The public doesn’t trust the media. The media works ever harder to destroy trust in just about everyone in order to attract and hold an audience. In the process of trying to attract an audience, they way overstep the bounds of solid journalism and turn shreds of truth into outright lies.
I won’t comment much on the whole Casey Anthony debacle because I intentionally diverted my eyes from the ridiculous obsession of the media with this story. And this blogpost by Debra Caruso captures exactly the problems of media coverage. Why does one murder story out of a thousand on any day become the focus of media and too much national attention? More importantly for crisis communicators is the lesson about the two courts that operate today–the court of public opinion and the court of law. This case makes very clear that the media plays the role of prosecution and judge but usually has little interest in providing the role of defense. This is especially true when it comes to accusing big companies of misdeeds (see Maddow comments below). The ferocity of some in the media who were the worst at this (Nancy Grace comes to mind) demonstrates how far they are willing to go and how much they tend to think that the court of public opinion which they preside over ought to be the only court.
My real issue today, is with Rachel Maddow. Here is the clip of her “news” segment on ExxonMobil’s Yellowstone River Oil Spill. Oil spills are always a very bad thing–for the people impacted, the environment, the company and executive reputations, for the future of energy. But, the news media love them. And Rachel Maddow, bless her heart, has gone so far over the top with this news report that it will serve me for some time to come about what is so bad about today’s news coverage.
(Before going further–full disclosure. ExxonMobil is a client of the company that I founded and am still involved in as an independent contractor. However, I have not personally done work for ExxonMobil, nor advised them on strategy and am not involved in this event.)
1. The Set Up: ExxonMobil’s outrageous profitability.
She sets up the story about the spill by first talking about how incredibly profitable ExxonMobil is. In her world and value system, clearly profits are very bad thing and for a company to be the most successful in the world at generating filthy lucre means they are guilty of anything they are accused of–which is about to follow. Her descriptions of their profitability is, well, over the top with hyperbole: “the closest the world has ever seen to having infinite resources, they have infinite [emphasis hers] money at their disposal ..” and “you could not mint money faster than ExxonMobil makes it…”
2. Accusation #1: Incompetence
The set up leads to the accusations, starting with the claim that despite having more money than God “this mess they made of the Yellowstone River seems to be beyond their capacity, outside of their grasp.”
Later she comes back to this incompetence theme by laughing at Exxon for saying: “they are very curious as to what happened at the bottom of the river.” She says they are curious because “they still haven’t seen it.” Obviously, since they have infinite resources, they ought to have drained the river by now or at least got down there and had a look at the bottom of the river. And for all their money (over and over she talks about all their money) all they can do for response is put out 45,000 feet of boom. They can’t even get to the bottom of the river. Incompetent boobs.
Not only that, she says, this is the same boom used by the BP spill, and obviously it didn’t work then and then, with a picture of the Santa Barbara spill, by gosh, its the same kind of boom they used then 40 years ago. She says” “this is the technological level of Exxon’s response,” clearly suggesting that Exxon (did she mention how much money they have) has not progressed in over 40 years. Geez, maybe they should call Kevin Costner.
3. The Gross Exaggerations
The mess they made, says Ms. Maddox, is “visible as far as the eye can see.” And this is amply demonstrated by the graphic on the screen that shows a thick blue line running through a good portion of Montana. The graphic along with the mess which Maddox says is highly visible leaves the distinct impression that the spill runs the length of the river and may have devastated half of Montana. Sort of like the reports that said the oil from the Gulf would despoil beaches in England. Then she says that the 1000 barrels of oil that spilled overran the river’s banks and coated everything in sight.
4. Accusation #2: They lie.
ExxonMobil said the spill would not go beyond ten miles, then a day later they said it probably would. Maddow quotes an EPA official saying ‘Oil has been spotted” 40 miles away. Obviously, ExxonMobil lies. Not only that, by an Exxon spokesperson said yesterday that it is unlikely there is any more oil in the water, but aha! Maddow shows a picture (a tight close up clearly not of a river but at best a very small area presumably near a bank) that demonstrates there is still oil in the water this morning! What bald face liars, those Exxon people. They even lied about no injured wildlife. She counters the Exxon claim that no injured wildlife had been found by reporting that the Billings Gazette published pictures of “soiled pelicans and turtles”–well, she did exaggerate here as well by referring to turtles when the headline visible on the screen refers to a singular turtle. That’s the kind of nit she would pick to prove Exxon lies, if you want to suggest I’m picking nits now. Oh yes, and there are reports of a dead duck. No mention that it might be linked to the spill. Someone just reported a dead duck.
Later, in transitioning to their history she says: “their statement of facts do not square with the facts.”
5. The residents vs. the big giant profit machine.
Oh, this is a favorite of “journalists” like Maddow. She counters Exxon’s statement that no public health risks have been found by presenting a newsclip of a resident confronting the president of ExxonMobil, telling him that two people were in the hospital. “One passed out last night…” and the other was the resident’s wife. And then the resident challenged the executive by saying “I don’t believe you don’t know what’s in the oil and what’s making people sick.” Case closed. Not only is Exxon making people sick, but either the president is too stupid to know what is in the oil or he won’t come out and be honest about the ingredients in there that are making this poor man’s wife sick.
6. Accusation 3: Environmental disaster
Maddox smirks while quoting Exxon as saying they are “fastidiously monitoring” air quality. But while she doesn’t directly attack their claims, instead she quotes another unnamed resident who says “the smell is enough to gag a maggot.” Gosh darn it, she loved that quote so much she made it the title of her whole news report. It’s on a graphic behind her head when nothing else is and small on the screen the entire time–just in case you might miss the point.
7. The tone: pure snark
I understand that Maddox is not Walter Cronkite or even Dan Rather, but for a person on a supposedly news station in a news style presentation to adopt the snarky tone she has is quite appalling. You have to see her obvious delight in ripping apart this company to appreciate the tone, but here are a few lines she obviously enjoyed saying. When challenging the claim to oil being removed from the water, when showing the closeup of oil still there: “that’s oil, that’s water, that’s oil in the water..” And when challenging Exxon’s claim of no injured wildlife she said: “unless bathing in crude oil is a hot new trend among Montana wildlife.”
8. Their history of safety failures.
She starts with showing how they ignored their own safety analysis of the pipe and then reports on supposed safety violations including having out of date records. It is an entirely predictable part of any spill or industrial accident to dig out the safety records and violations. Every company has them and like Rachel has done here, it is quite easy to make the most minor OSHA violation look like the company is completely rogue.
OK, enough on Rachel. I don’t mean to be picking on her because this kind of reporting, albeit usually not quite as obvious and extreme as this, is increasingly typical today. This is not news, this is entertainment being sold to an audience that already has a strong viewpoint about a company like ExxonMobil. The problem is of course, it is being presented as news. In a way the likes of Maddow, Hannity, O’Reilly and the like are not the real problem because most understand that they are entertainers playing gladly to a crowd who cheers them on like prize fighters shadow boxing against boogey men they create. The problem is how many other journalists from the likes of the major news channels and even highly respected news organizations like the NYT reflect the same mentality and the same approaches. Yes, they are more rational and less snarky, and that makes the impact more devastating because people really do treat their coverage as news.
The cycle will go on. Ratings unfortunately go to the O’Reilly’s and Van Susteren’s and so those hungry for them will imitate. Profits will be further demonized as will the companies who are unfortunate enough to make them. And woe to anyone who has an accident.