Big Oil’s influence on corporate media has American news outlets shamefully shirking climate coverage. But oil companies won’t be satisfied by merely controlling the national news. In the poor Californian city of Richmond, where Chevron wants to upgrade a polluting refinery that is wont to explode, the oil giant has started an online newspaper.
The Richmond Standard is a hyperlocal journalism site launched in January with the hallmarks of a typical Patch site (before said service was dumped by AOL): minimally reported stories about local crime, public meetings, and sports, told with the inverted-pyramid style of traditional news writing.
But the Standard is not your typical, well-intentioned but underfunded local reporting initiative; it’s a Chevron propaganda rag that’s run and written by the company’s flacks. The San Francisco Chronicle delves into the ethics of such an initiative:
The idea of the nation’s second-largest oil company funding a local news site harkens back to an era of journalism when business magnates often owned newspapers to promote their personal financial or political agendas. Now that mainstream newspapers are struggling to survive, online news sites are testing ways to fund their operations, said Edward Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
But the idea of a company sponsoring news in a community where it operates still poses problems, he said.
“The tradition of press independence — even though in many times it’s more aspirational than real — is nevertheless a cornerstone principle,” Wasserman said. The Standard “is a different model. It’s clearly meant as a community outreach effort, so it’s born in an ethically challenged area.”
The Standard claims to be Richmond’s first “community-driven daily news source” since prior to 1990, yet Wasserman’s school runs Richmond Confidential — a rival site that frequently covers Chevron. The Standard has a “Chevron speaks” section, which has so far been used to introduce the website (which it says could “blaze the trail for a new model of corporate-sponsored, community-generated news”), and to criticize negative press coverage of its plans to upgrade the refinery. But the positive coverage of Chevron and its refinery also spills into the “News” section.
Chevron’s San Francisco-based PR consultants poached colorful crime reporter Mike Aldax away from the San Francisco Examiner late last year, hiring him to work as an account manager and to write Richmond Standard’s articles. A Chevron spokesperson described the writer as “independent,” but a recent tweet reminds us that Aldax’s loyalties lie with his client:
Mike Aldax (@MikeAldax) March 17, 2014
“Richmond residents are not going to be fooled — they know where we’re coming from,” Aldax said. “The onus is on me to provide information that’s factual and accurate.”
Note that Aldax doesn’t say anything about “balance.” As the Chronicle points out, Aldax didn’t quote activists who oppose the refinery upgrade in a recent story about the project’s “robust” environmental impact report.
Perhaps we can look forward to more such ventures in other communities where Chevron operates. The Ecuador Standard, anyone?