FLASHBACK: During Exxon Valdez disaster, President Bush got a free pass from the press

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

On the night of June 10, NBC's Nightly News aired one of its many reports about the BP oil spill disaster. In this segment, Lisa Myers examined "what the government knew about how bad the leak could be and how much they told the public," as Brian Williams put it. The report leaned heavily on the question of whether the Obama administration "leveled with the public" about the severity of the spill.

The rather breathless Nightly News segment, with lots of what-did-he-know-and-when-did-he-know-it implications, perfectly captured the news media's somewhat odd obsession, virtually from Day One of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, with making Obama a central figure, if not the responsible player, in the drama about an oil-industry catastrophe.

No, the government didn't operate or own the rig. And oil giant BP was obviously the responsible party. Yet the press immediately focused in on Obama.

The knee-jerk interest in the Oval Office was especially odd when compared with how the same Beltway press corps went out of its way in 1989 to completely remove President George H. W. Bush's role as a player in the Exxon Valdez environmental crisis. If you go back and look at the coverage, in the days following the first reports that the Exxon supertanker's hull had ruptured on Bligh Reef, spilling more than 10 million gallons of oil into the pristine Prince William Sound, a gusher that ended up covering 11,000 square miles of ocean, you'll see that Bush was mostly a non-player in that unfolding drama, which quickly became the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Bush barely even warranted mention during the blanket news coverage.

In terms of reporting on the Exxon Valdez disaster, which was punctuated by constant claims from locals that the oil industry, with its nonexistent contingency plan, as well as the federal government, with its decidedly hands-off approach, had woefully botched the cleanup (sound familiar?), Bush remained, in the eyes of the press, a non-entity, a spectator. And not the kind of bystander who got tagged with blame, which was why there was virtually no Beltway media chatter about how the Exxon spill would play out politically for the new White House inhabitant. It wasn't even discussed.

Well, not by most. A St. Petersburg Times editorial did condemn the federal government's "ineffectual" and "almost blithe" reaction to the monster spill. And there were a couple of other media darts thrown Bush's way. But they were the exceptions. For instance, I can't find any examples of mainstream outlets suggesting Bush "owned" the Exxon spill. And I didn't see these kinds of very unsubtle headlines and images, courtesy of the New York Times, used during the Valdez coverage:

During the 1989 man-made disaster, corporate media journalists didn't obsess over whether or not Bush was showing enough emotion. They didn't conduct poll after poll to figure out Bush's "grade" for handling the spill. They didn't fixate on stagecraft. And they certainly didn't include the president on lists of people who were "to blame for the oil spill," the way Time recently included Obama on such a list, blaming him for the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. (Why was Obama to "blame"? Because "shortly before" the disaster, he proposed allowing for more offshore drilling. And no, that doesn't make any sense.)

With Bush and the Exxon Valdez, the press didn't really seem to care what the president thought of the disaster or what he planned to do to fix the mess. Yet three presidents later, with the country once again under attack by oil-industry malfeasance, the press has been focusing most of its attention on the White House and demanding to know what the president is going to do to clear up the confusion. The press has also been spending countless hours calculating the supposedly immense political fallout. (Although, according to polling firms, there has not been any yet.)

In other words, the press gave Bush a free pass following the Exxon Valdez spill, while today, the same press corps seems determined to hang the oil spill around Obama's neck. Why the glaringly different approaches when covering epic oil spills?

By the way, I'm certainly not suggesting that Obama and the federal government are above reproach, or that tough questions shouldn't be posed about the cleanup effort. And obviously, the BP crisis has extended weeks longer than the Alaska spill did under Bush, giving the press more time to dwell on Obama. But I am suggesting the press corps has undeniably imposed a double standard in its treatment of a Republican president during an environmental crisis and its treatment of the current Democratic president.

And trust me, it wasn't like Bush was proactive in the wake of the Exxon Valdez calamity.


-He didn't travel to Alaska to monitor the cleanup or meet with locals.

-He didn't display much public emotion about the disaster.

-He didn't publicly flash anger about the spill.

-He didn't want the federal government to take over the cleanup.

-He didn't go on primetime TV to address the nation about the spill.

-He didn't meet with the CEO of Exxon at the White House to discuss the cleanup.

-He didn't send top administration officials to Alaska until five days after the spill.

The press reaction to Bush's almost chronic inactivity? Collective yawns. Based on the real-time coverage I've looked at, very few journalists cared what Bush thought about the spill, and even fewer dwelled on what the political ramifications would be.

For instance, during the entire month of April 1989, in the wake of the Alaska emergency, The New York Times published exactly one news article (or column) that mentioned both "Exxon Valdez" and "Bush" four times or more, according to Nexis. Last month however, the Times published nearly three dozen articles or columns that mentioned both "Obama" and "BP" four times or more. Also, note that for a recent Newsweek cover story on the oil spill, nearly one-third of the article focused on Obama's role and examined the spill's political ramifications. But in a big cover story following the Exxon Valdez oil spill ("Smothering the Waters"), Newsweek never even mentioned the possible political ramifications for Bush.

It's telling that reporters on the ground in Alaska knew right away that the federal government, along with Exxon, had screwed up the environmental rescue effort. It was common knowledge. From Time, April 10, 1989:

The story, a tale of unrelieved gloom with no heroes, resembled a Greek tragedy updated by Murphy's Law. Everything that could go wrong did; everyone involved, including the Alaska state government and the U.S. Coast Guard, made damaging errors.

While testifying before Congress weeks later, Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner even admitted that the federal government "shared some of the responsibility for the accident and its aftermath," as The New York Times reported at the time. But even that failed to spark much interest among Beltway scribes.

Back to Time's Exxon Valdez coverage. Note this rather startling passage:

A team from Washington, consisting of Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly and Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost, flew to Alaska at midweek and reported back to Bush that the cleanup was going well enough that there was no need for the Federal Government to take over. That seemed to be a polite way of saying there was no way for the feds to speed things, so Washington might as well stay out and avoid sharing the blame for what the President called a major tragedy.

The press openly acknowledged that for political reasons the Bush White House wanted to stay clear of the Exxon Valdez cleanup. And guess what? The press let the president do exactly that.

There seemed to be a shared consensus among journalists that the president of the United States didn't cause the Exxon Valdez spill and that he wasn't really in charge of the cleanup, so why should he be a central player? It was Exxon that represented the focal point of their reporting.

And you know what? In a sense, it's hard to argue with that logic. So why did the press flip that mindset for Obama and decide the president was the pivotal player in the oil spill? Why has the press, for nearly two months now, completely obsessed over Obama's every utterance and provided tick-tock coverage of what Obama should be saying? Why did the Beltway press corps run out in front of even Rush Limbaugh and launch the nasty "Obama's Katrina" talking point, even though reporters at the time couldn't actually find anybody in a position of power or expertise who was seriously drawing a link between a man-made oil rig catastrophe and a storm that had been forecast, claimed the lives of nearly 1,500 people, and almost drowned the city of New Orleans?

In retrospect, it's clear that the press made Obama a key target almost within hours of the rig collapsing and seemed determined to turn the environmental disaster into, first and foremost, a political story. And a political story that affected only Democrats, since "Drill, baby, drill!" Republicans have faced very little press scrutiny in the wake of the BP fiasco.

Now, imagine if we actually had a liberal press corps.

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