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Have media 'misconstructed' BP story?

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Members of the House Energy Committee turn up the heat on BP CEO Tony Hayward during a hearing on Thursday regarding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010; 10:19 AM

Tony Hayward is not exactly a sympathetic witness, but after watching so many mad-as-hell congressmen practically waterboard him, I wondered whether the House hearing had degenerated into a made-for-television spectacle.

We all know the ritual: Embattled chief executive sits by the microphone, takes verbal abuse and studiously avoids specifics as one lawmaker after another denounces him.

Given the utter recklessness of BP's conduct, it's hard to feel sorry for the downcast Hayward, who kept spouting talking points about the company's commitment to safety. Perhaps he took solace from the words of Rep. Joe Barton, who apologized to Hayward for the "shakedown" perpetrated by the Obama administration. (This prompted yet more pummeling by Democrats as Hayward said that no, he didn't agree with the Texas Republican that he'd been shaken down by White House thugs.)

So the journalistic story line was set: Whose side are ya on? BP, or those who are trying to hold the oil giant accountable for the worst environmental disaster in American history?

But let's pull back the camera a bit. The posturing, the sound bites, the finger-pointing, these are all part of the warp and woof of daily journalism. But when we look back in a couple of years, will that seem important? Or will the creation of a company-funded, $20 billion escrow fund to help victims in the gulf be the more lasting response?

Maybe BP had little choice but to fork over the cash, given its huge profits and the enormous pressure to ameliorate some of the damage it has caused. But does this go into the plus column for the president? Didn't he make this happen? Or is that too dull a topic for the mediasphere because there's not much to argue about -- that is, besides Joe Barton, who apparently doesn't want BP to pay claims by fishermen, shrimpers and others whose lives the company has ruined?

Barton, who practically had his legs broken by the GOP leadership, later apologized if his words were "misconstructed" -- but they were actually quite clear. Can the same be said for the coverage?

Andrew Sullivan makes the telling point on this question:

"What are the odds that Obama's huge success in getting BP to pledge a cool $20 billion to recompense the 'small people' in the Gulf will get the same attention as his allegedly dismal speech on Tuesday night? If you take Memeorandum [a news digest] as an indicator, it really is no contest. The speech is still being dissected by language experts, but the $20 billion that is the front page news in the NYT? Barely anywhere on the blogs.

"This is just a glimpse into the distortion inherent in our current political and media culture. It's way easier to comment on a speech -- his hands were moving too much! -- than to note the truly substantive victory, apparently personally nailed down by Obama, in the White House yesterday. If leftwing populism in America were anything like as potent as right-wing populism - Matt Bai has a superb analysis of this in the NYT today - there would be cheering in the streets. But there's nada, but more leftist utopianism and outrage on MSNBC. . . .

"It seems to me vital to keep our heads and remain focused on what substantively can be done to address real problems, and judge Obama on those terms. When you do, you realize that the left's 'disgruntleist' faction needs to take a chill pill."

In a remarkably sharp column in the New York Times, Matt Bai reminds us that Obama "has established a remarkable pattern of regularly scolding the titans of American industry.


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