The blithe feathers of our nation’s patrimony are now literally weighed down by oil, but our government and press already exude the sticky toxins of petroleum. In a sense, petroleum companies are big shareholders in the American political and media machines, and the extent to which change is possible will depend on a willingness to bite the hand that feeds. Perhaps BP CEO Tony Hayward’s reticence during his recent congressional testimony was born of a smug knowledge that his company owns a good deal of stock in both the U.S. Congress and the nation’s press.
Open Secrets, whose mission is to track money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy, details the amount of money received by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who is currently investigating BP, from oil and gas companies. In 2010, members of the committee received a combined $1,227,455. The ranking Elephant on the committee, Joe Barton, who stuck his oily foot in his foul mouth by apologizing to BP, received over $100,000 last year, the second only to an Elephant from Missouri, Roy Blunt.
BP, of course, is only one company representing the sizable oil and gas lobby. The industry reaches into its deep pockets to fund a variety of interests, including PBS, a standard of American mainstream journalism. Recently, though, companies like ExxonMobile and Chevron have gone stealth, knowing that any press is bad press at a moment when public anger has been stoked to flame—a particularly dangerous element to oil and gas companies.
Michael Getler, an internal critic at PBS, has written about the issue on his blog at the PBS website. BP, it seems, was funding PBS in 2006, but is no longer a sponsor. As for ExxonMobile and Chevron, they “have minimized their profiles as underwriters of some popular PBS programs as the crisis continues.” Getler goes on to say that “corporate identification continues, as does the financial support of the sponsor, but its prominence on the screen is reduced. This means the normally longer and more descriptive visual and spoken messages are replaced simply by a logo, for example, keeping the company's head down but allowing PBS to make sure it continues to identify its underwriters.”
The large corporations that sponsor PBS are no angels and have included Toyota, Monsanto and Bank of America. But PBS insists that none of their sponsors have a sliver of editorial control and that were they to petition for some, PBS would walk away. It is the difficulty of finding underwriters, however, who are willing to accept the low-profile advertising PBS requires that makes is difficult for the broadcasting company to be more selective about accepting companies as sponsors.
The question about passive influence remains—the possibility of corporate sponsors like ExxonMobile and Monsanto having a subconscious influence on PBS programming. Active vigilance is needed to guard against this influence and should be expected to the same degree across news organizations and government bodies, not only of companies like PBS who already do a better than average job.