Why media is so distrusted–and yet so believed

There have been well over a quarter of a million stories in the media (mainstream and new) about the Gulf spill. The vast majority of these have provided evidence for the very serious problems I have been complaining about for the past ten years.

I want to pick on just one story and see how it is covered as an example–not a particularly egregious example, but just one of thousands of similar examples every day!

(Again, full disclosure: BP, US Coast Guard, MMS and other agencies involved in this spill are clients through the company I founded, PIER System. PIER is the web management system used for the deepwaterhorizonresponse.com website. Perhaps this involvement affects my judgment about these matters–but look at the story themselves and make up your own mind.)

The story is this: Congressman Markey revealed that a previously unknown BP document revealed that the spill might release 100,000 barrels (4.2 million gallons) vs. the am0unt now estimated (60,000 barrels) and the original estimate of 1000 and later 5000 barrels. CNN last night on Don Lemon’s show told the story this way: BP knew that it was spilling 100,000 according to this document but instead lied and way under-estimated it. After two months of discrediting by the press, the president, the administration and every other politician who managed to get some air time, this new “news” was not going to surprise anyone. It was entirely believable–but was it true?

If you look a little closer at the news stories, things are not quite as they were presented by CNN. The CNN website report is far more careful than Lemon’s brief “headline news” reporting. This report shows that the referenced document was talking about a worst case scenario that might happen if the blowout preventer and the wellhead were removed. In other words, if all the equipment, pipes, and stuff down there were off and the well was left to spew without restriction, the maximum flow COULD BE 100,000 barrels.

The Reuters report on the same issue shows a different and important nuance: when the report was issued. CNN web report says this: A BP estimate made after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon noted that as much as 100,000 barrels per day could leak into the ocean… However, the Reuters report says the document is undated. I looked at the document, and I encourage you to do the same (find the link on the Reuters story).

Having some familiarity with the oil industry over the past ten years, there is little doubt in my mind that this is part of the planning for worst case scenarios for any problem with the well, and that it was prepared WELL BEFORE this event happened. Even if it was prepared after the event as CNN reported (without citing any evidence and in contradiction to the Reuters story), it still describes a scenario that currently does not apply to the event.

Now, let’s take a look at what one of our esteemed elected officials says about this, Congressman Markey. Please note that he was given the incredibly powerful bully pulpit of NBC’s Meet the Press to make these statements based on the “evidence” he uncovered:

“It is clear that, from the beginning, BP has not been straightforward with the government or the American people about the true size of this spill. Now the families living and working in the Gulf are suffering from their incompetence,” he added.

“Right from the beginning, BP was either lying or grossly incompetent,” Markey told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “First they said it was only 1,000 barrels, then they said it was 5,000 barrels.”

This is an extreme characterization based, in my opinion, on two big lies: 1) Any estimates about the spill volume came from Unified Command, not BP. The insistence by the media that it was BP providing the spill volumes shows a complete ignorance of the Unified Command structure. This structure, required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, was implemented in the hours after the event. Any information released after Unified Command was implemented was approved by Unified Command which consisted of all agencies responding including Coast Guard, NOAA, EPA, state agencies, etc. While BP may have provided the technical information at that time, it was Unified Command that was responsible for accepting that information and providing it as the best estimate. It is important to remember that initially the platform was still there, and initially the riser or pipe leading from the blowout preventer was kinked. The wellhead was not bare, the blowout preventer was there, the equipment restricting the flow was there. The initial estimate was based on the best information available at the time.

The second lie is that by digging up technical documents that describe conditions that do not apply, that were most likely provided well in advance, and that instead show that BP was realistically assessing conditions were worst case scenario might apply, and to use that to say they are lying is extremely dishonest. It is Congressman Markey, clearly one of about 500 or so national legislators right now trying to make as much political hay as they can out of this disaster, who is lying, not BP and, more importantly, not Unified Command who remains responsible for estimating spill volumes.

(Later add: it’s interesting the way the LA Times dealt with this story–there is just a hint that maybe it was Markey who was incompetent and out of line here, and note the headline about politicians making waves.)

I described in my book, Now Is Too Late, now nearly 10 years old, how enterprising politicians, looking to leverage off public fear and outrage work in concert with the press. The press is fighting for audience. CNN leads its newscast last night with another story of how BP is evil incarnate. And it is “proven” by this Congressman who wants to show his constituents how tough he is on this horrible company.

Does this kind of thing tick me off? Sure, and not just because my clients are being harmed by it. It should tick off every American who is interested in the truth and what is fair and right. As I mentioned, this isn’t an isolated example–this is what is happening every day. BP and to some degree MMS and other federal agencies, including the president, are victims of it today. I am as sickened by how Fox News is trying to pin this event on the president as I am by the kind of coverage and political attacks that I described above. But this is our system, folks. We have it because apparently we want it. They deliver the news we want because the ratings tell them all they need to know.

I’ve made numerous presentations to other oil companies in the last few weeks. I point out to them that they, like BP, start out a horrible event like this in a deep deep hole. They do not have the trust of the public. In fact, I point out that there is only one industry that has less public trust. Ironically, it is the media business. If Congress were considered an industry, I’m guessing they would be even lower than that.

5 thoughts on “Why media is so distrusted–and yet so believed”

  1. Correction: The current estimate is actually 35,000 bpd.. with 60k at the absolute high end. I know this because I was at the press conference with the NIC, Thad Allen. However, I haven’t seen anyone actually report the 35k number.. it’s always “.. as high as 60k.”

    Some fine reporting out there. Regardless, it’s a lot of oil.. but it’s just symptom of the problem: Higher numbers sell more banner ads.

  2. Excellent post and interesting comments. Wondering what you think of the international commentary on this event? Does any of that matter with US MSM?

    What do you think of the Emergency Public Information effort by the feds so far? Seems rather sporadic even for comprehensive metrics and SITREPS IMO!

    Have any PAR’s or PAD’s been issued and what steps have been taken to comply with the OSHA/CDC joint guidance on protecting responders in the sense of what they have been told not what is technically required?

    Are there any stars in the UNIVERSE of the BP spill with respect to Crisis Communication [other than yourself of course] so far? Why do they shine for you? Even unsung heros or heroines that seem to have the trust of all interested parties?

    Why?

  3. i live in the northwest, and it has afetcfed me; price of oysters is up. producers are thrilled, consumers, not so much. much of our local seafood is shipped overseas, so the international market is afetcfed. the damage from that oil puddle is already international in nature. under the right conditions, tropical storms and hurricanes, people all over the world could see this oil on their beaches.

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