The Gulf Coast Cleanup, BP and the Revolving Door

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This week on the show, author Mark Leibovich uses the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a prime example of how disasters get “managed” in Washington. He tells Bill how, while the oil was still spilling, BP assembled a bipartisan “Beltway dream team” of lobbyists, PR and advertising consultants, and media strategists to respond to the crisis and begin rehabilitating the company’s brand.

Earlier this week, I wrote a post summarizing recent developments in the Gulf cleanup effort and BP’s growing resistance to paying out more money to victims. Last week the company sued the government over a ban denying future federal contracts. It was another litigious move in an increasingly aggressive legal strategy that started earlier this year.

Thursday afternoon we received a statement from BP press officer Jason Ryan responding to my post. It read:

“So far, we’ve paid $14 billion in response and cleanup costs and more than 300,000 claims totaling $12 billion for spill-related losses. And we’re not done yet. Last year, we signed an agreement to compensate the vast majority of remaining individuals and businesses with legitimate claims related to the Gulf spill. Unfortunately, that settlement has been misinterpreted. We respectfully disagree with that interpretation, which is allowing trial lawyers to file fictitious or inflated claims that could ultimately cost billions of dollars.

“On the issue of the recent oil spill contamination study you referenced it is already abundantly clear that this research is far less comprehensive and scientifically accurate than studies conducted by federal and state agencies. In fact, the study is based on a very small data set and it was not collected and analyzed in a uniform manner. By contrast, thousands of water samples were collected by NOAA, the FDA and other research teams, using established sampling methods. , with tests to measure the actual level of oil in the water. In those reputable tests, seafood has consistently tested 100 to 1,000 times lower than the safety thresholds established by the FDA.”

Out of habit, I Googled Jason Ryan — and was surprised that one of the first hits was a news story Ryan co-authored in May 2010, about a month after the spill started (it continued for nearly 4 months), titled “BP’s Dismal Safety Record.” At the time, Ryan was a journalist at ABC News. His opening line:

As the nation comes to grips with the worst oil disaster in its history, there is evidence BP has one of the worst safety track records of any major oil company operating in the United States.

In two separate disasters prior to the Gulf oil rig explosion, 30 BP workers have been killed, and more than 200 seriously injured.

I called Ryan, and he confirmed that, yes, he is the same guy. He wouldn’t say much more about the job change after that.

This, in itself, isn’t that remarkable. It’s certainly not unusual for a journalist to go into public relations or corporate communications. My grandfather — a writer, and probably the guy who had the most to do with my decision to do the whole media thing — started as the editor of a small newspaper in Appalachia and finished out his career working in communications for GE in New York.

But it was remarkable this week given our show’s focus on the too-close-for-comfort relationships among the media, government officials and business interests. In fact, one of the BP hires that Leibovich and Moyers discuss is Geoff Morrell, the former White House correspondent for ABC, and now head of U.S. communications for BP — who also spent time in between as the press secretary for the Pentagon under both Presidents Bush and Obama.

“Sort of a classic revolving door figure, Geoff is,” Leibovich tells Moyers. Of his move to BP (announced in Politico‘s “Playbook”), Leibovich writes, “Morrell’s big news illustrated the big tangle of interests that make up the D.C. self-perpetuation machine today: Old Media (ABC News), Republican administrations, Democratic administrations, corporate (BP), and New Media (Playbook) converging at the gold-plated revolving door…”

With a few notable exceptions, no one journalist who goes to work for his sources — or Hill staffer who becomes a lobbyist, or Wall Street lawyer who signs on with the Securities and Exchange Commission — makes a huge difference by himself. But the effect is cumulative.

It’s something Leibovich illustrated so well in This Town: The more people who pass between government, private interests and the media, the more likely those entities are to be collectively captured by one another, and the more likely they are to grow apart from the rest of us.

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