'You Fearmonger as a Way to Get Viewers'

Sandy Cioffi on Nigeria, the other oil disaster

Photo Credit: Sweet Crude/Sandycioffi.com

Photo Credit: Sweet Crude/Sandycioffi.com

It’s hard to imagine a worse situation than the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but the Niger delta in Nigeria has by some accounts suffered spills equaling the Exxon Valdez every year for five decades. Besides the rare report, though, you wouldn’t know about that from U.S. corporate media. FAIR’s radio show CounterSpin (6/25/10) talked with filmmaker Sandy Cioffi, creator of the award-winning 2009 film Sweet Crude. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

CS: Let’s begin with your thoughts on the crisis in the Gulf. Perhaps you could describe some of the differences and similarities [with Nigeria].

Cioffi: My first reaction, like anyone, is emotional, and the emotions run deep for me because part of my motivation in making Sweet Crude was to point out to people that when you see a place like the Niger Delta, it’s not only a current crisis, it’s also a cautionary tale.

It’s devastating, is really the simple answer. There are some similarities, and I think those are important to note—particularly one that doesn’t get all that much ink, which is the use of these chemical dispersants as a way of dealing with oil spills. One of the chief complaints of the women who, somewhat famously in 2002 and 2003, took over oil platforms in the Niger Delta was the devastating health effects of those chemical dispersants on their children, and demanding that oil companies no longer use them. When you hear something like the chemical dispersants, you somehow think this is the first time they’re being tried. And thinking about the Niger Delta as a sort of terrible testing ground is a better way to put it.

There are of course also corporate lack-of-any-kind-of-preparation similarities, lack-of-any-kind-of-government-regulation similarities. I think the distinction is simply that if it’s in Africa, you don’t hear about it at all. [But] I get a little concerned about doing too much pitting one place against another. It’s a terrible continuum all over the world.

CS: You had occasion to see how ABC’s Brian Ross [1/8/07] tried to cover the Nigerian opposition movement. Ross wasn’t focused on the predations of big oil, or the environmental and safety threats, or a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Tell us what you think that says about U.S. coverage.

Cioffi: At its most benign, African coverage is nonexistent. At its most problematic, the coverage is either about a group of people who are victims, huddled by the side of the road waiting for aid, or brutal people who just don’t value life and are at each other’s throats and brewing terrorism. ABC News’ report shows the latter characterization of an armed movement that has grown out of decades of unarmed resistance, which met with virtually a silent world paying no attention to them. And their decision in 2006 to begin to kidnap oil workers, guess what? It yielded media coverage. So they were reinforced in the notion that if they pick up arms, they’re going to see CNN and ABC.

Unfortunately, the ABC that they saw was a classic sensationalist, just incendiary report of young men with guns, and they used as their source an unnamed email address rather than an unmasked interview that I delivered while working as a freelance person for them. They left it on the cutting room floor.

It’s probably true that there could be an explanation about the ways in which they have not enough time, not enough research associates, but there’s something more important at play. The idea that you fearmonger as a way to get viewers, and you speak about the “new African terror threat,” and you imply a relationship to Al-Qaeda—which a pesky detail of fact is that the young men of the Niger Delta would never be in association with Al-Qaeda, because they’re deeply Christian and quite anti-Muslim (which is itself a concern for people of Nigeria). But aside from that, there’s plenty of evidence and sources to prove that they have nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. But [Ross] went to air with a story that implied there might be an association of coordinated attacks.

To my mind, the connection of that and what happened in the Gulf is that that fearmongering has led to deeper and deeper ocean exploration for oil. It’s an actual strategy among oil companies and the geopolitical considerations—that if you can fearmonger enough, you can get a public that says fine, even though the safety measures are not in place, we’ll drill 10 miles in the ocean if we don’t go to “foreign oil”—because we keep saying “foreign oil, foreign oil” in this way that’s all about a level of racism and fearmongering, rather than looking at the question of our relationship with oil.