Mar
01
1990

Unreliable Sources: Slick Coverage of the Exxon Valdez Spill

In the aftermath of Exxon's 11-million-gallon oil in March 1989, U.S. news media described an Alaskan coast with countless dead animals, decimated plant life, and a massive black blanket covering nearly 1,100 miles of shoreline. But within a few months, a different story gained currency, as reports out of Prince William Sound took on a friendly and forgiving tone. National media began to focus on the damage not done by Exxon's blunder, heralding Big Oil's efforts to preserve Alaska's environment. Out of the jaws of catastrophe, Exxon snatched a news spin increasingly to its liking.

During one week in September 1989, the American people learned via cover stories in Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report (both 9/18/89) that the oil spill off the Alaska coastline wasn't so bad after all. As U.S. News reported, "The sublime beachscapes of Prince William Sound remain startlingly beautiful" despite the "image" of ecological disaster in one of the world's most pristine areas. The very premise of U.S. News & World Report's cover story--"The Disaster That Wasn't"--dismissed the seriousness of the spill, and praised Exxon's poorly organized and haphazardly executed "cleanup" effort.

Framing an image-vs.-reality theme, both weeklies painted a sympathetic picture of Exxon as a well-meaning (though clumsy) corporate citizen. Newsweek urged that the 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into an untouched wilderness area be put into a more "realistic perspective." The magazine boldly proclaimed that "Man has done his best...now it's nature's turn to repair the damage"--a big-type declaration certainly welcomed by Exxon. But the statement ignored many scientists and others, in Alaska and elsewhere, who questioned whether or not "man," in this case apparently a journalistic synonym for "Exxon," had actually "done his best."

While most stories detailing Exxon's pullout in September 1989 opened with a reference to the frigid Alaskan winter on the way, they rarely delved into whether or not the cleanup was effectively completed. The obstacles to staying in the sound for the winter seemed to excuse Exxon's retreat. Few mainstream journalists dared to step outside the boundaries of Exxon press releases and raise serious questions about what the company called "1,087 miles of treated shoreline."

Newsweek (9/18/89) scoffed at Exxon's use of "treated" as  "a far cry from the brave words of...Exxon's Alaska public affairs manager, who immediately after the spill promised 'to pick up, one way or another, all the oil that's out there.'" Yet the same magazine, just one page later, featured a brightly colored "Box Score" sheet neatly listing the mileage of "contaminated" shoreline (1,090) in comparison with the amount of "treated" shoreline (1,087). Newsweek's chart used the word treated without quotation marks. Albeit with a bit of grumbling, Newsweek thus credited Exxon with tending to all but three miles of the shoreline affected by the spill.

Many reports from Prince William Sound routinely underplayed the significant, far-reaching effects of damaging any part of the  global ecosystem. Shunning logic and available evidence, U.S. News (9/18/89) suggested that even though the American public had been misled by "one-dimensional television images and a furious environmental community, Prince William Sound is no longer an ecological disaster zone." The report explained that initially "there was heave mortality among sea birds and otters...but the long-term injury to most wildlife and marine organisms is expected to be minimal."

Soothing news, if one ignores the potential consequences of wiping out half the sea otter population. The sea otter is considered by biologists to be "a keystone species" in the Prince William Sound ecosystem. Keystone species are singled out for their vital roles in sustaining the balance of the ecosystem; when such a species is absent from a given environment, the food chain breaks down and the ecosystem is destroyed. Otters eat sea urchins, which feed on kelp beds. The kelp, known as "the foundation of the coastal ecosystem," supports the entire food chain from the bottom up. Newsweek (9/18/90) reported that half the otter species was destroyed, and conceded that "lose the otters...and there's nothing to stop the urchins from chewing the kelp down to the roots"--yet the magazine confidently proclaimed that "the food chain has survived." If the news media had made a responsible attempt to assess the potential impacts of destroying half the population of a keystone species in the delicate Prince William Sound ecosystem, Exxon might have found itself with an entirely new batch of public questions to answer.

