COMMENTS: Gulf Coast Oil Disaster Overstays its Welcome

For years Tyndall Report has complained about the disdain with which the network nightly newscasts tend to treat the Environment beat. The two-decade trend of time devoted to environmental coverage since 1988 shows that even when Al Gore won an Oscar and a Nobel Prize for his Inconvenient Truth in 2007 the category could not break out into headline-grabbing status. So it would churlish for me now to say enough already. BP's oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has attracted massive, unprecedented attention to the issues such as the reliance on fossil-fuel energy, the wisdom of deepwater offshore oil drilling and the ecological damage that can be caused by extractive industries.

Nevertheless. Enough already!

Tellingly, the previous annual high for environmental coverage on the nightly newscasts in Tyndall Report's 22-year database was 1989, the last time an American coastline was despoiled by pollution from a petroleum multinational. In that year the Exxon Valdez attracted an enormous 203 minutes of coverage. BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster has caused more pollution by an order of magnitude--and has attracted vaster amounts of coverage accordingly. In the three months since the broken well started gushing crude from the sea bed, it has attracted close to 20 hours of attention on the three weekday nightly newscasts (1,100 mins--ABC 306, CBS 370, NBC 423).

For a long time, the commitment of the network news divisions to this disaster was commendable. What was first of all an hellacious industrial accident that cost eleven lives turned into an ecological disaster. CBS' Sharyl Attkisson, for example, was tenacious in her investigation into BP's initial downplaying of the extent of the undersea gusher and the failures of its contingency planning. NBC's Tom Costello was clear and informative in his explanation of how drilling technology works.

All three networks dispatched teams of correspondents to report from the Gulf of Mexico and the Louisiana coastline. NBC's effort has been led by its environmental correspondent Anne Thompson (45 reports so far)--only NBC has a reporter dedicated to the green beat. Thompson has been backed up by two colleagues from NBC's Miami bureau, Mark Potter (21 reports) and Kerry Sanders (16 reports). CBS has relied on general reporters assigned to that region: Atlanta-based Mark Strassmann (38 reports) and Kelly Cobiella (18 reports) from Miami. ABC, too, has used a Miami-based correspondent, Jeffrey Kofman (22 reports), most often. In addition national general assignment reporter David Muir (12 reports) and Texas-based (UPDATE: my mistake, see comments--thanks Anonymous) Ryan Owens (12 reports) were flown in and a new face, Matt Gutman (22 reports) has been brought over from ABC Radio News--and Guttman definitely does not have a face for radio, as the saying goes.

The climax of the coverage of this disaster came when a political angle was added to this initial Gulf Coast focus. Just look at the week-by-week increase in attention (data are in minutes, stated as a three-network total) as the crisis became more political, as the debate mounted as to whether the federal government would be able to hold the multinational corporation accountable. The first five weeks of the story saw a gradual weekly increase (23 min to 71 to 56 to 62 to 81) through the middle of May.

For the next four weeks, from May 24th through June 18th, (154 min to 153 to 127 to 144) the story was a full-blown headline grabber: BP's sea-bed attempts to plug the gusher failed and President Barack Obama came under pressure to demonstrate that his administration had control of the crisis. That four-week period culminated in BP's CEO Tony Hayward testifying with stonewalling answers on Capitol Hill; the President making a primetime televised address to the nation; and BP agreeing to set up an independently-administered $20bn fund to compensate those whose livelihoods the oil slick had ruined.

At that point the drama of the power struggle around the disaster had played out. During those four weeks of peak coverage, more than 20% of all reports (42 out of 199) had an inside-the-Beltway angle, concerning either the White House or the Congress or federal regulators. Preceding that four-week period, the politics of the disaster was mentioned occasionally (12 reports out of 103); since the $20bn fund has been put in place, there has not been a single further report (0 out of 83) with a political angle.

When that political climax was reached the coverage had already been disproportionate, even excessive. Consider this comparison: the first nine weeks of the BP oil disaster attracted a cumulative 871 minutes of coverage; the first nine weeks of the Hurricane Katrina disaster attracted only marginally more, 903 minutes. As I have said, I personally tend to lobby the nightly newscasts to treat environmental stories with more seriousness than they do but I draw the line here. Poisoning coastal marshes and killing marine ecosystems and depriving fishing villages of their livelihoods and despoiling tourist resorts are all horrible. But it is an insult to the hundreds of dead and the thousands of displaced of the city of New Orleans to cover those two disasters as if they were of equal magnitude.

Drowning a city is more shocking and consequential by far.

Besides, the extreme coverage of this oil slick leaves the impression that the destruction of Louisiana's coastal wetlands is the fault of this lone disaster. The environmental depredation of the region and the erosion of its wetlands were well under way even before deepwater oil exploration began, often as a consequence of accident-free drilling. For all the complaints that arose from the region against BP for its pollution, the sporadic coverage of the local opposition to the Interior Department's moratorium on drilling demonstrated that the extractive industrialization of the Gulf of Mexico still attracts serious regional political support.

