Running on Empty: Media & the Oil Crisis

In his July column for Recoil magazine, Mediamouse.org contributor Jeff Smith examines how the media covers the oil crisis. Not surprisingly, he finds that they leave out the larger context of what is driving prices up, focusing instead on how much oil costs and advertising where people can get the best prices.

In early June, the major news media reported that a proposal in the US Senate to eliminate tax breaks and tax some of the profits from big oil companies was defeated. The Associated Press story that appeared in the Grand Rapids Press cited a few Republicans and Democrats, but energy experts and the public were excluded from the story. This kind of coverage is standard practice by the news media when reporting energy issues.

Another approach to reporting on this issue is for the news media to appear like they are consumer advocates. You have seen it in recent months. How many local TV and radio stations are always telling you which gas stations in town have the lowest prices? Go to their websites and you will find links on the front page telling you where to find the cheapest gas or they will urge you to contact them if you find a “good deal.” While this type of journalism may seem like the media companies care about your pocketbook it has nothing to do with journalism. Posting which gas stations have the lowest prices is nothing more than a form of advertising, something the gas companies are not in need of.

Last fall, the president of Shell Oil was in Grand Rapids to give a luncheon talk to members of the World Affairs Council. I went to cover the event for MediaMouse.org and was amazed by the fact that the head of this oil company spent most of the time talking about how Shell is committed to developing alternative fuels. However, when asked to give a percentage of their budget spent on alternative energy the slick oilman said they spend less than 5% of their budget on such matters. The only other news media reporting from the event was a local radio station, yet the local TV stations all ran stories on his visit. Instead of reporting on the event, they each did interviews with the Shell president so they wouldn’t have to listen to the 45-minute presentation.

The channel 8 story was by far the worst in terms of not challenging the oil executive. Their interview was for 2 minutes, long by industry standards, and basically consisted of lofting softballs at the Shell President. At one point the reporter asked, “You’re in the oil industry, isn’t it in your best interest though to protect oil and keep that going as long as possible?” The response was, “I’d rather say, we’re in the mobility industry. We like to keep people on the move.” Wow! Now that is Orwellian double-speak if I ever heard it. What’s more amazing is that the channel 8 reporter didn’t even question him. In fact, the whole interview was just a form of stenography, where the reported ran whatever the oil executive said without questioning it.

Much of the news coverage around the current gas/oil prices tends to look like a stock exchange report, where the focus is on the how the prices go up and down, but rarely do they talk about the reasons for this. Part of their hesitation to investigate these issues is that it means work and in the current state of US journalism investigative reporting is not encouraged unless it involves a celebrity scandal. The larger reasons for not pursuing this kind of reporting are that the news media is highly dependent upon the industries that sell oil and are driven by oil. These industries include the big oil companies, distributors, the big automotive companies, and local car dealerships to name a few. These companies all buy ad space/time from media and are therefore less likely to be the subjects of news stories.

Even when the news media reports on policy or regulating the oil industry, the coverage is quite limited as was mentioned at the beginning of this story. Instead of just reporting that the Senate proposal was defeated, why not report on which members of the Senate are recipients of campaign contributions from big oil? If you look at the Center for Responsive Politics database, you will find that in 2008, all major party candidates for president were recipients of campaign contributions from big oil. Both Republicans and Democrats received money, since big oil wants to make sure that whoever gets in has their interests in mind. I think reporting on this kind of influence peddling might be useful information for the public, don’t you?

Good journalism might also include some historical context regarding the US government’s relationship to big oil. In 1940, President Roosevelt stated in a diplomatic meeting with Britain, “Persian oil is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours.” The not so hidden secret is that since World War I the US and Europe have been trying to control the world’s oil resources, quite often with force. This has been the case in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Oil resources have played a role in dozens of US interventions, according to historian Bill Blum, author of Rogue State. Iraq is just the most recent example of an intervention that is motivated in part by the control of major oil reserves and we know what the consequences of that intervention have been, particularly for Iraqis.

In addition to looking at US policy and oil interventions, reporters could look at the racist nature of oil exploration. Many of the major oil drilling projects in the world are in Arab countries, on the African continent, or in Latin America. In the case of Latin America and Africa, most of the oil exploration is on indigenous land, such as the Ogoni in Nigeria or the Uwa in Colombia. The continued exploration of oil is one of the main factors in the extermination of indigenous populations, according to Al Gedicks in his book The New Resource Wars.

Then there is the environmental component of oil exploration and the burning of petroleum. We are all now aware of the global warming crisis we face, but how much of that discussion has looked at the role that militarism plays in the contamination of the planet when attempting to control the world’s oil resources? Sonia Shah in her book Crude has demonstrated that since WWI those countries with more control of the world’s oil have always had better military capability. Why? What do you think the tanks, planes, trucks, jeeps, ships, rockets, and submarines run on? The amount of fuel that is expended daily by militaries around the world is generally overlooked in the discussion about global warming and environmental sustainability. When was the last time you even heard and environmental organization condemn war? A chapter of the Sierra Club in Utah tried to speak out against the impending US Invasion of Iraq, but the president of that organization threatened to have their chapter shut down if they persisted.

Clearly, this issue is much more complex than what you are paying at the pump. However, since you do have to pay over $4 for a gallon of gas let me leave you with this thought. The next time a reporter, possibly during the Fourth of July weekend, approaches you to find out how you feel about gas prices tell them that their news agency needs to start reporting on why the prices are so high instead of why you are pissed off about them. If they refuse, then take the microphone out of their hand and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

This article is based in part on a workshop I did at the International Peak Oil and Climate Change Conference during the Memorial Day weekend at Calvin College.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org