Ever since learning that BP had decided to douse the Gulf of Mexico with “dispersants”—that is, toxic chemicals that break down oil slicks, making them less noticeable on the surface but even more deadly to the sea life below—I thought, This sounds familiar.
In fact, it sounds like a good metaphor for how the mass media function in our culture. All too often, the corporate media are the dispersant that makes the gush of oily corporate and political malfeasance—George Bush stealing the 2000 election, say, or lying us into the Iraq war--less noticeable on the surface. Though in the long run, vastly more toxic to our democracy.
The best current example of media-as-dispersant is the way that prior to the Deepwater Horizon rig sinking on April 22, most mainstream news outlets had been dutifully pushing the business line that teched-up off-shore drilling was as safe as Sarah Palin and, more recently, President Obama said it was. The corporate and conservative media came very close to making the corrupt relationship between Big Oil and the federal agency charged with regulating it as hard to spot as a drop of crude in the big blue sea—even with documented evidence that the regulators had accepted gifts, sex, drugs, and huge amounts of cash from the industry for years.
“As the United States examines the origins of the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico,” Fairness and Accuracy in Media wrote this week, “one factor that should not be overlooked is media coverage that served to cover up dangers rather than expose them. When President Barack Obama declared a new push for offshore drilling (3/31/10), asserting that ‘oil rigs today generally don't cause spills’ (4/2/10), corporate news outlets echoed such pollyanna sentiments.” The talking point was that fear of drilling is so last century. Just two examples from FAIR’s compilation:
To fear oil spills from offshore rigs today is analogous to fearing air travel now because of prop plane crashes.
—Steven F. Hayward, Weekly Standard (4/26/10)
Some of the most ironic objections come from those who say offshore exploration will destroy beaches and coastlines, citing the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska as an example. The last serious spill from a drilling accident in U.S. waters was in 1969, off Santa Barbara, California.
—USA Today editorial (4/2/10)
FAIR went on to list serious accidents since those earlier disasters, many of them covered with only listless urgency while two oilmen ran the country. But after repeatedly hearing sunny pronouncements like those above, it can become a tiny bit easier for any of us to accept that, as Rand Paul said, “Sometimes accidents happen."
The job of a media dispersant isn’t always to deflect blame; sometimes it is to keep a myth going despite all evidence to the contrary. We’ve been hearing a lot about the purported “enthusiasm gap” between R’s and D’s: Republican voters, this notion goes, are much more energized about their candidates this year than the Democrats are, and that will surely spell Waterloo for the libs. But as John Nichols pointed out, in the four largest May 18 primaries, “The Republican side was where the turnout dropped off.” Most notably, in the Kentucky Senate primaries, Rand Paul actually got fewer votes than the losing Democrat.
But the media has been doing its best to keep news of Democratic strength far below the surface—it would muddy up the myth of the GOP’s big-daddy dominance and its inevitable resurgence after a brief hiatus from power. Which is analogous to what many pundits see in Obama's waning approval ratings: Most ignore that much of the wane is from the dissatisfied left, leaving the desired impression that the right is getting bigger and angrier--and that’s the side to stick with, boy, if you know what's good for you.
Of course, the news media don’t have to willfully lie, exaggerate, or ignore reality in order to let companies like BP and Halliburton get away with murder. Celebrity and lifestyle news is, and long has been, the dispersant added to hard news to make it palatable, to give it less of a greasy, ink-stained taste of what’s really happening.
And in the largest sense, the news media itself is being dispersed, treated by corporations as if it were an oil slick best dissolved into smaller, less concentrated droplets that can be sunk out of sight. Sometimes literally, as when BP CEO Tony Hayward snapped at a cameraman, “Hey, get outta there! Get outta there!” when he stepped over a boom to film clean-up efforts on a Louisiana beach this week.
It’s a little like the story of Ken Salazar’s hat. Remember how, especially since Obama picked him as Interior Secretary, Salazar, who has close ties to the oil industry, would show up at press conferences wearing a 10-gallon Stetson? That’s a wildcatter hat, an oil industry-friendly chapeau. But ever since the oil hemorrhage in the Gulf, Salazar’s been appearing at photo-ops in a baseball cap, the everyman’s eyeshade. Bit by bit, the baseball cap is slowly dispersing memories of the huge cowboy hat, which always made Salazar’s head look unusually large. For sending out a tough-on-oil message, small-headed Ken is better than big-headed Ken—though it’s unclear whether either one is anything but a bobblehead when it comes to the oil industry.