Seldom has a single headline said so much about a moment in human history, and the political culture that gave rise to it, than the one atop The Washington Post’s lead editorial on Donald Trump’s selection of Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. “Rex Tillerson Is an Able Executive,” the Post states. “But What About His Ties to Russia?”
And that sums it up. Nowhere in the piece that follows does the Post editorial board give any indication that Exxon Mobil—the “private empire” where Tillerson has spent his entire career and led since 2006—has for decades engaged in denial of scientific reality and obstruction of any serious policy to prevent catastrophic climate change. The paper’s lead news story devoted all of a paragraph to the fact that Exxon is under investigation by the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts for apparently deceiving shareholders and the wider public about climate risk (though the paragraph implies, misleadingly, that “environmental groups” prompted the investigations, rather than rigorous investigative reporting by InsideClimate News, the Los Angeles Times and the Columbia School of Journalism).
And yet, the Post editorial warns, the Senate should be wary only of Tillerson’s ties to Russia. The fact that, under Tillerson, Exxon’s profit model and political operations continue to defy the scientific consensus on climate change, which the company itself has understood internally since the 1970s, is a matter of course. In the Post’s view, “it is understandable that Exxon would object to sanctions that blocked oil and gas megaprojects Mr. Tillerson negotiated with Mr. Putin.” Those megaprojects, the Post might have added, are in an Arctic that is now melted, mainly by fossil-fuel combustion. This fact Exxon well knows—and views not as a danger to humanity but as a business opportunity. Tillerson is indeed a very able executive.
But why dwell on this one editorial in a leading national newspaper when the wilful blindness it represents can be found everywhere? The New York Times editorial page does no better, calling Tillerson a “skilled businessman” and suggesting that the Exxon CEO could actually be a “positive” for the climate (“he could perhaps persuade Mr. Trump not to pull out of the landmark Paris Agreement”—yes, perhaps), even repeats the reality-bending claim that “Mr. Tillerson has reversed Exxon Mobil’s long history of funding right-wing groups that denied the threat of global warming.” Apparently the Times doesn’t consider the Republican Party a right-wing group that denies the threat of global warming. (Still more mystifying, even a journalist as fine as Steve Coll—whose indispensable 2012 book, Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power, documents Exxon’s deliberate strategy of climate disinformation—fails to mention Exxon’s climate denial and obstruction, past and present, in an otherwise hard-hitting piece for The New Yorker.) When some of the best minds in American journalism are able to ignore or gloss over the most salient facts (for the fate of humanity) concerning a nominee for secretary of state, it seems fair to say that the political culture in which they live and breathe is toxically polluted.