The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Semafor hired a climate writer. Then Chevron ran ads on his stories.

He doesn’t work there anymore.

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Journalist Bill Spindle spent part of 2022 traveling throughout India to study the effects of climate change. Over some 5,000 miles, he visited struggling mangrove forests and tea plantations, massive petrochemical plants and coastal areas facing flooding from rising sea levels.

His conclusion: Climate change has accelerated into an emergency. “We have to make changes, and we have to make them in a hurry,” Spindle told The Washington Post.

So when he went to work covering climate issues for the start-up news site Semafor, he had some firm beliefs about the role of fossil fuels in the planet’s warming. And he blanched when he saw who was sponsoring one of his first newsletters: Chevron, the second-largest oil and gas company in the United States.

Spindle protested that Chevron’s logo atop his newsletter was an example of “greenwashing,” or giving polluting companies the sheen of environmental responsibility.

Greenwashing 101: How to decipher corporate claims about climate

But while Chevron disappeared as a sponsor of his newsletter, the company’s ads continued to accompany Spindle’s articles elsewhere on the website. Barely three months into the job, he was dismissed from Semafor.

“I made clear to them that I didn’t see a path forward,” he said.

Semafor is reluctant to address the specifics of Spindle’s employment but said his dismissal had nothing to do with its advertising partnerships. The site’s editor and co-founder Ben Smith deferred to the company’s previous statement, which cited its “robust” advertising policy and added, “We did not remove advertising due to editorial requests and have a number of rotating sponsors of the climate newsletter.”

Spindle’s public criticism of Semafor’s ad policies offers an unusual glimpse into discussions that typically stay behind the scenes. Mainstream journalists tend to avoid raising objections to advertising that supports their work — which they typically have little say over anyway. And media outlets are often loath to turn down ads or sponsorship when the news industry is facing cutbacks and layoffs.

But Spindle, a 60-year-old former Wall Street Journal editor and reporter, argues that it’s time the news media makes a hard choice about associating with the makers of fossil fuels, which scientists overwhelmingly believe are destabilizing Earth’s climate by pumping massive amounts of heat-trapping molecules into the atmosphere. He compares the industry to tobacco marketers, whose ads were banished from radio and television by a federal law in 1970 because of rising health concerns.

Oil, gas and coal are “inherently harmful products,” Spindle said. “The decisions we make in the next five years are going to be absolutely critical. We may not be able to get rid of our dependence on [fossil fuels] in that time, but that really needs to be the goal.”

He’s up against a juggernaut, estimates of the oil industry’s marketing and public-relations expenditures suggest. One calculation, based on publicly available tax records, found that the industry’s main trade and lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, alone spent $663 million on its communications between 2008 and 2017.

This is dwarfed by the annual communications budgets of such oil and gas giants as ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and the French firm TotalEnergies. These five companies spent roughly $750 million on messaging last year, according to InfluenceMap, a London-based organization that specializes in climate research.

While many news organizations accept the industry’s ads, allegations of greenwashing efforts have periodically flared. Houston Public Media pulled the plug on a video series in which energy executives spoke of their commitment to sustainable energy earlier this year, after acknowledging it was not produced by journalists and was sponsored by Chevron.

The Washington Post’s website hosts what resembles a news article titled “Why natural gas will thrive in the age of renewables,” complete with utopian illustrations of blue waters and green hills. A banner at the top of the page notes it was created by The Post’s branding studio for the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s leading trade organization. The New York Times’ marketing arm has produced similar “native” ads for ExxonMobil and Chevron.

News organizations typically enforce ethical standards that prevent advertisers from influencing their newsrooms. And Spindle has made clear that Chevron’s sponsorship never influenced his reporting. But for him and others, even a superficial association between news coverage and the fossil fuel industry is problematic.

Emails uncovered by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and released last week showed executives of some of the world’s major oil companies dismissing the notion that renewable energy would replace fossil fuels quickly, even as their firms publicly portray themselves as leaders in the effort.

“These documents demonstrate how the fossil-fuel industry ‘greenwashed’ its public image with promises and actions that oil and gas executives knew would not meaningfully reduce emissions, even as the industry moved aggressively to lock in continued fossil fuel production for decades to come,” the committee’s chair, Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), chair of the environment subcommittee, said in a memo outlining their findings.

InfluenceMap’s research found that 60 percent of the public messages from five large oil companies contained claims to be proactive on climate change. Yet the outfit estimates that those companies will spend only about 12 percent of their capital budgets on “low-carbon” projects this year.

The only major English-language news organization known to have publicly spurned the industry’s ads has been the Guardian. The British-based news company announced in early 2020 that it would no longer accept ads from “fossil fuel extractive companies,” citing “the decades-long efforts by many [energy companies] to prevent meaningful climate action by governments around the world.”

Spindle doubts that many news organizations will follow the Guardian’s lead anytime soon. But he says that media bosses should consider an “easy” first step: segregating fossil fuel advertising from climate news coverage. Doing so would prevent industry sponsors from creating the “disingenuous” impression that the companies are supportive of news about efforts to combat climate change, he said.

Some European governments are starting to restrict fossil fuel advertising, just as the U.S. government did with cigarette advertising decades ago. In August, France banned ads for fossil fuel products, including gasoline. Amsterdam banned such ads from its subway stations and city center last year. And Britain’s official advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority, in October banned two ads for HSBC bank, saying they were misleading because they failed to mention the bank’s role in financing fossil fuel projects.

“We’ve all got to acknowledge that this isn’t easy,” Spindle said. “And it’s certainly not easy to say, ‘Be gone with it.’ … But business as usual is just not going to cut it anymore.”