THE BLOG
06/07/2010 03:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gulf Oil Spill Reporting: Cue The Hyperbole

So now the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which has so far done minimal environmental damage though it could eventually do much, has become the "nation's worst environmental disaster"? The New York Times started down that road Thursday, and by Friday this was how the AP was reporting the situation:

"President Barack Obama is returning to the Louisiana coast for a fresh look at work to stanch the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico and the spiraling effects of the nation's worst environmental disaster."

Are reporters in this country really this historically ignorant, or is this all just about hyping the story of the moment? The "nation's worst environmental disaster"? Who decided that?

Has everyone forgotten a little something called "The Dust Bowl" that ravaged the center of the North American continent from 1930 to 1936, and in some places for even longer? Author John Steinbeck? The Grapes of Wrath? A mass migration to California? Are any bells ringing yet?

The Dust Bowl was an environmental disaster of nuclear proportions. An estimated 100 million acres in the center of the country turned into a desert. Black blizzards of soil swept across the planes. The plumes sometimes blackened the sky all the way to the East Coast. Geologists later estimated a godly portion of the topsoil from Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas ended up in the Atlantic Ocean.

Drought played a part in what happened, but most of the problem was man-caused -- as is the latest oil spill. Bad farming practices laid the land bare, and the soil just blew away. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people blew away with it. Farmers from all over the plains were forced to pack up and go looking for work elsewhere.

Ever hear the term "Okie"? It was used to label the tens of thousands who fled Oklahoma for the West Coast, where there weren't many jobs. Many of those people ended up as migrant fruit pickers traveling from town to town working for starvation wages.

Maybe I missed something when I was in the Gulf of Mexico at the start of the latest spill, but I didn't see anybody leaving the Gulf Coast.

Maybe I'm missing something now, but I know I haven't read any reporting about mass migrations underway. Maybe it's happening, though. Maybe it just didn't get reported because the media is preoccupied beating up on BP head Tony Hayward for stupidly confessing he'd like to get the spill over and get his life back.

How uncouth of him. Like everyone now affected by the spill isn't thinking the exact same thing? But let's pound on Hayward because -- well, because it's easy. Because it's a lot easier than getting out there and doing any real reporting on the spill or what oil does in the environment. That's difficult.

What oil does in the environment is nuanced. A lot of the oil goes away. A lot of the oil evaporates and disappears into the winds. A lot of the oil gets eaten by microbes. A lot of oil gets turned into relatively benign tarballs. A lot of the oil isn't going to have any more effect on the people living in the big cities of the Gulf Coast than the Exxon Valdez oil did on the people living in Anchorage.

Yeah, yeah, I can hear the criticism now. How dare you defend Hayward and Big Oil?

I'm not defending either. Hayward is an overpaid shirt. The global corporate world is full of them, and if there was any sort of fairness in the supposed "corporate democracy," shareholders would rise up and throw most of the overpaid bums out. If the United States of America, a big business with the military power to crush any corporation on the globe, can be run by a guy freely elected by average Americans and paid only $400,000 a year, no corporation needs a head paid millions of dollars per year.

And as for Big Oil, it's a profligately profitable business. So profitable, in fact, it can support the state of Alaska. I will confess I do sort of like that. I like the fact I pay no income tax because Big Oil picks up the tab for state government. Other than that, I'm not big on companies that grab big profits, be they Big Oil or the American newspaper industry, which considers 20 percent a year a nice return and is willing to make your local newspaper into a shell of a news reporting entity to maintain that sort of revenue flow.

Back in the good old days, those obscenely profitable news organizations at least professed to some sense of journalistic responsibility. Most of that seems to have disappeared as they face declining profits and competition from the internet. Newspapers seem be abandoning what they used to do best -- in-depth reporting -- in favor of hyping and screeching along with a whole world of bloggers who don't care any more about facts than they do about context.

No wonder the Gulf oil spill is the biggest environmental disaster in history. Yeah, that's the ticket: The oil is getting in the food chain! The oil is killing all life! The oil is going to kill you!

OK, they don't actually say it's going to kill you. They only hint at it.

But they all hint at it. They all buy in. They all trot down the same path because it's easy and because your average American reporter today is (PLEASE COVER THE EYES OF YOUR CHILDREN HERE) a chickenshit.

