crews off property demanding that they have prior knowledge and approval from management.  This is the same management which uses public funds to operate these public facilities… places where any one public with or without cameras is invited… so why not news coverage?

This decision to close ranks and circle the wagons is mirrored too at the corporate level.  As an example, BP is reportedly making it most difficult to video or film their work in the gulf. Reportedly many local operations, paid for with BP funds, are off-limits to media. It seems curious that BP – already a premium member of the pillory club for the crime itself as well as the initial cover up is now making strides to become more secretive, closed, and manipulative of the media, as far as it can be based on the money it is investing to that end.
More and more often corporations are risk-adverse to speaking on camera or allowing crews in to make pictures of their operations.

We’re seeing the first draft of censorship and limits on freedom of the press.  Sadly the mainstream press has become so emaciated by cuts that there is no one left standing it seems to fight the good fight.  As a public we may not realize what we’re losing until we have lost it.

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.

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

BP CEO Tony Hayward is a marked man emerging as America’s latest leading corporate villain.  He’s the new poster boy for what not to say in a crisis.  His apparent self-focus that “he wants his life back” pits his desire for normalcy against the loss of 11 workers in the fire and sinking of the Transocean rig.  One might imagine their families would like those lives back too.

Tony, you’re doomed man. Say goodbye.  It’s all now a matter of time… you’ve been tar and feathered, smeared in oil.  When you now appear on camera the common reaction is to throw darts or change the channel.  In a world where trust and believability, credibility and likability rule… you’re sinking like a rock.

It seems truly amazing that – for some one who teaches crisis management -BP continues to make mistakes, missteps, misstatements 45 days in to the disaster.  The failure to explain what would be deemed “legitimate” claims before Congress in the earliest days of the story is today compounded by an artful, expensive PR campaign that features Hayward and his cabal of advisors doing the ‘best they can’ all the while oil gushes from the pipe.  Isn’t there an inherent contradiction in all this… are they really doing the best job they can?  Difficult admittedly, but not a success by a long shot.

The real lesson remains the experience of Valdez, Alaska.  Twenty one years after Exxon ran their tanker onto Bligh Reef there is still an oily residue just under the rocks along the shoreline of Prince William Sound.  Droplets of oil abound in the water, in pools, coating the underside of rocks that cover that shore.  Billions of dollars spent and tens of thousands of man hours invested in clean up have failed to restore, entirely restore, the waterways and shoreline.  Yes the sound is healthier than some doom and naysayers predicted, but it is not without lasting injury.  It would seem evident that a similar fate awaits the gulf coast and possibly other eastern beaches and the communities that depend upon the water for food, tourism, attraction and livelihood.

So as we watch for the expected outcome — Hayward will walk the plank with a shove from the BP board; the company will lose its financial luster and ultimately file for court protection or receivership to protect its reduced and falling assets.  Thousands of workers will lose jobs and homes; alcoholism will rise… abuse, domestic violence, divorce all soared in Valdez and the surrounding communities too.  Suits and class action filings for worker compensation due to illness stemming from the clean up will clog the courts the way the oil stifles marine life on marshes today.  Perhaps even years from now medical claims, lung and other injuries will continue to haunt local residents and their families, perhaps too even birth defects.  This will be a petri dish for health, injury and litigation for generations.  Within this year I predict BP and it’s eco-friendly logo will be replaced with a new name and consumer  brand, as if that is sufficient to hide the experience from the public’s memory.
Sadly it doesn’t take scientist to see where this mess is headed… admittedly it’s a bona fide crisis.  Hayward may become the fall guy but the corporation and those who are advising it deserve some of the blame for the handling of the story.   Black oil, corporate greed… mistakes and mishandling.  Dishonesty.  Shame.