Jul 1 2006

Meet the Oil Executives

Industry-friendly panels on NBC’s Meet the Press

At a time of dramatic increases in gasoline prices and jaw-dropping oil profits, NBC’s Sunday morning talkshow Meet the Press has convened two panel discussions dominated by guests close to those interests—with no input from environmental or citizen groups critical of the energy industry.

On April 30, Meet the Press devoted its entire hour to a conversation about rising gas prices, featuring Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman (a former chemical industry executive), Red Cavaney of the American Petroleum Institute, corporate energy analyst Daniel Yergin (who is also on a board of advisers to the Energy Department), CNBC host (and corporate cheerleader) Jim Cramer and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Durbin was the most critical voice, lamenting the “profit taking” by the industry giants and saying, “We don’t have a sound energy policy and we definitely need one.” While having one guest (out of five) who would make those points is better than none, why not include an expert or two from a consumer or environmental group—someone who might be prepared to respond to the industry-friendly talking points heard on the show?

CNBC’s Cramer, for example, declared: “We have a huge refinery problem, and you can’t build them. And it’s not a federal government issue. It’s a local government issue because no one wants a refinery next to them.” This line—that local governments and citizen groups thwart the wishes of oil companies to refine more gasoline—has been challenged for years by groups like Public Citizen, who argue that the lack of refineries is a result of industry decisions to increase their profits by restricting supplies.

At the end of the program, host Tim Russert offered an apology for the skewed panel—though to him, the show apparently didn’t have enough of a pro-industry tilt: “Our viewers should know we did invite the representatives of the major oil companies, Shell, Chevron, BP, ExxonMobil, Sunoco and ConocoPhillips, to be with us today. They declined. We hope they will join us in the future.”

Some of those oil moguls did just that on June 18, when Russert hosted a discussion that featured only these guests: Shell Oil president John Hofmeister, ConocoPhillips chair and CEO James Mulva and David O’Reilly, the chair and CEO of Chevron. At the top of the show, Russert asked, “How can the chief executives of the big oil companies explain the skyrocketing prices at the pump?” Naturally, oil industry execs can give you reasons why gas prices have to be so high. But surely consumer advocates and environmentalists would offer a different take—one that NBC viewers don’t hear much in the current debate over energy policy.

Though he enjoys a reputation as one of the more aggressive TV interviewers, Russert himself has been known to describe his approach somewhat differently, once telling radio host Don Imus (3/21/06) that a more gentle approach was preferable: “There are a lot of people on the far right or the far left who want someone in my situation to yell and scream or lean over and choke somebody or slap them around and a lot of histrionics, but you really don’t achieve anything because you make your guest immediately sympathetic, and I much prefer just to try to, steady as you go, draw people out.” In a speech a month earlier, Russert said much the same (The Reporter, 2/3/06): “I let them talk and try to draw them out. . . . The viewers should make the decision about whether they’re spinning or distorting the facts.”

In his June 18 oil roundtable, this approach consisted of Russert posing a series of polite queries about the “image” problems associated with making excessive profits, and ultimately thanking his guests for “helping the American people to understand this issue.”

As lamentable as these stacked panels might be, Meet the Press is hewing to Sunday morning media traditions, where guest panels are dominated by powerful politicians and corporate spokespeople. One study of guestlists in the mid- and late 1990s (Extra!, 9-10/01) found that all three network Sunday shows had one thing in common: “Except for presidential candidate Ralph Nader, not a single one of the 364 guests invited during the 19 months studied was an environmentalist or consumer advocate.” It’s a rule that seems unlikely to change, even when the news would seem to cry out for such voices to be heard.