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The Petroleum Broadcast System Owes Us an Apology

Last night

Last night, my dog Pluto and I watched the Public Broadcast System’s (PBS) “Frontline” investigation of BP, “The Spill.”

PBS has uncovered a real shocker: BP neglected safety!

Well, no shit, Sherlock!

Pluto rolled over on the rug and looked at me as if to say, “Don’t we already know this?”

Then PBS told us – get ready – that BP has neglected warnings about oil safety for years!

That’s true. But so has PBS. The Petroleum Broadcast System has turned a blind eye to BP perfidy for decades.

If the broadcast had come six months before the Gulf blowout, after the 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas or after the 2006 Alaska pipeline disaster or after the years of government fines that flashed DANGER-DANGER, I would say, “Damn, that ‘Frontline’ sure is courageous.” But six months after the blowout, PBS has shown us it only has the courage to shoot the wounded.

But hey, at least PBS is now on the case.

Or is it? Despite press release hoo-hahs that this “Frontline” investigation would break news from a deep-digging inquiry, what we got was “Investigation by Google,” old stuff from old papers that PBS forgot to report the first time around. Well, that’s O.K. It’s not like I was expecting Edward R. Murrow.

Well, something’s better than nothing, right?

No, not in this case. What us viewers were handed was a tale that could have been written by the PR department at BP’s competitor Chevron. The entire hour told us again and again and again, the problem was one company, BP, and its “management culture.” (They used the phrase management “culture” seven times – I counted.)

So, according to PBS, the problem is: BP ain’t got no culture …

… Unlike Shell Oil’s culture which has turned Nigeria into a toxic cesspool; unlike ExxonMobil’s culture which remains in denial about the horror it heaped on Alaska. And unlike Chevron’s, which I witnessed in the Amazon. Chevron’s culture left Ecuadorian farmers with pustules all over their bodies and a graveyard of children dead of leukemia.

If you want to know the point of the PBS show, just go to the network’s “Newshour” web page where Chevron’s logo has sat atop the news as PBS’ top corporate sponsor.

The PBS “investigative” report lovingly features the statements of Shell, Conoco-Phillips, ExxonMobil and Chevron that, “BP did not act to industry standards.” Really? Did “Frontline” investigate these claims, or just run their sponsors’ assertions?

Perhaps the oil executives are right: The oil industry’s “standards” typically involve mass poisoning, outrageous bribery and the use of mercenary death squads to silence media and activists.

There’s a lot on the line for Big Oil. And that’s why the petroleum giants have a big motive to control the message.

And their message is this: BP bad! Chevron good! ExxonMobil good! Shell good!

And that’s the message that “Frontline” repeated for them.

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The “Frontline” story was an exercise in damage control. If it’s just bad-boy BP’s “management culture,” then the rest of the industry is off the hook. Then the crazy-ass deepwater drilling can continue and the Big Oil destruction machine can stay in high gear.

PBS sponsor Chevron is desperate to resume drilling in the Gulf. Shell is drooling over its delayed offshore project in Alaska’s Arctic seas. If they can isolate BP, the horror show can go on.

I have just returned from the Gulf filming for … well, not PBS. In a four-seater, we skimmed low over a filthy rig still spewing oil into the water. It was not the Deepwater Horizon well. It was not BP’s. Yes, oil pollution and drilling have destroyed the Gulf Coast. But state records show that Shell Oil has destroyed 2,707,767 cubic yards of Delta wetlands versus BP’s 234,201.

So, BP is not the worst, but that’s not saying much. Indeed, while PBS was touting its former sponsor BP’s clean-and-green PR bullshit, I and many others were writing one furious story after another on BP’s lethal penny-pinching. (See for example, “BP Failed to Act on Warnings of Alaska Tragedy” 1999, and “British Petroleum’s Smart Pig” 2006, both from The Guardian.)

The danger to our waters, the danger to oil workers’ lives, is not BP’s management culture, but the industry’s profits-over-people greed gone wild.

Why am I picking on poor, little PBS? I’ll be the first to tell you they are the best you’re going to get on the US boob tube. And PBS has spared us embarrassing scenes of Anderson Cooper pretending to save an oily pelican while floating in a canoe with Bobby Jindal. But I expected more from a public broadcast system than a repetition of the oil industry’s self-serving propaganda campaign.

Last night, in a deep, serious voice, the PBS narrator told us, If BP had only paid attention to the warnings of experts and regulators, the Deepwater Horizon tragedy could have been prevented.

Damn right. And if PBS had paid attention to the oil story, maybe that too could have prevented the tragedy.

In 1998, a prestigious producer working with BBC Television approached PBS and “Frontline” with a bombshell of a project: The story of British Petroleum and its partners with revelations, then confidential, of reckless disregard, if not downright fraud, in preventing and containing massive oil spills.

PBS smacked it away.

Instead, “Frontline’s” producer, WGBH, spent several million dollars on “The Commanding Heights.” The six-hour extravaganza was a panegyric to the entrepreneurial spirit of newly privatized oil and power companies. Production was paid for by Enron. But when Enron’s Chairman Ken Lay was arrested, PBS had to find a new sugar daddy. The new loot poured in from Margaret Thatcher’s privatized commander of the heights, British Petroleum.

I could give you 20 more examples of PBS’ see no oil evil, though its recent failure to run “Crude,” about Chevron in the Amazon, certainly stands out.

PBS takes our tax money. It owes us something, no? If we can’t get the real story about Big Oil, at least we deserve an apology.

I was waiting for the “Frontline” narrator to say: “BP has kept the truth locked in its files for years – and so have we at PBS. AND WE ARE ASHAMED. Send us back your coffee mug for a refund.”

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