The most recent three weeks show the diminishing returns of the story (from 86 min to 80 to 63). The political aspect of the crisis has been defused. There have been few new hard news developments. Thompson's reports on NBC have tended to be incremental round-ups of the day's largely insignificant developments. Coverage has turned more and more to topics that would normally qualify as feature material to close a newscast rather than headline fare: on animals (8 reports) and tourism (10 reports). Before the headline fever broke three weeks ago, these soft news angles represented 14% of all coverage (41 reports out of 302); since then these angles have increased to 22% (18 out of 83).

CBS' Steve Hartman even managed to shoehorn a trip to the cabanas of the Florida Keys and a profile of a June beach bride into his Assignment America human interest coverage to illustrate BP's pollution. On the other hand, Hartman's profile of Olivia Bouler, the eleven-year-old ornithological illustrator was a keeper.

There comes a point where the local effects of the oil disaster become just that, a local news story, no longer of pressing concern to the national nightly newscasts. Why should the unemployment of a Louisiana oysterpacker be any more newsworthy, from a national perspective, than a laid-off California teacher or a long-term unemployed Michigan autoworker? Why should the empty beachfront bars of Pensacola attract more national attention than the casino recession on the Las Vegas Strip?

Granted, the damage to the marine ecosystem is a continuing and serious story of national importance--and sometimes when a New York based anchor travels down to the Gulf Coast an environmental lesson, for example by NBC's Brian Williams, is what we get. Mostly, latterly, the coverage has been about the human toll of this disaster: NBC's Williams on a shrimping family, CBS' Katie Couric on forlorn youth, ABC's Diane Sawyer on hymnsinging villagers. Frankly, in the national scheme of things, the dislocation in these sparsely populated coastal counties and parishes does not deserve such incessant attention--especially since BP has set aside $20bn to make them whole; especially since the disaster that befell next-door New Orleans was so much more calamitous.

The networks' assignment desks seemed trapped by their own past enthusiasm. Having committed maximum resources to covering the story when it was at crisis stage, regaining a sense of proportion now might seem like callous indifference. It is as if a fear of seeming fickle has clouded their news judgment. NBC has been the worst offender at overstaying its welcome: in the last three weeks since the crisis broke its fever pitch, NBC has sent almost as much time (101 min v ABC 51, CBS 77) on the oil story as its two rivals put together.

It reminds me of the spring of 2000, when a minor foreign policy story, with an interesting human interest angle, became a cause celebre because the national news media, having committed to its importance, could not let go until they had found resolution. The child custody case of Elian Gonzalez ended up logging an astonishing 503 minutes of coverage, the single biggest non-campaign story of that election year. I suppose we can expect to sit through a similar daily drumbeat of oil leak coverage all through the summer until that hole is finally plugged.

These excesses of overenthusiasm do not come without a price in the zero-sum journalistic world of the network nightly newscasts, with their fixed 19-minute newsholes. As a consequence of so much time being spent in the Gulf of Mexico, several major news stories have been escaped the scrutiny they deserved during the past twelve weeks. In particular, the fatal flotilla protest against the blockade of the Gaza Strip (30 mins) and the transfer of command from Gen Stanley McChrystal (41 mins) to Gen David Petraeus (11 mins) in Afghanistan both receives short shrift overseas. In the domestic economy, the debate over regulation of high finance (45 mins) and over extension of unemployment benefits (29 mins) would both have received more attention in normal times. In politics, the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan (46 mins) felt the squeeze.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is indeed a major news story. The problem for the networks is that they have confused those angles that are of pressing national concern with the regional consequences that properly belong to the news crews of their local affiliates. The big national environmental questions concern the future of offshore drilling, federal regulation of Big Oil, holding BP accountable, the restoration of the marine and wetlands ecosystems of the Mississippi Delta and the feasibility of transforming the national economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Over the past three years, NBC, following the Green is Universal mandate of its parent corporation--General Electric manufactures such carbon-free energy technologies as wind, hydroelectric and nuclear--has treated such issues as more newsworthy (504 min on the Environment beat v ABC 290, CBS 381). All three networks are in danger of muddying those important national public policy questions with endless local human interest features on docked shrimp boats and tar-ball strewn beaches.

Enough already! Leave the slimed pelicans and those precious turtle eggs to local news at 6pm.


Spud at Inside Cable News comments via e-mail:

You are a very brave man. Yours is the kind of story that the bleeding hearts love to jump on and tear apart as tone deaf. But you state your case well, though the part about local news story returning to a local outlet I think is overstated and maybe a tad shrill. The depreciation of the fisheries is being treated currently as an employment issue but long term it's an economy issue of the eating variety as prices go up for shrimp, oysters, and other fish that we eat at home or out in a restaraunt. I'm expecting hyperinflation in the seafood industry in the not very distant future. And the tourism industry getting killed is a huge story. If they just continue talk about the "human toll" I think you're right, it should revert to local news domination with the occasional "in depth" national piece. But if the story pivots, as I expect it shall, to the economic damage done to tourism and the strain on the seafood industry in terms of being able to adequately satiate our desire for seafood, I think it'll stay on the national scene for quite a while.
Ryan Owens is Dallas-based, so is not really a national correspondent. CBS has also used Cynthia Bowers out of Chicago to relieve Kelly Cobeilla on the Alabama/Florida beat and Don Teague out of Dallas to relieve Mark Strassmann.
Anonymous -- thanks for the fact check on Owens. I have made the correction.

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