The Washington Post had a two-page spread in its September 11 edition devoted to a "debate" on energy policy. But industry critics were missing from the picture. Why? Perhaps because the oil industry, undisclosed to Post readers, was sponsoring the discussion.
"Ahead of 2012 Vote, Energy Generates a Lively Debate," read the headline on page 14. Washington Post Live editor Mary Jordan explained, "Huge natural gas and oil finds...have drastically changed America's energy outlook." She went on to note, "Gas burns cleaner than coal," before admitting that "there are environmental concerns with 'fracking.'"
The two-page spread that followed was presented as an election-year discussion of U.S. energy policy. As Jordan explained, the debate grew out of discussions held at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Those forums were sponsored by the Post and the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.
But the Post failed to credit another sponsor: Vote4Energy.org, whose logo appears on the Post Live website that features the forums. What is Vote4Energy? It's a project of the American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group of the oil and gas industries.
So if you're wondering why the Post's feature failed to include bonafide critics of the energy giants--voices that might speak out against fracking, strongly advocate for renewable energy or take climate change seriously--that would seem to be the answer. Some of these issues were raised, but mostly in passing.
Instead, the Post featured excerpts from the invited guests. On the Democratic side, that meant Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer--an enthusiastic supporter of fracking--and Rep. Ed Markey (Mass.), who seemed to endorse more gas drilling, along with Sen. Mark Begich, who touted oil and gas drilling in his state before mentioning renewables. On the Republican side, readers heard from Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas and Bill Maloney, a candidate for governor of West Virginia, who declared global warming to be "nothing but a hoax."
The right was also represented by the Heritage Foundation's Kim Holmes, Margo Thorning of the Koch-backed American Council for Capital Formation and Karen Harbert of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Industry views were provided by Melissa Lavinson of Pacific Gas & Electric, Kevin Book of Clearview Energy Partners and David Holt of the Consumer Energy Alliance, an industry-aligned advocacy group. There were also comments from Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, Paul Bledsoe of the Bipartisan Policy Center and Josh Freed of the centrist think tank Third Way.
Entirely missing from this "debate" were environmentalists or any strong critics of the fossil fuel industry.
In a video of the discussion at the Republican convention posted on the paper's website, Emily Akhtarzandi--the Post's "strategic partnership executive"--credited the American Petroleum Institute in her opening remarks, saying the group "saw value in making today's conversation possible."
Indeed they would; arranging a "debate" that excludes your critics participating is very valuable. And so is seeing that one-sided discussion spread across two pages of the biggest newspaper in the nation's capital.
It's not the first time the Post has been caught selling itself to corporate sponsors. In 2009, the paper cooked up a plan to have publisher Katharine Weymouth host "salons" at her home at which, for $25,000, corporate underwriters could rub shoulders with politicians as well as Post reporters and editors (Extra!, 9/09). Draft marketing materials promoted the project as a chance for industry reps to "build crucial relationships with Washington Post news executives in a neutral and informal setting."
After Politico (7/2/09) broke the story, the resulting uproar scrapped the plan before it got off the ground. This time around, the paper has gotten even more brazen, selling not access to journalists but essentially two critic-free pages of advocacy presented as news.
Shouldn't Post readers have been told that what they were reading was less a news feature and more like an advertisement?
Interestingly, the paper published a letter last month (8/4/12) complaining about the Post's failure to cover a large anti-fracking protest in D.C. that ended at the offices of...the American Petroleum Institute.
Ask the Washington Post to explain why it failed to disclose that its September 11 energy feature was essentially sponsored by the oil industry.