The ExxonMobil Global Warming Cover-Up Story: Its first Journal appearance portrays the oil giant as a victim

November 12th, 2015 · 2 Comments · climate change, energy policy, environment, journalism, regulation

By Arthur Alpert

Darn that Albuquerque Journal. I was working on an essay aimed at giving you insight into the editors’ sad assumptions that underlie the daily’s journalistic failures. And what happens? The very same editors execute a simple but characteristic political maneuver that screams for my immediate attention and yours.

They did so via another opinion piece from Robert Samuelson, the well-intentioned bumbler, situated high on the editorial page Wednesday, Nov. 11 and headlined:

“A political cheap shot at free speech”.

“Oh, Lord, “ I told myself. It isn’t enough to force-feed us Samuelson’s deep ignorance of political economy; now the editors will give us his take on free speech.

I was wrong. Samuelson brought his usual ignorant certainty to several topics, not just free speech.

He set out to defend poor ExxonMobil, the victim – yes, victim – of scapegoating by environmental and scientific groups.

Those organizations, he explained, want state and federal Attorneys General to find out if it’s true Exxon Mobil’s own research confirmed fossil fuels’ role in climate change years ago — information the corporation suppressed even as it funded disinformation campaigns to deceive the citizenry on global warming.

Now before we parse his essay, know this. The ExxonMobil story has been around for months. And for months the Journal has published nothing.

This is consistent with the Journal’s narrative, of course. Corporate America deserves no scrutiny and its oil and gas segment, even less.

(Yes, I josh. But I’m not exaggerating greatly as the Journal editorial, Thursday, Nov. 12, on the Keystone XL pipeline, confirms with its half-truths and untruths. Wager? I’ve a greenback that says the editorialist cribbed from an industry publication.)

But back to the ExxonMobil story the Journal didn’t publish. I’ve been waiting and wondering. Would they ever get around to it? And if not, why not? Incompetence? Bravado? Conviction? Cynicism?

While waiting, I collected a few accounts:

  • The Guardian (UK) wrote it July 9 under the rubric, “Exxon Knew of Climate Change in 1981, Email Says — But It Funded Deniers for 27 More Years”.
  • The Los Angeles Times ran a related piece Oct. 9 under the headline, “What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic”.
  • Climate Progress (ThinkProgess.org) and Inside Climate News.org published accounts recently, Oct. 20.
  • Scientific American tackled it Oct. 26; Shannon Hall’s piece in that magazine has good background.

There’s no point in citing more articles so long as you take my point. The Journal – not for the first time – responded to a story questioning Corporate America by not publishing it.

Now sometimes that’s it; some “offensive” stories never make the Journal. More often, the editors delay publication until they can headline their allies’ rebuttals and bury the original charges.

This time, however, the Journal opted for catching up with the news by way of – drum roll, please – an opinion piece!

This hits me as just plain weird, but I’m old-fashioned.

Of course, it has obvious advantages. A politician-cum-editor can use a columnist to spin the story properly.

Generally, the editors use right-wing essayists, reliable toe-ers of the Journal line. Not this time. Samuelson is better described as Establishment, well meaning, sometimes obsessive and frequently clueless, which (as you will see) can complicate matters.

Here’s his open: “If you care about free speech, you should pay attention to the campaign now being waged against Exxon Mobil.”

We’ll get to his free speech premise, but note the Exxon-as-victim trope, probably irresistible to Journal editors.

Samuelson then recounts why environmentalists and scientists are upset and Exxon’s rebuttal, which includes that the company has, since 2009, “endorsed a carbon tax, a position shared by many environmentalists and economists.”

Let’s pause for a moment. If you read only the Albuquerque Journal, this is news. The daily hasn’t reported that ExxonMobil, other fossil fuel companies and many major US corporations share environmentalists’ concerns to varying degrees.

No, that would complicate matters. The Journal’s political agenda, reflected in its news coverage, rests on simple-mindedness.

Samuelson also refers to a 2007 Union of Concerned Scientists report accusing the company of “financing a sophisticated disinformation campaign to deceive the public” about global warming, to which he adds, parenthetically, “The Company says it has since halted many of these grants.”

Did the Journal editors find Samuelson’s mention of the UCS charges (and Exxon’s non-denial) worrisome? Probably. They never reported it. Not newsworthy.

Happily for the editors, Samuelson soon turns to asking if the nation can kick the fossil fuel habit without taking a big economic hit. Predictably, he’d rather we don’t rush.

And finally, though I don’t quite grasp how, he arrives at free speech. Once there, his view dovetails nicely with the Journal’s.

“The advocates of a probe into Exxon Mobil are essentially proposing that the company be punished for expressing its opinions.”

That’s inane and backwards. Their political goal is to make a public issue of the possibility ExxonMobil didn’t tell us what it knew on a burning issue. Legally, they’ll have to prove the Company misled investors.

But then Samuelson becomes a puzzlement. An Exxon probe would be harassment, he says. “Matters could be worse if the government somehow imposes monetary penalties or opens the floodgates to suits by plaintiffs’ attorneys, a la the tobacco industry.”

A la tobacco?

Could Samuelson not know Big Tobacco had proof that their product, used as directed, killed its consumers – and suppressed it? Or does he think they should have escaped punishment for the crime?

Finally, he concludes:

“Casting ExxonMobil as the scapegoat for global warming’s dilemmas is historically inaccurate and a political cheap shot with troubling constitutional implications.”

Constitutional implications, eh? I haven’t the space or energy to deal here with his blithe acceptance of corporate personhood. What matters, anyway, is that the Journal agrees.

So let’s recap. The Albuquerque Journal neglected to publish a fascinating story about charges – nothing’s proven – that ExxonMobil hid what it knew about global warming while underwriting climate change deniers.

Until it did, via an opinion column!

That column cast ExxonMobil as a victim, told us to go slow on quitting fossil fuels and warned against violating Exxon’s corporate free speech.

As I was saying, chalk up another characteristic political maneuver for the Albuquerque Journal.

PS A few days ago, New York State’s Attorney General, already investigating ExxonMobil, charged that Peabody, the world’s largest coal company, also misled the public and investors on climate change.

To know more, you may want to read Emily Atkin’s Nov. 9 story at ThinkProgress.

But don’t look for it in New Mexico’s largest daily. Not newsworthy.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Emanuele Corso

    Outfits like Exxon, Peabody, and the ABQ Journal depend on people looking no further than what’s being fed to them. I think it is also the case that many people are overwhelmed by the torrent of bad environmental news and a sense of powerlessness. These are also the people who watch Fox “News” to have their suspicions and prejudices affirmed. We have come to a sorry pass.

  • Diane J. Schmidt

    Thanks for bringing this analysis to our attention. I certainly will be looking with a more jaundiced eye at the Journal!

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