Is Your Favorite News Source Shilling for Big Oil?

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By: Amy Westervelt

Some media companies are creating, not just running, misleading climate ads.

Chevron has been all over social media recently with an advertising campaign that asks consumers to test how much they know about “clean energy.” Viewers are beckoned to an interactive quiz that turns out not to be interactive at all, simply a vehicle for the fossil fuel giant’s version of climate facts.

“What was the biggest factor in keeping U.S. emissions down for the past decade?” the multiple-choice “quiz” asks: (A) Natural gas; (B) Wind power; or (C) Solar energy. Answer? Natural gas, the ad insists, contradicting the latest science showing that fracked natural gas is even more climate-destructive than coal.

Chevron invested early and big in natural gas, so it’s no surprise to see it overstating the climate benefits. What is surprising is that the ad wasn’t produced by Chevron’s in-house propagandists but rather by The New York Times—specifically, the newspaper’s T Brand Studio, which describes its mission thusly: “We create content and experiences that spark imagination and influence the most influential audiences around the world.”

The Chevron ad T Brand Studio created to “influence the influential” began running last October, with the tag #EnergyAwarenessMonth, and continued until the week before the United Nations climate summit in December in Madrid, where world leaders were supposed to—but didn’t—accelerate a global transition away from fossil fuels.

Twitter was among the social media platforms where Chevron ran ads, notwithstanding the social media platform’s high-profile announcement on October 30 that it was banning “political ads.” A Twitter spokesperson explained the apparent contradiction, telling The Nation that “cause-related” ads can still run on Twitter as long as they don’t mention a specific politician, piece of legislation, or judicial outcome. Twitter ads apparently are allowed to lie or mislead, though. “We have a couple of guidelines…but nothing that specifically says you are not allowed to include misinformation,” the spokesperson said.

The Times’ and Twitter’s enabling of Chevron’s climate propaganda stands in sharp contrast to The Guardian’s recent announcement that it would no longer accept advertising from the fossil fuel industry. The industry’s long history of spreading climate disinformation and blocking government action was the main reason for The Guardian’s shift, explained Anna Bateson, the newspaper’s acting CEO, and Hamish Nicklin, its chief revenue officer. The resulting loss of revenue will be painful for The Guardian, Bateson and Nicklin wrote, but “building a more purposeful organization and remaining financially sustainable have to go hand in hand.”

As The Nation reported last April, The New York Times and The Washington Post both have internal brand studios that have worked for Big Oil multiple times in recent years. Before the Chevron campaign, the Times’ T Brand Studio created a campaign for ExxonMobil that highlighted its investments in algae-based biofuel and made a lot of “clever” comments about algae being small but having big energy potential where climate change is concerned.

The campaign did not mention that ExxonMobil spent less than 1 percent of its capital expenditures on low-carbon technology in 2018. The WP BrandStudio at the Post rolled out a campaign for the American Petroleum Institute, the fossil fuel industry’s trade association, aimed at positioning natural gas as a key part of the solution on climate change (never mind that it’s actually a big part of the problem). The digital news site Vox has also been running API ads, produced in Vox’s “explainer” style, across its most popular podcasts, including in an episode about climate on the podcast hosted by the site’s founder and editor-at-large, Ezra Klein.

Vox declined repeated requests for comment. The Times also declined to comment, and the Post’s director of communications, Shani George, said, “All sponsored content is clearly labeled as advertising and includes the name of the advertiser. The Washington Postnewsroom is not involved in the creation of this content.”

It’s not only for-profit news organizations that are spreading the fossil fuel industry’s misinformation. If you listen to NPR podcasts, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard ExxonMobil touting the miraculous benefits of carbon capture, a technology that strips heat-trapping carbon dioxide molecules from smokestacks and other emissions sources. ExxonMobil’s ad, which has run on the InvisibiliaUp First, and Throughline podcasts, directs you to its website, which asserts that carbon capture technology could remove 90 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, a claim wildly out of step with current or projected performance of the technology.

If these ads were run on the air, they would be violating FCC guidelines about misleading advertising, but because they run on podcasts, those rules don’t apply. Instead, ads have to fall within NPR’s digital marketing guidelines, which still bar overstatements, but ExxonMobil’s ad passes the test, NPR maintains. NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara told The Nation,“NPR is a nonprofit organization that relies on financial support from a variety of sources. Many of them have their own agendas or interests. We can remain independent while also accepting such support.”

At a time when the public needs credible climate reporting more than ever, analysts argue that news organizations should keep their journalistic distance from companies driving the climate crisis. With those companies facing acute pressure from activists in the street, prosecutors in the courtroom, and investors in the boardroom, it’s not surprising that they’re trying to reframe the climate story in the public mind, say these experts. But a free press shouldn’t be part of those efforts.

“They’re afraid, so they’re going to double and triple down, and they have the resources to be able to do that,” says Christine Arena, who saw fossil fuel industry propaganda up close when she worked at the public relations firm Edelman from 2012 to 2015, years when Edelman counted API and other fossil fuel interests among its clients. “[These companies have] enormous paid media spend, enormous PR spend, whether it’s television, print, writing advertorials, everything. Their spending is up significantly.”

