Semafor's infuriating climate misinformation
Ben Smith's news outlet promised to be "something new," but it's spreading tired fossil fuel industry propaganda just like the rest.
I was hopeful that Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of the new global media startup Semafor, might speak to HEATED about the misleading Chevron ad atop the site’s debut climate newsletter on Monday.
Smith has, after all, repeatedly claimed that Semafor’s purpose is to restore eroding public trust in journalism. In the site’s introductory post, he wrote, “We’ve been listening to readers and viewers who feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to trust among the sprawl of current news outlets—and eager for something new.”
So I figured Smith would consider it a priority to answer for climate misinformation on Semafor—particularly, misinformation that Semafor is making money from spreading to its readers.
But when I contacted Smith on Monday night to ask for a conversation about the site’s Chevron sponsorship, he declined, and directed me to a Semafor spokesperson. I sent a detailed request to said Semafor spokesperson on Tuesday morning about the sponsorship, and received no response by this newsletter’s publication on Wednesday afternoon.
So much for “something new.”
A climate news partnership with the world’s second-largest polluter
Co-founded by Smith and former Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith (no relation), Semafor launched last week with the goal of “reinventing the news story.” The news story needs reinventing, they say, because people can no longer tell the difference between unbiased fact and opinion.
Sorting fact from opinion is not just Semafor’s goal, though—it’s also the goal of Semafor’s corporate sponsors. “Semafor’s mission is to address the very real consumer frustrations of today, including trust in news, bias and polarization,” a Semafor spokesperson told the Observer. “Brands and clients are also looking for opportunities to solve these issues.”
According to the Observer, Semafor has already raised more than $25 million, the majority of which is coming from eight corporate sponsors who want to help the news outlet address distrust in media. One of those sponsors appears to be Chevron, the second biggest climate-polluting company in the world.
New media outlet, same old climate propaganda
It’s not hard to see why Chevron would be interested in being associated with a buzzworthy political news venture whose sole claims are to be “unbiased” and “trustworthy.”
After all, Chevron could really use some association with trustworthiness. In the 1980s, the company was part of a coalition that spread climate science denial and worked to block climate policies for over a decade. In 1999, Chevron signed on to an advertising “action plan” that sought to have the “media ‘understand’ uncertainties in climate science.”
Today, more than 20 cities and states are suing the company for misleading the public about the devastating climate impact of its products.
To repair its reputation and placate public desire for accountability, Chevron now has to convince the public that it is no longer destroying the planet. The company has to make people think it’s a responsible, climate-friendly corporation—and that it’s got everything under control.
But Chevron is not a climate-friendly corporation, and it does not have everything under control. Still, that isn’t stopping major so-called “unbiased” media outlets like New York Times, Politico, Axios, NPR, and now Semafor, from allowing them to assert otherwise.
Chevron uses Semafor for paltering
Chevron’s first appearance in Semafor came atop the site’s first climate change newsletter, published Monday. The fossil fuel company's message claimed it was “working toward a lower carbon future.” It then added:
We believe the fuels of the future can come from some very unexpected places. At Chevron, we’re working with partners in California to convert the methane from cow waste into renewable natural gas.
The ad is a great example of paltering, which is a type of lying. Specifically, paltering refers to the practice of saying things that are, on their own, literally true, but create a misleading overall impression
In this case, Chevron is using paltering to give readers the false impression that is effectively tackling climate change. Take the phrase: “We’re working toward a lower carbon future.” Perhaps that is true, but “lower carbon” means almost nothing to the second-biggest carbon-polluter in the world. And scientists say a zero carbon or carbon neutral future is necessary to avoid climate catastrophe, not a “lower carbon” future. A “Lower carbon” future would still guarantee climate catastrophe.
