Obama’s 90 Percent Clean Up Promise: That’s Not What He Said

Updated with Wordle of the speech
Two articles have clashed in my brain with a resounding cacophony: a Tribune Bureau/Seattle Times headline screamed Obama vows 90% cleanup of oil this summer and, in Nieman Reports, Douglas Rushkoff asserted that “There’s More To Being A Journalist Than Hitting The ‘Publish’ Button.”

I read the Obama story slack-jawed because no where, no where, did the reporters (there are two in the byline) challenge the promise made in the headline. It was classic journalism-as-stenography, I thought as I read:

The president vowed that the administration and BP would clean up “90 percent” of the oil before the end of the summer. But he also spoke of damage to the Gulf region that would linger for years.

Heck, I might have swallowed a 90 percent clean up promise, if I were just now tuning in to this story. Or if I were just a blogger, an “amateur” biased “to the immediate” as Rushkoff describes the Internet in his 1076-word paean to traditional (whatever that is) journalism.

A promise to clean up 90 percent of the blowout is so preposterous, I couldn’t believe that the reporters — or the copy editor — failed to engage in a reality check.

As I wrote on June 3rd (tip to Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times), according to NOAA we will be “lucky to clean up 20 percent of the tens of millions of gallons of oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico… It’s apparently the accepted norm that we can clean up only 20 percent of an oil spill.”

What Is A Professional Journalist?

With these very two different assertions in mind — 20 percent from scientists versus 90 percent from a politician — let’s look at Rushkoff’s description of what makes a “professional” journalist:

A professional newsperson is someone who is not only trained to pursue a story and deconstruct propaganda, but someone who has been paid to spend the time and energy required to do so effectively. […] Without a crew of equally qualified—if not equally funded—professionals to analyze and challenge these agencies’ fictions, we are defenseless against them.

So … who here believes that the Tribune’s Washington bureau reporters “deconstructed propaganda” in this news article?

Rushkoff is correct: the Internet changes things. There is no need for stenographic (“he said/she said”) journalism today. We can watch the President’s speech on TV in real time, watch it on the Internet in real time, read the text of the speech afterwards or watch the speech on YouTube if we missed it.

We don’t need reporters, journalists, to tell us what the President said.

We need journalists — paid or “amateur” — to put those words into context. That’s why sites like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com are so popular and important.

Why A 90 Percent Clean Up Promise Is Misleading

Let’s turn back to that outrageous, unchallenged and completely unrealistic 90 percent clean up promise.

From LiveScience, 29 April 2010, we learn that recovery — however that is defined — is a dismal science:

[F]or an oil spill at sea, typically only 10 to 15 percent of the oil is recovered, Gerald Graham, president of Worldocean Consulting, a marine oil spill prevention and response planning firm based in British Columbia, told LiveScience.

[…]

“Despite spending $2 billion dollars and using every known clean-up method there was, they recovered 8 percent of the spilled Exxon Valdez oil,” said Jeffrey Short, Pacific science director for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.–based ocean conservation organization. “That is typical of these exercises when you have a large marine oil spill. You’re doing really great if you [get] 20 percent.”

Let me put this excerpt into perspective: most oil drilling is not a mile below the surface of the ocean. In 2007, Wired explained that the “ultradeep frontier holds the industry’s best hope for big new discoveries” while noting both the newness of these drilling techniques and the associated unknowns and risks. These types of wells are on the frontier, the edge, of oil extraction. They aren’t the norm.

And most spills are, well, spills, that is, one-off events with a fixed quantity of oil. Most are not lingering blowouts that spew millions of gallons of oil.

With these two reality checks in mind, how likely is it that in this instance — a deep-water well blowout, not a spill — we can realistically expect to hit the 10-20 percent recovery rates described as “typical” by these experts?

I suggest the answer is unlikely.

Every estimate about this well to-date has been ballparked low and then steadily revised upward. The feds revised the estimated flow again yesterday. We’ve gone from 1,000 barrels per day to 60,000 barrels per day, with the media rarely reporting that these estimates are floors, not ceilings. In fact, as time goes by we are edging closer to the original federal “worst case” scenario.

This estimate is equally unrealistic.

That’s Not What Obama Said

I could not understand why this claim appeared unchallenged. Then a traitorous thought crept in: maybe that’s not what the President said. Bingo! Here’s what Obama said, in the fourth paragraph of the speech:

As a result of these efforts, we’ve directed BP to mobilize additional equipment and technology. And in the coming weeks and days, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well. This is until the company finishes drilling a relief well later in the summer that’s expected to stop the leak completely.

The President did not say that BP would clean up 90 percent of the blowout. He said that until a relief well can turn it off, BP is implementing a series of efforts that, if they all work 100 percent, will eventually capture (ie, “recover”) up to 90 percent of the oil surging out of the well.

“Clean up” includes the millions of gallons already released into the Gulf and the mess that has already washed ashore in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and is headed to Florida.

“Capture” seems to mean an eventual reduction in the quantity of oil that leaves the scene and has to be cleaned up (by man or nature).

So these “professional newspersons” not only failed to put the claim into context, but they misrepresented what Obama actually promised. Why? I don’t know, but AP noted optimism was required to reach 90 percent containment but went no further, providing no data on typical recovery rates.

