How Exxon duped "The Daily"
The New York Times' popular podcast aired a misleading climate ad during COP26, despite policies designed to prevent misinformation.
The New York Times’s podcast The Daily is one of the most popular podcasts in the world. Each day, millions of people tune in for a deep-dive news story—plus three uninterrupted messages from a trusted advertising partner.
Early last week, that partner was ExxonMobil, the world’s fourth most-polluting fossil fuel company. In paid audio messages that aired amid high-stakes climate negotiations in Scotland, the oil giant sought to convince The Daily’s audience it was moving toward a safe climate future.
The ad appeared to violate The Daily’s policy against fossil fuel sponsorships, which the Times itself revealed earlier this year. In response to growing concerns that oil ads misinform people about the climate crisis, the paper said it “does not allow oil and gas companies to sponsor its climate newsletter, its climate summit, or its podcast ‘The Daily.’”
In an e-mailed statement to HEATED, however, Times Communications Director Nicole Taylor said oil advertisements are still allowed on the podcast. “We do not allow oil and gas companies to sponsor The Daily wholesale,” but “Any company can place spot advertising within The Daily podcast, as long as it meets our advertising acceptability guidelines.”
Asked to explain the difference between a sponsorship or advertisement—and why the Times banned one and not the other—Taylor doubled down on the integrity of the paper’s advertising policies. The Times ”prohibits advertising that is intentionally misleading, deceptive, or contains false information,” she said. “Ads submitted to The New York Times are reviewed by an advertising standards team and are subject to fact-checking.”
But the fact remains that a highly misleading Exxon ad aired on The Daily last week, which means one of two things: Either the New York Times is bad at fact-checking, or Exxon has them fooled just as well as the public.
The Exxon ad that aired last Monday and Tuesday on The Daily reads as follows:
A number of climate experts agree that carbon capture and storage is crucial to reducing emissions to combat climate change.
That’s why ExxonMobil is working to deploy this technology at scale for the highest-emitting sectors.
It can remove more than 90% of CO2 emissions from carbon-intensive industries,
which can help lower the carbon footprint of many everyday things,
like the roads we drive on and devices we all rely on.
Learn more about how ExxonMobil is advancing climate solutions, like carbon capture and storage, at ExxonMobil dot com slash solutions.
“There’s so many misleading aspects to this ad,” said Ben Franta, who studies the history of climate disinformation at Stanford University. Because of its strategically vague language and presentation of micro-facts without context, he said, “You read it and it gives you the impression that carbon capture is new and effective and we’re gonna scale it up, when in reality none of that is the case.”
For Exxon’s ad in The Daily to be accurate, it would have to read something like this:
A number of climate experts agree that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is crucial to reducing emissions to combat climate change. But it’s a small number, and it’s always only when paired with significant fossil fuel reductions, which Exxon is actively fighting against.
That’s why ExxonMobil is working to deploy this technology at scale for the highest-emitting sectors. But it’s at a place too slow to make any sort of difference. Exxon is currently capturing less than 1% of its annual emissions, and most of that carbon is being used to produce more oil. Exxon is working much harder to keep emitting.
It can remove more than 90% of CO2 emissions from carbon-intensive industries. Yeah, and my body can technically perform a backflip, but it’s never actually done one before. The technology that could do this on a significant level does not yet exist. There is one estimate that says a single CCS plant could theoretically reduce 90 percent of one single industrial plant’s emissions— but it’s never happened, and it’s highly debatable. Also, absolutely no one thinks CCS could ever capture 90 percent of all industrial emissions, which this cleverly-worded sentence falsely implies.
It can help lower the carbon footprint of many everyday things, like the roads we drive on and devices we all rely on. Carbon capture can’t be used on cars. Roads and devices are not a significant source of carbon emissions.
Learn more about how ExxonMobil is advancing climate solutions, like carbon capture and storage, at ExxonMobil dot com slash solutions. We provide no information about how we’re advancing climate destruction.
Most people who listen to The Daily aren’t experts on carbon capture. So unless they had done a good amount of research on their own, they likely wouldn’t pick up on how misleading the Exxon ad was.
