The Obama White House and energy giant BP stood in the media crosshairs as the gushing oil in the Gulf turned into an environmental and economic disaster. But an examination of the story finds that BP ended up taking the brunt of the negative coverage while the White House suffered a glancing blow.
For one thing, more of the oil spill narrative was focused on the oil company (27%) than the government (17%). And the big weeks of BP-centric coverage—when that narrative accounted for 42% and 54% of the overall spill story—overshadowed the biggest weeks of Obama-centric coverage. In no single week did the federal government angle account for more than one-third (33%) of the spill story.
BP not only received press scrutiny for being behind the spill in the first place, but also for how its executives handled the aftermath. BP’s honesty in estimating the size of the spill, response to the needs of Gulf residents and the attitude of CEO Tony Hayward also fed critical coverage of the company throughout the 14 weeks.
Hayward infuriated a number of Gulf residents by stating, in late May, that “I’d like my life back.” Shortly thereafter, he took time off to watch his yacht race around the Isle of Wight in England.
One of the biggest weeks of oil spill coverage that focused on BP’s role occurred when Hayward visited Capitol Hill on June 17 and took a pounding. “Lawmakers wasted no time in launching attacks on Hayward, BP’s response to the disaster and, particularly, decisions the company made that critics believe led to the failure of the well and the subsequent explosion that killed 11 rig workers,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
While he did not escape criticism, President Obama fared better than the chief executive of BP. One line of questioning that did emerge was about Obama’s temperament—whether he was displaying sufficient anger and outrage.
“The president now says he’s trying to figure out ‘whose a*** to kick’ for the BP oil spill, after weeks of criticism for not appearing angry enough over the mess,” declared a June 11 piece in the Christian Science Monitor. And reviews of his July 15 speech to the nation generated mixed reviews, at best.
Certainly one of the advantages of the White House over BP was the fact that it wasn’t operating the oil rig that exploded and triggered the disaster. But Obama’s response got generally better marks than BP’s in the weeks that followed.
Even someone as disinclined to support the president as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly declared on his show: “I think President Obama on the oil spill is blameless for the spill. He didn’t cause it and he can’t plug it.”
The administration was also able to make news with a series of actions that included giving an Oval Office speech (however tepidly received), pressuring BP to create a $20 billion fund to help Gulf residents, traveling to the region four times by the end of July and announcing a criminal investigation of the BP spill.
Indeed, one of the biggest weeks of government-focused coverage (29% of the overall oil spill story) was June 14 to 20, when Obama helped extract the $20 billion fund from BP and addressed the nation from the Oval Office.
Something else that may have helped Obama occurred that week when Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton apologized to BP for what he called an Obama “shakedown” that pried loose the $20 billion. In a rare bit of Washington bipartisanship, Barton was immediately blasted by members of both parties, and within hours, he retracted his apology. But the GOP was put on the defensive by remarks that appeared to have one of their own siding with big oil in the Gulf spill.
“How Joe Barton Helped Rescue Obama and the Democrats,” was the headline on a blog post on the NPR website.
A close look at the coverage shows that after Barton’s attack, the narrative focusing on the Obama Administration’s performance declined substantially, never exceeding more than 13% of the overall Gulf coverage in any week from that point forward. Certainly other factors played a role in the diminishing attention given to the government. But it’s also likely the controversial apology made it more difficult for Obama’s political opponents to lay out the kind of concerted attack on his performance that would have gained more traction in the media.