Networks Skim Over White House Oil Claim: 'Vast Majority' of Spill is Gone

A president with close ties to an oil company helping hide the magnitude and damage of an oil spill would be big news, if he were a conservative. But it seems even when the environmentalists and the left are upset over President Obama's handling of the Gulf oil spill, the national news media barely notice.

On Aug. 4, Obama administration energy adviser Carol Browner said, "The vast majority of the oil has been contained, it's been burned, it's been cleaned." Officials said that 75 percent of the oil had been "captured, burned off, evaporated or broken down in the Gulf of Mexico," according to CBSNews.com.

That night two of the three network evening shows reported the widely disputed claim without question. Only NBC "Nightly News" included any people skeptical of the White House claim. The networks have only aired a few reports about scientists disputing the claim, and have ignored liberal outrage.

"[T]onight on these beaches some good news and relief," Matt Gutman told "World News" viewers. "A new government report says that 75 percent of that oil has been cleaned up either by man or Mother Nature. And it now seems this war against this oil is coming to an end."

Gutman's report on the success of the oil cleanup included President Obama and Browner, but not a single person who disagreed with the White House claim. The Boston Globe reported Aug. 20, that Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution mapped a 22-mile-long underwater oil plume back in June. Other scientists at University of Georgia estimate that 70 to 79 percent of the oil from the leak remains, contrary to the White House assertion.

Even if 75 percent of the oil had disappeared, the White House comments made it sound like the remaining problem is a small one - but one-fourth of the total spill would still be 53.5 million gallons of oil. CBSNews.com said that is more than four times greater than the Exxon Valdez spill.

But rather than criticize Obama, CBS "Evening News" took the opportunity to subtly attack the previous president. On Aug. 4, Katie Couric teased Mark Strassmann's report saying, "The White House made it clear today it is not declaring ‘Mission Accomplished' yet in the Gulf of Mexico."

Strassmann followed her remarks with his story about the static kill operation to seal the well and cited the government report that "most of what has leaked, an estimated 205 million gallons, has vanished." CBS included two Coast Guard official quotes including Admiral Thad Allen's.

Networks Ignore Left-Wing Anger over Oil Spill, Barely Include Skeptics

Many people - even those on the left - have criticized the administration for its handling of the Gulf disaster. And now some of them are calling the White House's 75 percent oil cleanup claim untrue.

Left-wing news blog, The Huffington Post, called it a "public relations coup" for the White House, and characterized it as spin. Liberal filmmaker Spike Lee called the oil cleanup claim a "lie" and called for journalists to find the real story in an Aug. 7 meeting of the Television Critics Association.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle argued the announcement came too early. On Aug. 19, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called Obama's announcement premature and warned that it could be wrong. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., also criticized the administration for "another in a long line of examples where the White House's pre-occupation with the public relations of the oil spill has superseded the realities on the ground."

A Yahoo News blog reported that the White House and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) haven't released the data that supposedly proves their claim.

"Two weeks after it touted a report painting a rosy picture in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the BP oil disaster, the federal government has yet to release any of the supporting data used to reach its conclusions," Brett Michael Dykes wrote for Yahoo.

Dykes also mentioned a new scientific study from researchers at the University of Georgia who found almost the opposite: that up to 79 percent of the oil is still in the Gulf. Those researchers warned that massive plumes of oil remain in deep water.

In fact, scientists at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution published a peer-reviewed study in Science describing their June discovery of a hydrocarbon plume roughly the size of Manhattan, more than 3,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

On Aug. 19, CBS "Evening News" and NBC "Nightly News" used a meager 180 words combined to mention Woods Hole's findings of that huge plume.

According to Nexis, since the White House made its claim on Aug. 4, the network morning and evening shows have aired 61 stories mentioning the oil spill. But only six reports on the broadcast morning and evening news shows included anyone skeptical of the assertion (Gulf fishermen, scientists or others). A couple of additional stories mentioned doubt about the numbers, but without quoting sources.

Obama Claims to be Running Oil Cleanup, Media Blame BP for Lack of Press Freedom

From beginning to end, networks coverage of the oil spill has been more like cover for the Obama administration than serious reporting. ABC, CBS and NBC started by failing to scrutinize the administration's response to the BP spill for four weeks.

Then they ignored the federal fingerprints on the lack of press access to the oil spill area, even when CBS reporters were ordered away from a soiled beach by Coast Guard and BP contractors.

After the oil spill, many news outlets complained about lack of access for reporting the oil spill CBS, Associated Press, Mother Jones and The Times-Picayune all claimed that local and federal authorities and British Petroleum workers inhibited their reporting.

But even with Obama's history of managing the press, the media blamed BP almost entirely. Mother Jones, a left-wing magazine, called it a "corporate blockade at Louisiana's crude-covered beaches."

"It's a running joke among the journalists covering the story that the words ‘Coast Guard' affixed to any vehicle, vessel, or plane should be prefixed with ‘BP,'" Charlie Varley told Newsweek. "It would be funny if it were not so serious."

It's also not funny that many in the news media and on the left would rather blame BP for controlling federal agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) than recognize the similarities between limited media access in the Gulf and Obama's previous actions controlling the press.

Obama also has a long-standing pattern of micromanaging press coverage, sometimes to the point of blocking access. So when many reporters were complaining of access problems, it was surprising how little blame had been directed at the administration.

During the campaign, Obama had three reporters from publications that had endorsed John McCain kicked off his plane. Since then he has openly attacked his detractors (including Rush Limbaugh) and was once criticized by a couple reporters (Chip Reid and Helen Thomas) for stage managing a town hall meeting.

Another reason to think the White House was blocking the press is that they claimed to be calling the shots for the Gulf clean up. Browner said on "Meet the Press" May 30, "the government's been in control from the beginning ... don't make any mistake here, the government is in charge." (Watch video)

Obama told AP the same thing, saying that BP had to get permission from Washington for all the clean up. So it stands to reason that the White House wouldn't have trouble telling BP to allow the media unfettered access to report on the oil spill if it wanted to.

Like this article? Then sign up for our newsletter, The Balance Sheet.

Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour is the Assistant Managing Editor for the MRC's Business and Media Institute.