For a corporation that is on the verge of going bankrupt, you’d think Lee Enterprises might see value in a bit of sexy adversarial journalism, looking at the role of the largest corporation on earth in the worst oil spill in the mountain west, as a way to sell some papers, to get some buzz.
But apparently the parent company of the four major Montana daily papers have decided, instead, to spread its legs wide open.
It is barely three weeks after one of the most important rivers in America was fouled by one of the worst industrial catastrophes in Montana’s history. And yet the four big influential Montana newspapers–all owned and run by the conservative Republican corporation Lee Enterprises, Inc.–have decided to take the payout, and stop covering the oil spill.
This is not the least bit surprising. In the last week or so, it became very obvious that the Billings Gazette and its sister papers had made a decision to start favoring the Republican talking points, defending Exxon. Several letters and opinion pieces all appeared simultaneously, as if on cue, all using the same GOP talking points, all praising the hardworking Exxon and its cleanup efforts, all apologizing or explaining away Exxon’s many inexcusable actions in the wake of the spill, all criticizing the Governor, Brian Schweitzer, for being tough with Exxon.
Meanwhile, coverage of the cleanup effort abruptly halted.
And on this Sunday (Sundays traditionally being days when recent news events are given in-depth, reflective journalistic treatment), to look at the Gazette or IR or Standard or Missoulian, you would think that the entire oil spill story is ancient history. The only thing in the Gazette is a tiny mention of an advisory put out by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, telling people to be careful about eating fish from the river. That’s it.
Nothing about the ongoing cleanup efforts and whether they are sufficient, nothing delving into the events of early July, no analysis of culpability, no in-depth discussion of the damage, nothing looking at the progress (or lack thereof) in reversing the damage, and nothing, to date, assessing Exxon’s misinforming of the public in the immediate aftermath of the spill.
You’d think, from reading the Gazette, that the most pressing issue in Billings is that some local yahoo got a fourth DUI. With the exception of the you-might-not-want-to-eat-the-fish story in the Gazette, there does not appear to be a single mention of the spill in any of the four Lee-owned papers. (Ravalli Republic being the fifth, but as they share an editor with the Missoulian, as the IR and Standard share one, lets call it four.)
This is kind of like the LA Times having no mention of the LA riots, three weeks after they occurred.
The question, naturally, is whether this is due to the fact that the Gazette and its family of Montana papers are run by conservatives, or whether (worse) Exxon has somehow exerted influence on the coverage. I’d bet on the latter. If you haven’t noticed, Exxon has placed a ton of advertising in the Billings Gazette lately. God knows how much hush money this all amounts to, but for a corporation whose CEO took home a $400 million bonus a few years ago, a little payola to a disorganized, financially incompetent news organization probably goes a long, long way.