A crude replacement for local news
As local newsrooms rapidly shut down across the country, Chevron steps in to fill the gap with propaganda.
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Yesterday, we explored two local ”news” websites controlled by fossil fuel interests: The Capitolist and Alabama News Center. Both of these sites attempt to hide their connection to electric utilities that profit from fossil fuels.
Today, we’re looking at two more local “news” websites controlled by fossil fuel interests: Permian Proud and The Richmond Standard. These sites, created and funded by the oil giant Chevron, are fairly transparent about their connection to the industry. So what’s the problem, right?
We’ll get into that in a minute. First, an introduction to Chevron’s sites.
Check out these great burritos! Also there is no pollution :)
Permian Proud, which we learned about from an investigation published by Earther’s Molly Taft last week, is the latest effort by Chevron to spread its messaging in the oil-rich Permian Basin in Texas. Taft writes:
The new website, called Permian Proud, is another example in a long history of the oil giant using paid media to disseminate its messaging in crucial geographic areas—this time, in the oil-rich Permian Basin in Texas. And Chevron is rolling out its site in one of the most local news-starved regions of a state that has seen one-third of its newspapers close over the past two decades.
The Richmond Standard is Chevron’s other big corporate local “news” media effort. It’s based in Richmond California, where the company operates one of the largest and oldest oil refineries in the country.
Chevron’s news sites operate similarly to The Capitolist and Alabama News Center, in that the majority of published content could legitimately be considered local news. The lead story on Permian Proud today, for example, is about a local university’s research into coral reefs. The lead story on The Richmond Standard is about a very delicious burrito.
By regularly publishing these feel-good local stories, Chevron’s “news” sites are able to attract lots of followers to their Facebook pages, giving them large audiences for when they do publish company-friendly content.
And the pages do publish company-friendly content. The Richmond Standard published an article last month claiming that Chevron’s refinery in Richmond “is not a primary source of pollution that Richmond residents are exposed to regularly.” Permian Proud recently published an article about how Chevron broke ground on a new solar project and lowered the company’s “carbon intensity.” (ICYMI: Carbon intensity is a meaningless bullshit term).
Chevron’s local news sites are at least transparent about the company’s involvement. Permian Proud and the Richmond Standard have “Funded by Chevron” markers beneath the publication logos. And just about every article posted on Facebook discloses the Chevron sponsorship.
Still, no amount of transparency can justify the fact that Chevron is trying to convince people that their corporate public relations site is legitimate local news. It’s not and never will be.
Chevron news is not real news
Chevron has been putting out the Richmond Standard since at least 2014. Exploring why the company decided to step into the local news business, Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik found that “Chevron took it upon itself to launch the site after hearing laments from local nonprofits that they didn’t have an outlet for Richmond news.”
When Hiltzik asked a Chevron spokesperson why the company didn’t just give a grant to an existing local non-profit news operation in the area, the spokesperson said Chevron believed creating its own news website “‘was the best way to make sure the news was being covered.’”
This quote tells you everything you need to know. Transparency or no transparency, Chevron is pretending to be a local news company. Their “news” websites are designed to look like real news websites. The Facebook pages are labeled “news.” The P.R. professionals writing the articles call themselves “reporters.” This is deception. No amount of disclosure will change that.
It’s particularly insidious given the state of actual journalism. In a report released last month, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism found that around two real newspapers are closing every week. Between late 2019 and May 2022, 360 real newspapers closed. “Since 2005, the country has lost more than one-fourth of its [real] newspapers and is on track to lose a third by 2025,” it added.
If Chevron really wanted to help solve the local news problem, there are ways in which they could do that, said Tim Gleason, journalism ethics professor emeritus at the University of Oregon. “If a corporation wants to be a good citizen and support local journalism, they can support a local not-for-profit news site, or advertise in the local newspaper, or buy local television ads,” he said. “Of course they can do public relations, too — but they shouldn’t try to blur the two.”
Unfortunately, blurring the line between oil propaganda and journalism is exactly what Chevron is doing with these “news” efforts. “What enables it is the shrinking of the news industry as once-robust newspapers, magazines and television news divisions become ever more underfunded and unable to give politicians and businesses healthy scrutiny,” wrote Hiltzik, the Los Angeles Times reporter, earlier this year. “The danger this poses is the undermining of journalists’ credibility just at a moment in time when the need to make politicians and business leaders accountable for their actions is imperative.”
To combat that danger, I can think of two things that could be helpful: One, sites like Facebook should probably not allow a corporate PR website to be labeled as “news.” Two, folks who are financially able should support actual local newsrooms—particularly ones in places where Chevron operates. Perhaps this community can be of help with the latter.
Do you have a suggestion for a real local newspaper that could use HEATED readers’ support? Drop the publication’s name, location, and any other relevant in the comments! We’ll drop a list of recommendations in next week’s newsletter.
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