Like a knight with my banners now bravely unfurled, I hurl down my gauntlet to thee, Aaron Sorkin, and your preposterous, sanctimonious, Man of La Mancha–quoting HBO drama Newsroom. And I basically agree with the show’s basic critique of dumbed-down, he-said-she-said, eyeball-driven journalism! I just hated the pedantic lectures disguised as rat-a-tat-tat dialogue in the first episode, and our awesome Jim Poniewozik says the coming episodes are even worse. I don’t have much to add to Jim’s TV criticism, but I want to gripe about Sorkin’s first example for his journalism-bashing thesis, the BP spill. He seems to think it was the ultimate undercovered story. It was actually an overcovered story.
I got torched as an antienvironmental BP shill when I first reported that leading coastal scientists thought the spill’s ecological impact had been exaggerated, so let me clarify what I’m saying. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was obviously a tragedy for the 11 men who were killed on the rig. It was clearly an economic disaster for coastal Louisiana. And oil isn’t a recommended additive to marine environments. Spilling 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico was bound to affect the ecosystem, and not in a good way. Pelicans aren’t supposed to wear black.
But contrary to Sorkin’s fantasy, it wasn’t just brave speak-truth-to-power rabble rousers who instantly declared the BP spill the Worst Ecological Disaster in History. It was the entire media herd. It was a dramatic story, with a fiery explosion, telegenic oiled wildlife, corporate flacks who couldn’t get their story straight and a mesmerizing gusher that nobody could figure out how to plug. I probably would have hyped it too, if I hadn’t been home at the time with a newborn baby.
When I finally got sent to the Gulf a few months later, though, there just wasn’t any evidence of ecological havoc. There were some oiled birds, but less than 1% of the number killed by the Exxon Valdez, and only three oiled mammals. And the spill had done almost nothing to accelerate the real ecological tragedy that has unfolded in southern Louisiana over the past century: the gradual disappearance of a vibrant coast. The state loses 15,000 acres of wetlands to the Gulf every year; at the time, shoreline-assessment teams had spotted only 350 acres of oiled marshes. One Audubon Society scientist compared the impact to “a sunburn on a cancer patient.”
At the time, enviros and journos fired back, It’s way too early to make pronouncements about the impact! We don’t know if there are hidden plumes of oil, or how the coastal food chain will react to the oil, or what will happen to the chemicals used to disperse the oil! My response was, Oh, now it’s too early to make pronouncements? I thought this was the Worst Ecological Disaster in History! Here’s one of the more civil exchanges I had, with the excellent environmental reporter Kate Sheppard.
Two years later, it’s clear that there were some environmental impacts — to crabs, to birds, even to marshes. Oil spills do not promote ecosystem health. But there’s no evidence to suggest that the BP disaster was the worst ecological disaster in history, or an ecological disaster at all. It’s certainly not the worst ecological disaster in the history of the region; coastal erosion — which, incidentally, is caused in part by the oil industry — has obliterated over 2,000 square miles of southern Louisiana.
Sorkin’s decision to single out the wildly overhyped BP spill as his Exhibit A of the media’s unwillingness to tackle complex stories is actually Exhibit A of the left-wing ideological blinders that Jake Tapper described in his own Newsroom review. The BP spill felt like it ought to have been an ecological calamity, because the images and the villains were so perfect. But I’d like to see Will McEvoy do a segment on Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and the unsexy forces of hydrology, geology, money and politics that are gradually destroying them.
I suppose Cervantes — or was it just the Man of La Mancha? — would call that an impossible dream.