What Happens When An Oil Company Launches Its Own Local “News” Website

Chevron is now running a local “news” website in a California city where it caused a massive, toxic fire in 2012, continuing a disturbing history of using propaganda disguised as news to promote its corporate efforts.

Chevron launched the Richmond Standard in January 2014 and promotes it as a community news site covering Richmond, Ca., where the company's Chevron Richmond refinery has been located since 1902. 

While it discloses that it is owned by Chevron Richmond, the site purports to “provide Richmond residents with important information about what's going on in the community.”

The stories that populate Richmond Standard -- posted by former Bay Area newspaper reporter Mike Aldax -- largely avoid any in-depth or investigative reporting. Recent articles include things like highlighting McDonald's offering free small coffees to customers. 

The site enters murkier ethical territory in its occasional coverage of corporate parent Chevron. One section is apparently devoted to the company's position on issues, dubbed, “Chevron Speaks.”

There are only two articles on “Chevron Speaks.” The first announced that the Richmond Standard would be “dedicated to shining a light on the positive things that are going on in the community.” The second, from February of this year, targeted an allegedly “misleading” article in an alternative weekly that was critical of Chevron's planned refinery modernization project.

But Chevron's corporate spin isn't restricted to the “Chevron Speaks” section. Another page titled “Community Views” claims to give readers a place to submit their own content. The only posting mentioning Chevron quotes from a local union member's remarks at a town meeting offering support for Chevron's refinery modernization project. The post includes glowing praise of Chevron's impact in the community:

It's my job as community activist to say to you, our city leaders, that Chevron is a participant not just a provider. They provide for nonprofits all over this community. And also they are the main player of Richmond. Without Chevron we'd be like Vallejo - broke. So can't we all just get along? If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. Our community is tired of falling for anything. 

Other stories invoking Chevron include a post from February which apparently sought to assuage potential concerns about clouds hanging over the local Chevron refinery. The post explained that the clouds were “only steam,” and cited a Chevron employee laying out how the clouds were “similar to what you might see coming out of a tea kettle.”

Another highlights a “much-anticipated” environmental impact report about the company's refinery modernization project and cites a Chevron spokesperson to claim that the “project is a win-win for Chevron and the community.”

Mike Aldax's news credibility is questionable. While he spent several years in journalism as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and other local publications, he is writing Richmond Standard posts as an employee of Singer Associates, a prominent Bay Area public relations firm. 

Even his Twitter account describes him as a “senior account manager with Singer Associates,” not a reporter. The public relations firm lists Chevron as a client. 

Aldax contends the website is proper because it discloses Chevron's ties.

“That was the whole point, the most important point made was to stress transparency,” he said of the site. “The transparency has been very important. For us it is a matter of letting them know this is where we are coming from. The community has been starved for community news, there are a lot of good things that happen that go uncovered. A lot of important news and interesting news and the kind of interesting news that provides a more accurate reflection of a community we feel, is lacking.”

Asked why it is Chevron's job to operate a news site in town, Aldax responded: “We want to provide the community with all of the other news that doesn't get covered.”

Some local journalism veterans were critical of the Richmond Standard site, saying it may mislead some readers.

“To the casual observer who just happens upon this, it looks like a community news website, it says Richmond Standard community-driven news,” said Rachele Kanigel, an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University and a former reporter at the nearby Oakland Tribune and Contra Coast Times. “For the uneducated media consumer, it looks like a news website that people might not realize where it's coming from.”

Ed Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, offered a similar view in comments to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The tradition of press independence - even though in many times it's more aspirational than real - is nevertheless a cornerstone principle,” Wasserman told the paper, adding the Standard “is a different model. It's clearly meant as a community outreach effort, so it's born in an ethically challenged area.”

Chevron's rocky tenure in Richmond dates back decades. The San Francisco Chronicle has described the relationship as “strained, tense, at times angry.” A recent Chronicle article about the Richmond Standard explained that Chevron's Richmond refinery “occasionally makes news for the wrong reasons,” citing pollution worries, a “massive” 2012 fire, and Richmond officials accusing the company of “trying to stiff the city” out of tax money.

Locals contend the refinery is the source for the area's high asthma rate. In 2010, the EPA named Chevron the 10th biggest polluter in the state of California. The plant also releases the highest level of cancer-causing Benzene into the air of any Bay Area entity. 

But the refinery is also the city's largest employer and its top source of tax revenue. 

In December 2013, the EPA cited the refinery for 62 regulatory violations, while an August 2012 refinery fire drew protests and a lawsuit filed by the city of Richmond claiming Chevron ignored warnings about a pipeline that leaked and sparked the fire.

The lawsuit accused Chevron of “years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.” 

Kanigel cited the problematic relationship Chevron has had with Richmond and wondered how the site would cover another negative story about the location.

“I'm interested to see what happens the next time there is a Chevron disaster, because there has been a lot of them. How will the Richmond Standard cover this when an event happens?” she asked. “Chevron has a very tortured history with Richmond, there has been a history of fires and accidents and one catastrophe after another. There is an intense relationship between the community and the company.”

Chevron also has a history of pushing its views disguised as news. A 2009 Columbia Journalism Review story criticized the company for a video report about a $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron alleging it polluted part of the Amazon rain forest.

The report, hosted by former CNN correspondent-turned-public relations consultant Gene Randall, was posted on YouTube and the Chevron website three weeks before a 60 Minutes report about the lawsuit.

Chevron did not respond to requests for comment.