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Semafor climate editor leaves over Chevron ads
Bill Spindle said he tried to get the ads removed from climate stories, but Semafor refused. Semafor disputes the characterization.
Remember those newsletters we published back in October about the misleading Chevron ads in Semafor, the global news start-up founded by ex-Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith and ex-Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith?
If you recall, we tried to speak with Semafor leadership about the ads. We tried to get them to explain why they think it’s appropriate to have fossil fuel advertising next to climate coverage, and why they think Chevron’s advertising doesn’t mislead Semafor readers.
Semafor ignored us. But then, something weird happened. After we published our stories, the Chevron ads disappeared from Semafor’s climate newsletter.
After waiting a few days to make sure the ads did not reappear, we e-mailed a company spokesperson to ask why they were gone. Could it be that Semafor was actually re-evaluating its decision to have the world’s second-biggest climate polluter sponsor its climate journalism?
Semafor spokesperson Meera Pattni dismissed the idea. “We have multiple sponsors of the climate newsletter and they rotate periodically,” she wrote.
But that statement is now in dispute. Because in a Twitter thread on Saturday, Semafor’s now-former climate editor Bill Spindle said Semafor did remove the Chevron ads from the climate newsletter after he raised concerns with leadership.
“What concerned me was my belief that it was not appropriate to have Chevron advertising on the same page as stories on climate coverage, particularly as the dominant advertiser,” Spindle wrote. “I would extend this to any news organization doing same. Such advertising raises the specter of improper influence, perceived and real.”
However, Spindle added that Semafor refused to remove Chevron ads from all of the site’s climate coverage—only the e-mailed climate newsletter. Because of this, he said, he and the news outlet have parted ways.
Semafor disputes Spindle’s characterization of events. In a statement to HEATED on Monday, Pattni insisted the Chevron ads were not removed over Spindle’s concerns, and that fossil fuel sponsorships had nothing to do with his departure.
"We decided to part ways with Bill due to issues that were unrelated to any advertising partnerships,” the statement read. “Semafor adheres to robust ad acceptability guidelines that we stand by, and that are industry standard. We did not remove advertising due to editorial requests and have a number of rotating sponsors of the climate newsletter.”
Spindle has not yet responded to HEATED’s request for an interview, but he said he’d be writing more about fossil fuel advertising over at his newsletter.
My take: WTF?
Spindle’s departure from Semafor sets a dark precedent for climate journalists who want to speak up about fossil fuel advertising at their publications. Semafor’s leadership may say the two things aren’t related, but Spindle says they are. If I’m a climate journalist at a corporate publication like Semafor, I may feel like I’ve just received a warning. Dare to have principles, and you might be out a job.
Semafor’s continued refusal to engage with the ethics of having a fossil fuel company sponsor climate coverage is also concerning. It’s like having a gun manufacturer sponsor a vertical on mass shootings, and saying it’s OK because it’s “industry standard.” Yes, other publications do it. We’ve covered them extensively here. But you told everyone you were going to be different.
It’s also pretty clear that Semafor removed the Chevron sponsorship from the climate newsletter because of how terrible it looked. I wish they would just admit it, but I’m guessing they won’t, because that would mean admitting there’s an issue with letting a massive climate polluter sponsor climate coverage. And if Semafor admitted that, they’d have to remove Chevron ads from all their website’s climate coverage.
So for now, it seems Semafor is going to continue avoiding that truth. Amazing what a few million dollars from an oil company can make you do.
The reason we cover fossil fuel advertising in news outlets like Semafor is because we need climate journalism to be more trustworthy. And trustworthy journalism can’t just come from HEATED: People need high-quality information about this crisis from news outlets around the world in order to make the best decisions about how to solve it.
That being said, HEATED has been influencing the national conversation on climate journalism and fossil fuel advertising since 2019—and we’re not going to stop. But because we don’t take ads, we need reader support to ensure we can keep it going.
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We also have a pretty exciting announcement coming at the start of 2023. So stay tuned—and make sure, whether paid or not, you’re part of this work holding the powerful accountable.
Catch of the Day: Today’s palate-cleansing friends of Fish come courtesy of reader Elyse. Below you’ll find JJ (canine), “a dumb tripod who knows even he is smarter than DeSantis,” and Suki (feline), “an agent of pure chaos.”
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