Over nearly a year in circulation, Politico Magazine has worked hard to command a piece of the country’s intellectual turf. Under the direction of founding editor Susan Glasser, it used Politico’s trademark quality — immediacy — to lend perspective on key stories as they evolve. Two inches of snow paralyze Atlanta, and Politico Magazine is there. The director of the Secret Service resigns, and Politico Magazine is there. The Obama administration formulates its response to Ferguson, and Politico Magazine is there.
A PR operative for BP wants to flack for his company’s point of view following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and Politico Magazine is also there. Geoff Morrell is senior vice president of U.S. communications and external affairs for BP, and his Tuesday Politico Magazine piece is titled “No, BP Didn’t Ruin the Gulf.” It lists the various ways in which the Gulf Coast has thrived in the four years since the spill: “Last year, for example, recreational fishermen caught more pounds of fish than in nearly 30 years, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” writes Morrell. “The oil didn’t make it to Tampa — let alone the beaches of Normandy. Gulf shrimp landings didn’t take ‘generations’ to rebound. They quickly returned to pre-spill levels. And crowds have flocked to the Gulf, setting tourism records every year since the spill.”
Free native advertising, in other words.
Words favoring BP’s position on Deepwater damage claims have some history in Rosslyn. As this blog pointed out last year, BP frequently sponsored Mike Allen’s phenomenal “Playbook” and often drew favorable free mentions from Allen within the expansive four corners of the daily newsletter. For instance, Allen last October grabbed a quote from Morrell after a favorable court ruling: “[C]laimants should not be paid for fictitious or wholly non-existent losses. We are gratified that the systematic payment of such claims by the claims administrator must now come to an end,” reads the quote, in part.
Compare that to the last paragraph in Morrell’s Politico Magazine piece:
But we should not be accountable for damages caused by the acts of others, or those conjured up by opportunistic advocacy groups. And we should certainly not be liable for damages that stem from problems that have plagued the Gulf for decades. After all the faulty forecasts, it’s time to base our understanding of the Gulf’s condition and the spill’s impact on facts—not fiction.
Politico declined to provide on-the-record answers to our questions about the Morrell article.
A trip through the archives finds some Politico balance on BP. In April 2011, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) wrote an opinion piece advocating the use of “80 percent of the BP penalty money for the Gulf Coast.” And one year ago, David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, wrote a piece titled “What BP owes America.”
The Erik Wemple Blog has no recollection of an outcry over Politico’s giving space to the National Audubon Society, at least nothing compared with what popped up on Twitter today:
— Kelly Heber (@Kelly_Heber) October 22, 2014
One enterprising commentator noted how often BP sponsors “Playbook”:
for folks confused why people are upset about bp’s op-ed in politico: pic.twitter.com/9ZDMfkrkFi
— Mike Casca (@cascamike) October 22, 2014
Why do people react strongly when BP gets a free ride in Politico but not when the National Audubon Society does? Perhaps because of how the National Audubon Society guy framed the issue: “BP is the sixth-largest corporation on the planet. It is not a victim; it’s on trial for its mistakes. At a time when many Americans wonder if too-big-to-fail corporations are above the law, we need to see that our bedrock environmental regulations are enforced because they were written for events just like the BP spill.”
A savvy observer earlier today told the Erik Wemple Blog that the piece had undergone a tag change — that it was originally categorized in Politico’s Internet taxonomy as a regular old article:
It later added an “Opinion” tag, to signify that the Morrell piece belonged to a cone of op-eds often contributed by vested interests. Among the questions that we sent to Politico was whether another piece written solely from the point of view of a single corporation had been in that “opinion” content basket. We received no on-the-record response. Here is the link for that particular archive. Here’s a piece against summer vacation, a piece about the Fed, a piece about drug laws, a piece against commencement addresses. Dive in, and try finding another piece like Morrell’s.
Sample some of the Associated Press’s coverage of the BP claims dispute. There are multiple court rulings; a debate about damages and causation; a “complex March 2012 agreement,” on damages, in the AP’s words; and many, many other factors.
All those complications mean that this story is far too detailed to hand over to a corporate flack.
Following a request-for-comment from this blog, BP issued this statement about the Morrell piece: “This is an opinion piece submitted by BP to an influential newspaper to counter several op-eds about the Gulf that previously were published in this and other media outlets. It’s no different than any other op-ed by any other company in any other publication.”
Updated to include BP statement.