As newspapers' ad revenues have fallen over the years, prestigious publications have been going to increasingly extraordinary lengths to make up for the financial shortfall. Consider the Los Angeles Times, which has recently provided prime front page real estate to advertisements for companies like American Airlines and products like the Universal Studios film, Minions.
But while these kinds of advertising arrangements aren't particularly new for the Times, the same cannot be said for a newly-launched oil industry propaganda website the newspaper created for California Resources Corporation, an oil and gas spin-off company of Occidental Petroleum. The website, called poweringcalifornia.com, has raised concerns despite assurances from the Times that it is produced by a department of the Times company that is wholly independent of the reporting and editorial staff.
The Powering California website features a fearmongering video that asks viewers to “imagine a day without oil” as a young man helplessly watches many of the products he relies on every day suddenly disappear. The site's text asserts that because “a majority of products that you use every day are made from petroleum,” a day without oil and natural gas “would be a huge disruption for you and the people you depend on.” It goes on to allege that a day without oil could even be “life-threatening.”
After Western States Petroleum Association President Cathy Reheis-Boyd promoted the website in an October 27 tweet, it caught the attention of Clean Energy California, a non-profit organization that worked with businesses, consumer, health, faith, labor and environmental groups to pass Senate Bill 350, California's landmark climate change legislation. Specifically, Clean Energy California asked why the Los Angeles Times and its parent company, Tribune Publishing, were sponsoring this “oil propaganda project.”
As Politico reported on October 29, the original disclaimer on the Powering California website identified it as “a joint copyrighted effort of the Los Angeles Times and the California Resources Corporation”:
Following criticism from Clean Energy California and others, the Times changed the copyright disclaimer to remove mention of itself and added an additional statement on the Powering California website that read:
Powering California is sponsored content produced by The Los Angeles Times Content Solutions team for California Resources Corporation. The Los Angeles Times reporting and editing staffs are not involved in the production of sponsored content, including Powering California.
But the updated disclaimer has not settled all of the concerns that have been raised about a major U.S. newspaper company sponsoring an oil industry propaganda website.
In an October 30 article, LA Weekly wrote that "[e]ven as the Times was publishing [a] hard-hitting story" detailing evidence that ExxonMobil may have purposely deceived its shareholders about climate change science, “the business side of the paper was presenting a much rosier view of the oil industry through a sponsored content campaign.” Noting that the Times' editorial board recently suggested that California legislators had fallen for “oil industry propaganda,” LA Weekly observed that it is “thus a little awkward, or at least ironic, that the Times is simultaneously getting paid to create promotional material for the oil industry.” (It's worth pointing out that the Times' recent environmental coverage hasn't all been good; the newspaper also received heavy criticism from scientists for publishing a deeply flawed article that disputed the link between California's recent wildfires and climate change.)
LA Weekly concluded by noting that even though it could be argued the oil industry is helping fund journalism that is sometimes aimed at “exposing” the oil industry, “some in the environmental community see this as a troubling sign”:
“I understand the concept behind sponsored content, but when it's being used to defeat climate action by Big Oil, it goes way beyond Zappos,” said Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Climate Resolve. “To see the most prestigious paper in the Western U.S. cozying up to these well-heeled interests is deeply disturbing.”