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Drilled Down: Yes, The New York Times Really IS Shilling for Big Oil

Drilled Down: Yes, The New York Times Really IS Shilling for Big Oil

I wish Reps Raskin and Porter had not scheduled hearings at the same time today, but the fact that they're both happening is pretty great. Raskin is looking into the corporate push to limit individual free speech, via both SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suits and anti-protest "critical infrastructure" (more on that one next week) and Porter is presiding over a hearing close to my heart: “The Role of Public Relations Firms in Preventing Action on Climate Change."

If you haven't yet, go listen to our season on this topic. Some of my favorite sources on this subject contributed new research to the Committee on Natural Resources's investigation, and the resulting report is incredible, laying out the work that firms like Group SJR, Universal McCann, T Brand Studio, Sam Singer Associates and more have done to manipulate the public conversation on climate, greenwash for oil companies and, in Singer's case, exploit news deserts to the industry's benefit (Singer oversaw the creation of the Richmond Standard in Richmond, Ca years ago and, more recently, the Permian Proud in Texas's Permian Basin.

In an award submission Singer Associates submitted for the Richmond Standard, the firm wrote that: "The website has achieved regional dominance, with a readership surpassing 'the circulation of the two major daily newspapers in the area, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Contra Costa Times.'"

It's hard to believe that claim and I wouldn't put it past Singer and co to just make it up. Also worth noting, the Richmond Standard is given away for free, so it's easy to artificially inflate its circulation numbers (and Singer includes online traffic in these claims as well). But the point is: that's the goal. For the company paper to beat out the real papers. As more oil and gas towns, regions, and states lose their papers is this what we can expect? Company papers for company towns?

The case study of SPR Group's work to help Exxon appeal to GenZ is also eye-opening. Mimicking BuzzFeed's video style, SPR claims to have gotten more young people to watch the whole video than other videos on various social media platforms. "The videos sought to show 'how natural gas is a lower emission' fossil fuel with an essential role in 'building America’s cleaner power grids,'" the report notes. A message that of course directly contradicts the truth: A recent EPA analysis of the U.S. oil and gas supply chain shows that methane released from natural gas extraction exceeded EPA estimates by around 60%, nearly doubling the climate impact of natural gas and causing warming on par with coal plants.

Universal McCann's partnership with the New York Times T Brand Studio for Exxon also features in the report, which notes that the campaign, which launched across all NYT platforms simultaneously, was intended to “drive awareness of ExxonMobil’s commitment to the research and development of lower-emissions energy through next-gen biofuels,” “develop positive brand perception of ExxonMobil through their efforts as a forward thinking and responsible company,” and “increase favorability of primary audiences.” In an award submission Universal McCann explained that had worked with the NYT's internal brand studio "to create content in a 'Timesian voice' that would feel 'native to the publication,' and which 'mirrored the award-winning journalism of the world-renowned publication [to ensure] authenticity, credibility and relevance, and [be] ultimately more impactful to the audience.'"  UM also noted that the campaign's content included “a first-ever consecutive ‘Science Times’ print takeover, an interactive long-form journalistic-style article, CGI print spreads, audio spots in top-rated ‘The Daily’ podcast, online ads, social posts, and homepage videos.

Every time I've written about the T Brand studio's work for oil companies, I've had people say "but there's a separation between ad and edit!" and I reply, "sure, but readers don't know that, and that is the entire reason oil companies hire the T Brand studio." Now here it is in Universal McCann's own language, they were looking for "a Timesian voice that would feel native to the publication and which mirrored the award-winning journalism of the world-renowned publication."

The Times has some of the best climate reporters out there and this is a slap in the face to all of them.

The Committee is also investigating another layer of PR firms. Not the ones that show up to industry conferences and apply for awards, but the shadowy underlayer willing to do the stuff the more buttoned-up firms won't. Firms like  FTI Consulting, Story Partners, and HBW Resources. The investigation is ongoing and I suspect there are more hearings to come. Unlike oil companies, which can afford to only want policy to go one way, at least some of these PR firms will lose clients and credibility over this. A few might even want to save their own reputations by coming clean about what this industry has asked them to do...

You can watch the hearing at 10am ET on the House Natural Resource Committee's YouTube channel.