Thus, I ask you this: if two Tribune reporters mischaracterized something the President said in the opening of this speech, and then both they and AP failed to provide context for the claim based on historical data, why should I — why should we — trust the “professionals”?

This is not a knee-jerk rebuttal to Rushkoff’s essay: it’s an example of day-to-day journalism, by “professionals”, that is so off the mark as to render his argument about the merits of “professional newspersons” idealistic, misguided and misplaced.

Professional journalists do not have a monopoly on speaking truth to power. And the fact that someone is employed as a professional journalist does not mean that those words are de facto crafted with authority and integrity.

The (depressing) lesson seems clear: caveat lector.

Wordle

Wordle of Obama's Speech

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:: Cross-posted at TheModerateVoice

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5 thoughts on “Obama’s 90 Percent Clean Up Promise: That’s Not What He Said

  1. Hi, Evan:

    I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about motivation – but Jay Rosen has. You can read him at PressThink.

    The reason that I asked you to define blogger was to make the point that “blogger” is a term that has no definition, really, at least as it relates to journalism. I do not agree that there is a “collective conscience” that “blogger” is inherently unprofessional, although to the degree that this exists I think traditional media have facilitated it.

    I do not call for/advocate the demise of traditional media — although I will probably be in line, cheering, when the extremely consolidated corporate media are forced to divestiture because of unreasonable 20+% annual ROI expectations. I worry that we will have a painful period of transition where important stories go unreported because the disruptions are happening faster than new financial models are built.

    The good news is that the opportunity for local reporting is such that small communities may well have better (defined as locally-focused) reporting than they’ve had in a long time. The bad news is that institutions like state and federal governments could well have less oversight. I type this, then I think of TPM and “attorney-gate” and feel momentarily optimistic. :-)

  2. Very well put. If this was not a mistake but a mischaracterization, do you think that these journalists who operate under the guise of “professionalism” are politically or economically motivated in their reporting?

    I also understand that my definition of blogger is a little vague. I know that many professional journalists blog, and blogs can be very journalistic. The term “blogger” however, does carry with it some built in associations that I believe have already imprinted themselves into the collective conscience. Many of these stereotypes characterize writers of online content as people who do not abide by the same rules as professionals. I’m sure you have seen some pretty despicable content posted to the internet.

    I like the fact that you bring up that writers on the internet can act as a system of checks and balances for the MSM, but overall the writers who are doing the real “peoples work” on the internet must be a miniscule percentage. While even though the MSM are rife with mischaracterizations (as you have delineated in the above fail), do we throw the baby out with the bath water?

    I think that the incentives for media coverage would make a great project for Steve Levitt and company–maybe even for me one day.

  3. Hi, Evan:

    I agree that journalists are human and can make mistakes.

    But this was not a mistake.

    In the wire story, the reporters deliberately dropped “up to” from their quote of “90 percent” — and they changed the verb “should” to “will.” These are deliberate mischaracterizations. Not a mistake.

    The Seattle Times did publish a correction on the front page of the following day’s paper. The correction, however, does not appear on the article on the web site, although the Times did change the headline on the web site.

    It’s not as though the Tribune bureau did not have expertise on the blowout in the Gulf: http://www.latimes.com/news/science/environment/oil/

    The story as it ran on the LA Times website also seems to have had a headline change. (A lesson to me to take screen grabs.) And in the LA Times version, the 90% is not in quotation marks — why it’s different from the wire story is a question I can’t answer, although I noticed there were differences when I wrote this post.
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/washingtondc/la-naw-oil-spill-obama20100616,0,1317660.story

    Context
    Just as important, the story missed an opportunity to provide context: it becomes one half of “he said, she said” journalism when there is no counterpoint to the unrealistic claim that 90 percent of the oil from a spill (this is not a spill) can be cleaned up. This did not get corrected in the Seattle Times version of this syndicated story.

    Ethics and Technology
    All publications do not adhere to codes of ethics. Lots of ethical lapses have occurred at MSM — and many of those lapses weren’t discovered by the news organization. See Jason Blair (poster child): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayson_Blair

    Evan, what do you mean when you use the word “blogger”? Because I haven’t seen a definition that we can all agree to. I know /lots/ of professional journalists who blog. I know citizens who blog. I know politicos who blog. “Blogger” is as meaningless as a category as “writer.” Some are good, some are bad; some are ethical, some aren’t.

    Blogging is a technology, like printing. It has no inherent “goodness” or “badness” — it is simply a technology. A printer can print the Bible or hate speech.

    And both reporters are still writing for the Tribune Washington bureau. No reprimand in evidence.

  4. To assume that “professional” journalists never make mistakes is naive. They do all the time, and I’m sure you can find a host of similar articles that can back this point up. That is not what differentiates professionals from citizen journalists and members of the blogosphere. Journalists who work for major publications have to adhere to a strict code of ethics (depending on the publication), and it is hoped that they maintain a certain level of objectivity. They are trained professionals. When a journalist gets something so wrong like in the article in question, the real measure or professionalism is how the journalist and publication deal with the aftermath. It is more than likely that these reporters will be reprimanded or possibly ever fired. Bloggers don’t suffer the same repercussions for what they write.

  5. I should also have taken the Tribune reporters to task for what appears to be an unethical use of quoted material … they literally quoted “90 percent” when what the President said (at least in his prepared remarks) was “up to 90 percent.”

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