USA Today (9/12/89) demonstrated a similar power-friendly approach to the spill in a piece headlined "Exxon extols spill cleanup as 'fantastic'"--truly a victory of stenography over journalism, as the company announced that the coast had been rendered "environmentally stable." The laudatory sum-up of Exxon's role was characteristic of mass media's tendency to jump on the bandwagon when the government or industry has "good news" to report.

Instead of blaming those in power positions when ecological catastrophes occur, the media are apt to fault lower-level individuals. The shock of the Alaska oil spill hadn't yet abated when the media shifted blame from Exxon and U.S. regulatory agencies to Captain Joseph Hazelwood, skipper of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker. Journalists showed little enthusiasm for probing the laxity of federal shipping regulations or Exxon's labor cuts, which forced tanker personnel to work up to 12-hour shifts without breaks. Instead, the news media much preferred to chronicle the personal and legal problems of Captain Hazelwood, who was later acquitted of most criminal charges. Time magazine ran a cover story of "Joe's Bad Trip" (7/24/89), six pages that purported to expose a "wider web of responsibility" but wound up devoting almost all of the space to reminiscing about Hazelwood's personal woes.

The Newsweek and U.S. News cover stories  failed to mention the Federal Clean Water and Clean Harbor Act, which provides for felony charges and jail terms for corporate officers of polluting companies. (This information, if reported, might raise questions about why such laws remain virtually unused.) And, like most coverage of environmental disasters, mainstream media stories about the spill did not explain that various factors--poorly enforced EPA and transit rules, federal tax deductions for corporate "cleanups," and miniscule penalties for polluters--make the legal and financial aspects of polluting actually work to the advantage of large corporations such as Exxon. In effect, it's cheaper for industries to pollute and pay token fines than to comply with minimal pollution standards.

With news media more inclined to stress the short-term economic prospects for big business than the long-term prognosis for human health and the environment, often the deepest concern seems to be extended toward embattled CEOs and public relations specialists. In a revealing reflection of mass media values, U.S. News (9/18/89) summed up events along the Alaska coast by declaring that "the greatest damage done by the spill is to Big Oil's public image." Consistent with such an ideology, the U.S. press went to great lengths to make sure the American public knew how much money Exxon was spending on Prince William Sound. The media turned the workers in Alaska into $16.69-an-hour beach cleaners," and placed more emphasis on the costs of the "cleanup" than its effectiveness.

Among the numerous news plugs for Exxon and the oil industry were references to "a reprise of the employment bonanza during the transatlantic pipeline construction in the mid-70s" that supposedly had positive effects on Alaska's economy. According to U.S. News, "locals joke about nominating...Hazelwood for governor because he has created more jobs than the previous four administrations." Meanwhile, the company was forced to respond to a barrage of calls and letters from outraged animal lovers. Such cues, combined with daily reminders of "cleanup" expenses, seemed calculated to evoke both pity and admiration for Exxon's effort, while implying, in some perverse sense, that the short-term "economic bonanza" that Exxon brought to Alaska was worth the "unsightly rocks and beaches" marring the Alaska coastline.

At year's end, National Geographic (1/90) provided an authoritative summary gloss for "the worst tanker spill in U.S. history and a six-month, billion dollar cleanup effort." The cover story--"Alaska's Big Spill: Can the Wilderness Heal?-- featured 40 pages of sumptuous photos and earnestly toned text...which never got around to faulting Exxon for much of anything. The article did nothing to offend oil companies such as Chevron, which had a full-page ad in the same issue. "Sooner or later, through human error or simply through the perils of the sea, spilled oil will assault another shore," the story stated. "And sooner or later, the damage will have to be left to nature to repair."

This article is excerpted from Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media, by Martin A. Lee and Normon Solomon, which will be published by Lyle Stuart in June. Lee is the publisher of Extra! and Solomon is a FAIR advisory board member. Research assistance for this section was provided by Neil Michel.