There is no other word for it. It is such an apt description I'm tempted to repeat it, but in the name of good manners, let's just say they are all CS.

You're not going to find any CS reporters bucking the tide of the Gulf narrative. The oil spill is bad, bad, bad, and if some expert on crude oil says it's not that bad, well, it's time to go find another expert because none of those CS reporters want to be involved with anyone saying the Gulf spill is anything less than the worst environmental disaster ever.

My old buddy Rick Steiner is having a field day down in the Gulf. His name and that of Riki Ott, the biologist from Cordova, pop up everywhere. They are among the chief purveyors of the message that crude in the water is as almost as dangerous as lead, PCBs or other persistent organic pollutants. This sounds good, but it isn't quite true. Steiner and Ott regularly overstate things, but that's OK because they're the good guys.

Or at least I think of them as the good guys. Still, just because they're the good guys doesn't mean a reporter shouldn't try to put their statements in context. The good guys, let us not forget, built the hydroelectric dams of the Pacific Northwest backed by a rah-rah press that saw it all as good.

But on my personal list of major environmental disasters in America, those dams are way worse than Exxon Valdez oil spill and still out in front of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

We are more than 70 years on from the start of construction of the Bonneville Lock and Dam project, and the salmon of the Columbia River have yet to recover. The salmon of Prince William Sound recovered from the 11 million Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 years back, but the Columbia River salmon still haven't recovered from the dams. They are never going to recover.

Or at least they're not going to recover until the dams disappear, and the dams aren't disappearing. And even if the dams were to disappear, little of the Pacific Northwest habitat "destroyed" by irrigating water from the dams or their electric power would go back to normal.

The dams provided the power that grew the city of Seattle until it overran Lake Washington and paved all around Elliott Bay.

Pavement, of course, is considered a good thing by some. Funny how that works. If little pieces of pavement in the form of tarballs roll up on a beach, it is a bad, bad thing, but if miles and miles and miles of tarballs are strung together into pavement to create roads it is a good, good thing.

Because roads allow us to go everyone where in cars which are powered by, yes, you know -- gasoline -- which comes from crude oil like that now flowing into the Gulf. But, of course, our cars are harmless.

They're not out there like the spilled crude killing any "microbes."

Oh no, they're not. They're smashing bigger life forms. Look at your windshield. How many bug carcasses are smeared on there today? Now take that times the estimated 251 million motor vehicles in America.

What do you think the magic number is for today's oil-fueled bug kill?

2.5 billion dead? 2.5 trillion? 2.5 gazillion?

Oil is bad stuff, all right. It's the black gold of the devil if you ask me.

But we've made a deal with the devil, and despite all the huffing and puffing about the oil spill I don't hear many people in America talking about how we might start to undo that deal with new mass transportation systems or new urban designs that gets people out of the automobile and back to more nature-friendly walking.

"Walk? Good god man, are you crazy?"

"We're Americans! We don't walk! We're lazy. It's why we drive."

And it's why we -- at the moment -- hate BP. Because it's as easy to be mad at BP as it is easy to drive. BP is responsible for an environmental atrocity. It was BP's screwup, and we've got nothing to do with it. BP is a horrible, profit-sucking, multinational global company and the president ought to have his boot on BP's throat. It's BP's mess, and those BP people are the only ones who need to be responsible.

Of course, as former, half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has informed the world, BP wouldn't have been drilling in the Gulf -- within spitting distance of pipelines and oil refineries -- if the extreme enviros had only allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge far from anything. I mean, why would any company want to drill into a known big pool of oil near a pipeline when it could go looking for an unknown quantity of oil that, if found, would require the construction of a lengthy pipeline costing hundreds of millions?

"So," some of my redneck friends would still say, "shut up and drill-baby-drill. Don't be trying to shift the discussion toward a newer, smarter national energy policy or walking or, by god, mass transit. I'm an American, and I'm not getting in no stinking bus with a bunch of my stinking fellow citizens. I'm getting in my truck by myself, and I'm driving where I want to drive because I can, and because this oil spill ain't nothin' to do with me, because it's not my fault.

"If BP has just used some common sense, if the government had just made sure to trust-and-verify, everything would be peachy fine."