The BP oil spill is two media events: one environmental and one political.
The ecological and economic disaster - oily pelicans, tar balls, empty restaurants, grounded fishing fleets - has prompted monumental media coverage charged with outrage and frustration. Add politics, and this combustible mixture has flared into a second story as white-hot as the first.
Ever since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed 11 people, today's fractionated, diverse media world - cable TV, public radio, Internet - has shown that it can cover multiple angles of a complex story.
With myriad images of natural and human suffering, the eco-disaster is made for TV. And TV, especially 24/7 cable, has responded, with dramatic photos, video, maps and charts, BP's live cam of the underwater pipe always spewing, satellite shots of the oil slick threatening the Gulf Coast. Spectacle called for, spectacle delivered. Teams of reporters walk the streets, row the bayous, sail the ocean. They interview locals who lament the spill, yet beg for tourists.
ABC News sent divers in hazmat suits to swim the oily seas. CNN's Kyra Phillips shadowed National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen, flying with him to the disaster site, trailing him as he held meetings and made decisions. CBS correspondent Mark Strassmann boated off Grand Isle, La., and lifted a net heavy with oil.
After such a catastrophe, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, American Professor of Communication and director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, the media ask what everyone else asks: What caused this? Who's to blame? How can it be fixed or prevented?
Jamieson writes by e-mail that it was only logical for the media to cast BP "as the super-villain that conned the public with eco-branding while taking shortcuts that risked the lives of its workers, the livelihood of those on the Gulf and the health of the Gulf."
That story line has made news coverage startlingly emotional. You'd expect the out-of-work fishermen to be angry. But anchors from Shepard Smith of Fox News to CNN's Anderson Cooper have also been railing on camera against BP and the government. "As a journalist," Smith says in a phone call, "it's frustrating being lied to this often. Those are the times I shift into emotion. They've lied to us from the very beginning, and that's not a matter of opinion. It's a full-time job, cutting through the lies."
Cooper, who drew national attention with his impassioned Hurricane Katrina coverage, visited Pass a L'Outre Wildlife Management Area, La. He dipped a naked hand into the mantle of oil choking the marsh: "Without a glove, you feel how warm it is, how thick. It is a sickening feeling." Often indignant, Cooper busts the chops of oil execs (who have declined to appear on his show) and government officials.
Internet media critic Scott Murray, of Daily Kos, singles out Cooper's work. "An iconic telejournalist like Cooper is a medium unto himself," Murray writes via e-mail, "so when he came down from the mountain to discover corporations are selfish and heartless, that in itself is a powerful message."
In the course of explaining what went - and is going - wrong, an array of sciences has come to bear: oceanography, physics (pressure of sea water at 5,000 feet: about 2,237 pounds per square inch), geography, and a petro-industry patois of "acoustic switches," "junk shots," "blowout preventers," "riser pipes," "diamond-toothed wire cutters," and "containment domes." Science guys like NPR's Richard Harris gee-whiz about efforts to cap the pipe.
But even the science coverage has prompted strong emotions. Yes, the media are doing fine now - but where were they when the mistakes were being made?
Roger Cohn, editor of the online eco-magazine Yale Environment 360, says, "One big lapse was to accept this notion that technology of deepwater drilling had been so improved over the years and was now safe. The industry said so, President Obama believed and accepted it, so the media very uncritically accepted it without any evidence."
Emotions are the fuel of politics, so it should not surprise that, in this ferocious off-year election, the two major parties are battling to take charge of the narrative. Each announcement, each appearance, is a photo-op, a chance to attract votes.
The opposition seeks to portray the oil spill as "Obama's Katrina," a phrase coined by Rush Limbaugh on his April 30 show (it had already been pinned to, and dropped off, the Haiti earthquake). In a much YouTubed and CNN'd clip, Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.) referred to an "Obama oil-spill timeline."
Intercutting video of oil slicks and political critics, George Stephanopoulos of ABC's Good Morning America and Meredith Vieira of NBC's Today grilled uneasy Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, while James Carville, a longtime Democratic strategist who is a Louisianan, blasted the White House for what he termed "political stupidity."
The still point of the shouting world is Obama - not so much his actions as his emotions. Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University, says, "People really want him to fashion a Bill Clinton response to this, and he's just not Bill Clinton. His personal style is to become engaged intellectually, think problems through. . . . But because he didn't wring his hands and get choked up, people think he's disengaged."
Stung, Obama went to Louisiana for image-ops. On his first visit, May 2, he stood outside the U.S. Coast Guard station in Venice, La., and, rain beading on his face and jacket, swore that "your government will do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to stop this crisis," and that "BP will be paying the bill."
On a May 28 visit to Grand Isle and Port Fouchon, La., in tie and rolled-up shirtsleeves, he hunkered with Louisianans and heard them out; he palmed the sand on a beach. After a couple of bad-polling family vacations, he returned to the gulf June 4, taking care to announce beforehand he'd include businessmen.
But Obama came across to some people as too distant, too cool. On June 2, on CNN, director Spike Lee beseeched the president to vent: "He's very, as I know, as I've seen, calm, cool, collected - but one time, go off! If there's any one time to go off, this is it."
Obama countered on the next day's Larry King Show: "You know, I am furious at this entire situation . . . ."
Was it fair to depict Obama as culpable? To a point, writes Jamieson: His environmental agencies gave BP pass after pass, even after he was in office. Drilling permits continued even after the gusher. "President Obama was reasonably cast as blameworthy," she writes, "as were past administrations that colluded with the industry."
What isn't fair, say both Jamieson and Baker, is the portrayal of an unfeeling president. Baker calls it "setting the standards too high," and Jamieson writes that "by suggesting that President Obama's problem is either the incapacity to feel or express emotion about the gusher and its consequences, the media narrative veered into distracting silliness."
The political impact will be tracked down to the last November vote. But Cohn, of Yale, wonders whether the ecological aftermath will suffer the same neglect the lead-up got: "The media are fine when it comes to throwing all their resources at the story of the year - but what happens in September and November, when the spotlight is off, when the real impact will start to become apparent?"