It’s the latest front in an ongoing propaganda war Big Oil has been running for more than 100 years. While Big Oil may have borrowed one key technique from Big Tobacco—funding fake science to create doubt among the public and policy-makers—the origin of American propaganda can, in fact, be traced to fossil fuel, and specifically to one of the first professional publicists, Ivy Ledbetter Lee. The son of a minister in Georgia, Lee graduated from Princeton and worked as a reporter at The New York Times before cofounding his own public relations firm in 1905. In 1914, John D. Rockefeller Jr. hired him to sanitize the public image of the Rockefeller family and its Standard Oil company after the company ordered the massacre of striking coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado. In 1919, Lee spearheaded the founding of the American Petroleum Institute, which in turn inspired other industries to establish their own PR and lobbying associations.

Fifteen years later, in 1934, Lee was giving PR advice to Hitler and Goebbels, under the guise of maintaining America’s trade relationship with Germany. Lee was cleared by the House Un-American Activities Committee later that same year, but his actions did spur Congress to pass the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the obscure bit of legislation used most recently to prosecute Paul Manafort, a chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Today’s emerging practice of media companies’ creating advertisements for fossil fuel companies likewise dates back to the 1970s and Mobil’s legendary PR executive Herb Schmertz. Schmertz worked with The New York Times to create an advertorial—an opinion article that Mobil wrote and paid for occupying a quarter of the op-ed page of the Times—that marked a revolutionary upending of traditional conceptions of the church-and-state division between the editorial and the business sides of a news organization.

Reported here for the first time, Schmertz explained his strategy in a “management briefing” for the members of American Management Association in 1978: “The Times was chosen because it is published in the nation’s leading population, communications and business center; because it has a highly intelligent, vocal, sophisticated readership; and because it reaches legislators and other government officials.” The gambit succeeded, Schmertz added: Mobil’s op-eds “stimulated discussion among influentials on both sides of the issue—exactly what the company had set out to do.”

Today, that language is echoed by the Times’ own marketing of its T Brand Studio, which promises to produce “stories that influence the influential.”

Schmertz pioneered what he called “affinity-of-purpose marketing” by having Mobil underwrite for many years the PBS program Masterpiece Theatre. “Public TV wanted to attract the same sort of people we wanted to talk with,” Schmertz later explained. “Not, at that point, because we hoped to sell [those people] gasoline, but rather to sell them on the need for and value of our industry.”

The current president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees public funding of PBS and NPR, is another fossil fuel–friendly former PR executive: Patricia Harrison. With her husband, E. Bruce Harrison, Ms. Harrison ran the E. Bruce Harrison Company, a public relations firm, from 1973 to 1996. E. Bruce Harrison has been called the godfather of “greenwashing”—the practice of a corporation’s taking steps to appear environmentally responsible without changing its actual policies; Mr. Harrison authored communications textbooks that urged industry executives to keep their enemies (environmentalists) close and find certain green initiatives they could live with—both to foster an image as good corporate citizens and to see how the other side operated.

From 1992 through 1996, the E. Bruce Harrison Company did PR for the Global Climate Coalition, a group of large oil, coal, auto, and electric utility companies that worked to discredit climate science and blunt efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, from 1990 to 1992, Patricia Harrison was a member of the National Coal Council, according to the firm’s own approved listing in O’Dwyer’s Directory of Public Relations Firms. It was during those years that the council produced “Improving Coal’s Image,” a seminal report that rebranded the dirtiest, most carbon intensive of fossil fuels as “clean coal,” a PR master stroke that helped fend off stricter government regulation for years to come.

Through a spokesperson, Patricia Harrison denied that her past public relations work affects her actions as head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and she specifically denied working on the Global Climate Coalition account during her years at E. Bruce Harrison Company.

“CPB does not produce or distribute programming, and it is prohibited from interfering with editorial decisions related to programming on PBS, NPR or local public television and radio stations,” said Shana Teehan, vice president of communications for the CPB. “Under Ms. Harrison’s leadership, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has supported the development of high quality, creative and diverse public media content on many topics, including the energy industry, climate change and environmental issues—all with strict adherence to objectivity and balance, fairness and accuracy as required by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.”

The long and tangled history of Big Oil and the media provokes the question: Should the mere fact that misleading ads are not technically illegal be enough for news outlets to consider this practice ethical or fair to the public?

The CPB, NPR, The New York Times, and The Washington Post all argue that there is a firewall between their advertising and their editorial departments; their journalists are not influenced by underwriters; and their sponsors have no input on news coverage. But what about the influence such advertising has on readers and listeners, especially when the ads are presented within news and science programs without caveats about the claims they make?

Concern about such potential deception of the public is one reason the state of Massachusetts and a dozen other jurisdictions have filed climate damages lawsuits against various oil companies.

“ExxonMobil’s relentless ‘greenwashing’ marketing campaigns target consumers with messaging regarding ExxonMobil’s purported environmental stewardship, corporate leadership in the realm of environmental and climate protection, and innovative clean energy research,” reads the complaint filed by the state of Massachusetts, “while failing to disclose that ExxonMobil is spending little on clean energy development, and instead is secretively opposing actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ramping up production of fossil fuels that cause climate change.”

Opening arguments in the Massachusetts v. Exxon Mobil Corporation are expected to take place in early 2020.

As the court grapples with whether fossil fuel companies have defrauded consumers via propaganda campaigns, it’s time to widen the lens of climate accountability to include news outlets that distribute, and in some cases create, those campaigns as well. Climate change is the defining story of our time. The public needs to know that the news outlets telling that story are not taking their cues from the very corporations that caused the problem and continue to lie about it today.

Image result for the nation logo

This story originally appeared in The Nation and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.


Lead image courtesy of Getty Images.


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