Media’s search for oil spill villain leads to the White House

I for one am glad that the catastrophe off the Louisiana coast has been fully explained, and the failure first to prevent and then to halt the hemorrhage of crude oil that is souring the Gulf of Mexico has finally been laid at the feet of the guy who’s truly responsible: the president of the United States, Barack Obama.

What a relief. For a while it was getting confusing. No longer. And I have the country’s news media to thank for this clarity. The media have redirected the public’s attention—away from BP’s record of indifference to safety and health, away from the corners that were cut and the risks that were overlooked, away from the role of defective workmanship and cheapskate engineering in producing disaster for which, astonishingly, no effective industry response even existed.

I exaggerate. There has indeed been coverage of those areas, some of it excellent, and there will be more. But the story that the media love, the overriding narrative that drives the story through today’s 24/7 news cycle, is Obama.

Newsweek reported that Obama faces “his own political blowout,” and when he referred to BP as “the responsible party,” he was “passing the buck.” In The Wall Street Journal, conservative diva Peggy Noonan titled her column “He was supposed to be competent,” and declared, “I don’t see how the president’s position and popularity can survive the oil spill.” Dana Milbank of The Washington Post ridiculed Obama’s acceptance of responsibility as “lawyerly,” “passive” and above all, excessive, as if he relished the blame he was assigning himself.

So how is it that Obama is personally pilloried for an unprecedented technical blunder committed by mighty corporations that had generally been presumed to know their trade, and which arose out of decades of snuggly regulation that he’s even now being criticized for seeking to toughen?

In a larger sense, why has this become a story about government, not business?

There are at least three reasons why this toxic plume has drifted to Washington.

First, the focus on government reflects a longstanding practice, almost a reflex, in the way news is framed. This is a frequent complaint made against the “liberal” media by conservative commentators, who criticize the tendency of journalists to automatically suggest the remedy for social ills must be some new law or government initiative. And that means, egads, more government spending, a preordained conclusion that the liberal media supposedly must return to, like arsonists to a fire they set (though unlike arsonists the media then stick around to criticize the firefighters.)

I think there’s truth to that, though ironically, in this case that journalistic habit of seeing problems as programs is working for the Right by refocusing the story onto the White House and discrediting a president whom conservatives revile.

Second, the internal hierarchy of the most influential, agenda-setting news organizations assigns pride of place to the reporters who cover the political world. They’re the top dogs. There is, accordingly, a powerful institutional undertow in favor of finding and emphasizing the partisan significance of important non-political happenings—indeed, in insisting that their political dimension is what matters most about them.

In the early days of the oil story you could almost smell the impatience on the Sunday talk shows among the Beltway crowd, who were eager for a clear narrative linking the unfolding disaster to the things they care most about, like the midterm elections. Without that link, it wouldn’t be their story. Only once that bridge was found could the event that unquestionably matters—the greatest oil spill in U.S. history—be safely entrusted to the journalists who matter most, the ones who cover not energy, not the environment, not business, but high-stakes political gaming.

So dwelling on the Obama dimension of the story has a powerful constituency within the news business itself.

Third, however, in the final analysis the media are left with that eloquent catchphrase from Ghostbusters: Who are ya gonna call? It’s not the media’s fiction that the federal government has no rival as the institution with ultimate responsibility for public wellbeing. Obama becomes the focus of news not because he’s at fault, but because he’s there. His actions, his utterances, embody the overall wisdom and effectiveness of the society’s response.

And that’s inevitable, I suppose. But this is a huge, harrowing story, and our grandchildren will live with its consequences. The media have a duty not to trivialize it by indulging in mind-numbing tropes like “Obama’s Katrina.” It took decades of failure across a broad range of public and private institutions to tee up a disaster of this magnitude. It’ll take the best the media can do to explain how it happened and help ensure it’s never repeated.


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5 Responses

  1. Your statement “BP’s record of indifference to safety and health, away from the corners that were cut and the risks that were overlooked, away from the role of defective workmanship and cheapskate engineering” does not reflect JOURNALISM ETHICS. It is your opinion, based on your feelings. I thought Journalism Ethics meant giving the reader the “facts” not just the reporter’s opinion unless he or she says it is an opinion. I have worked with BP personnel and I assure, few are “indifferent to safety and health.” Without doubt mistakes were made at Texas City and apparently in the Gulf. As you state ” It’ll take the best the media can do to explain how it happened and help ensure it’s never repeated.” Hopefully the media will persue this objective with an open mind and fairness.

    1. Mr. Fitzpatrick, I appreciate your comment, and I’m sure the BP staff you work with are upstanding people, but if you do a Google search under “BP refinery fire” you’ll turn up a catalogue of coverage that fully justifies my characterization of BP’s deplorable corporate record.

  2. Professor Wasserman,

    Just read your latest on President Obama being scapegoated. I couldn’t disagree more. The vast majority of open minded folks blame BP for the leak, not the president, BUT we watched that oil drift to shore for 30+ DAYS before it really started to cause problems for the Gulf States. What was the federal government doing to prepare the coastline during that period? Where was FEMA? Where IS FEMA? As the clock keeps ticking, it’s only fair to question the government’s response, and President Obama’s. We did the same for his predecessor after Katrina, a storm of biblical proportions with a lot LESS reaction time than the Gulf Spill.

  3. I agree completely with your assertion that the scape-goating of Obama is directly related to a political framework for reporting news, and particularly news that is complicated, for all the reasons you cite. In addition, there is a dearth of news-writers that have the chops to tackle science or technology issues along with the ability to generate news stories that are digestible. I would love to see the National Academies of Science, of Engineering, the Ford and Knight Foundations, etc. put resources into remedying this! As you point out, making decisions in the political arena without a thorough understanding of options and impacts that are defined by current technology can be a huge political mistake. But it is more than just a political mistake, policy and decisions (and votes!) made in (even partial) ignorance have potentially huge, huge impact on the planet and the people of the planet. An informed citizenry, critical to making our American political process successful, is informed about the science and technology issues. This means communicating so that typical media users “get it.”

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