Then there’s Chevron’s claim that it’s working on developing “fuels of the future” by working on “renewable natural gas.” Sure, it’s technically true that Chevron is working with partners in California to convert the methane from cow waste into renewable natural gas. But renewable natural gas is not renewable, not natural, and not a large-scale climate solution. As the Conservation Law Foundation notes:
Also known as “biomethane,” this fuel is made from manure, industrial food waste, landfill gas, wood, and more. It’s a highly processed gas that still contains at least 90% methane – a greenhouse gas that significantly damages the climate more than carbon dioxide.
So, the term “renewable” natural gas is just a cover for what this fuel really is: methane, just like regular natural gas. Which makes the industry’s claims that it will solve our climate crisis are both wrong and misleading.
Moreover, peer reviewed research published in PLOS ONE this year showed sharing the research showed that Chevron’s claims of becoming more climate-friendly are largely bullshit. Specifically, it cited the company’s "continuing business model dependence on fossil fuels along with insignificant and opaque spending on clean energy."
“We thus conclude that the transition to clean energy business models is not occurring, since the magnitude of investments and actions does not match discourse,” the study added.
A systemic refusal to engage
If I sound pissed today, it’s because I am. I am so tired of our nation’s most powerful and reputable media outlets refusing to engage with legitimate journalistic questions about the harmful impact of their fossil fuel advertising, both on their readers and on their own reputation.
And make no mistake: they refuse to engage. This newsletter has called out numerous news outlets for running fossil fuel company ads that mislead readers about climate change. Each time we call out a news outlet, we ask them to explain: why don’t you consider these ads to be misleading? Why do you think these ads don’t constitute misinformation?
We never, ever, get an answer. All we get is silence or defensiveness. When we asked Axios and POLITICO to defend their misleading fossil fuel ads, for example, each responded by vehemently defending the quality and independence of their climate reporting. It’s an incredibly disingenuous response, and frankly an insult to the reason we ask the question. Never once has this newsletter implied that any publication’s climate reporting was affected by the misleading fossil fuel ads. We just don’t want to see your readers misled. Why don’t you?
I expect the same from Semafor once this article comes out. I expect the editors and reporters to redirect focus to their good reporting, and complain that I’m distracting from that reporting by pointing out the Chevron sponsorship.
But if you’re someone who works at Semafor or any of these outlets that runs misleading fossil fuel ads, I am begging you: stop getting mad at this newsletter for asking questions, and start getting mad at your newsroom leaders for not giving answers. I am not undermining trust in your news outlet by pointing out they are hiding from accountability. Your newsroom leaders are doing that on their own.
If you’d like to see the list of unanswered questions we sent to Semafor, I’ll be sending that out exclusively to paid subscribers tomorrow.
HEATED is a 100 percent reader-funded news outlet, and we depend on folks like you to be able to do this work. If you’re able and value it, become a paid subscriber today. Doing so ensures you’ll never see an ad here—from fossil fuel companies or otherwise.
PALATE CLEANSER: I’m in Tennessee today, still slowly making my way back to D.C. from California. But just a few days ago I was in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. It was so gorgeous!
As one reader said last week, “It’s kind of nice to end the article with pics of the beautiful world we are trying to protect.” I agree. Maybe I’ll keep doing it—I have a lot more!
CATCH OF THE DAY: Today, Fish wants to introduce you to this good girl, Ginger. She’s hiding from the heat in mom's garden.
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I AM RIGHT THERE WITH YOU!! Your righteous anger is so appreciated. I can't even imagine what is like to be you...toiling away in this work, encountering all the double speak, stonewalling, greed, lack of compassion, condescension, arrogance and all the rest...as the clock on our chance to address the most pressing issue humanity has faced ticks away.
I honor you deeply.
This got me to immediately rejoin as a paid subscriber so nice work on that being effective, Emily!
That said, this seems like a prime example of climate disinformation with no accountability that I'm going to bring to the Terra.do community - this is absolutely horrific in a non-ending line of more and more horrific activity and news.
Let's get to tipping points with actual solutions...