Indeed, in this case, Exxon used the truth’s complexity to its advantage. It submitted an ad that was simple and easy to understand, yet difficult to debunk in a similarly easy and digestible way.
But this is the New York Times we’re talking about. If anyone should be able to separate complicated truth from fiction, shouldn’t it be them?
How did Exxon’s misleading ad get past the Times’ supposedly stringent advertising standards? Could it be that the paper’s standards aren’t that stringent in the first place?
The Times’ advertising guidelines prohibit content that’s “intentionally misleading.” But it’s unclear how the Times determines intent. “The real question should be if the ad is misleading in effect,” said Genevieve Guenther, the activist leading the Ads Not Fit to Print campaign. Otherwise, oil companies will always be allowed to mislead Times readers about climate change.
Times spokesperson Taylor also only said advertising was “subject to fact-checking.” She did not clarify if all ads are fact-checked. Taylor also did not explain the Times’ fact-checking standards. Are these holistic fact-checks an article might go through? Or are they legal checks to make sure nothing will get them in trouble?
Exxon’s ad in The Daily used a common climate misinformation technique called “paltering.” No individual sentence was 100 percent false, but together they created a misleading impression of the company and its climate efforts. If the Times’ fact-checks are only legal in nature, paltering would easily and always slip through. Oil companies would always be able to pay the Times to misrepresent themselves.
But the issue could also simply be that no one on the Times advertising team believes Exxon’s ads are misleading. They could actually believe one of the world’s biggest climate polluters is working hard to capture their emissions. They could actually believe that humanity can preserve a safe climate while continuing to produce and burn fossil fuels. They could actually believe an effective solution lies in a highly expensive technology that mostly does not exist.
Whatever the explanation, though, the result remains the same: the nation’s most-trusted news platform is exposing millions of people to misinformation about a crisis that grows deadlier and deadlier by the day.
As the climate crisis grows deadlier, the campaign against fossil fuel advertising grows louder. Last month, green groups in Europe launched what Reuters called “the boldest salvo” against fossil fuel advertising yet—a campaign to force the European Commission to take up a law against the practice. Last week, activists in America launched a new initiative targeting PR giant Edelman for producing Exxon ads. The company announced it would undergo a 60-day review of its client roster just a few days after.
The reason is the same as ever. “These adverts are misrepresenting the true nature of companies’ businesses, of their contribution to climate change, and of their transition plans,” said Johnny White, a lawyer for ClientEarth, which successfully forced BP to withdraw some of its misleading climate advertising last year. By misrepresenting their business, he said, oil company advertising “distracts the public” from reality. “We cannot underestimate the real world impact this advertising has on the pace of change.”
The Times remains under pressure from Ads Not Fit to Print, the activist campaign run by Guenther. And the campaign is having an effect beyond the paper. “I’ve had many calls with journalists at other news outlets in the past month, taking about how they feel this is an important issue and how it’s creating momentum in their newsroom,” she said. “It’s really opened up a conversation about journalistic responsibility during a crisis.”
Guenther’s main target, however, is the Times. “The pressure is only going to increase,” she said. “Especially in the wake of COP26, the Times needs to join the reality-based community and understand that climate change is real, fossil fuels are the primary cause, and to be promoting these products is a moral failing and reprehensible policy for any newspaper that purports to report the truth.”
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It’s time again for Catch of the Day, a pet sharing/climate rage decompression space hosted by resident Good Boy Fish. Fish is so excited for today’s hang he can barely contain himself.
His first new friend today is Otis, a 3-year-old Washingtonian who lives with reader Kelsey. Otis enjoys pouncing on bugs and napping under bushes—which happen to be Fish’s favorite hobbies, too.
Next up is Luna, a cattle dog/golden retriever/rottweiler mix living with reader Sarah in Washington State. Luna is also a nap-lover, but wants to push Fish out of his snooze-heavy comfort zone. She enjoys swimming, stick fetching, and sniffing out BS.
That’s all for this week. See you next time!