Shallow Reporting on Deep Drilling

We wrote a column earlier this summer questioning news coverage of the offshore drilling debate, owing to undisclosed conflicts of interest in sources quoted, the publication of pseudoscience, and wildly optimistic projections pulled, it appeared, from the ether.

Still, the news about the news wasn’t all bad. On the whole we assessed that “much of the media coverage” still reflected that drilling was a bad idea. Numerous editorials and even cable news reports explained the potential costs to drilling along with the alleged benefits.

But we have to give credit to the proponents of drilling for persistence, if nothing else. Their campaign to “drill here, drill now” has intensified, led by well-organized “advocacy” groups funded by conservative billionaires, expanding into national advertising campaigns, as well as hastily written and even more hastily published books on the topic.

Many in the media have devoted considerable time and space to the topic, albeit with decidedly uneven results. Today, coverage of evidence showing the downsides of drilling has all but disappeared.

So let’s review: The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency projects that drilling would only yield merely 200,000 barrels of oil over a period of 20 years. This comes to roughly 0.2 percent of world oil production, which the EIA says is too small to have any significant effect on prices. These figures contradict the entire “drill here, drill now, pay less” mantra.

Yet the Center for Economic and Policy Research has conducted a stunning survey of just how infrequently this information appears in the mainstream media’s narrative on drilling. From June 16 to August 9, there were 267 broadcasts that mentioned proposed drilling, including “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “Meet the Press,” CNN, and “Fox News.” Of these 267 broadcasts, only one saw fit to include the EIA data.

Is it any surprise, therefore, that 74 percent of the public now favors drilling offshore—a demonstrably useless policy? What’s more, CEPR’s sample found that 91 percent of the news programs didn’t even present an opposing “opinion.” What’s more, the study undoubtedly understates the degree to which one hears this argument throughout the media, since it did not include the right-wing rantings of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the like.

NBC and MSNBC even went so far as to do several live reports from an oil rig, touting the potential virtues of offshore drilling. They quoted a Chevron spokesperson, but not the EIA data. Nor did they explain the environmental concerns of drilling. NBC and MSNBC are operating from an especially complicated position, as their parent company, General Electric, has an affiliated business unit that is invested in the acquisition of oil, and another that is a major supplier of equipment and services for the offshore drilling industry.

CEPR only measured broadcast outlets, but the situation in print is hardly more encouraging or much prettier. For instance, The New York Times reported that some politicians argued “coastal exploration would have no immediate impact on gas prices,” but not the actual evidence that proves it. The Washington Post similarly reported that “environmental groups replied that expanding offshore oil production would take years and have no impact on oil prices for a decade or more,” without offering the EIA data or any other supporting evidence. (In another article, The Post later did include the EIA data—but they inexplicably headlined it “Offshore Drilling Backed as Remedy for Oil Prices.”)

The Los Angeles Times reported only that “environmentalists said that even if obstacles to new drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico were quickly lifted, the resulting gasoline would be years away, as refineries are running at or near capacity—so there would be little or no immediate effect on supplies or prices.” Again, why bother with supporting evidence?

How can the public be asked to make sensible decisions about anything with such reporting? And how can reporters look themselves in the eye when they cease to be reporters and become shills for the oil industry?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.