Why This Op-Ed by BP in Politico Turned Out Terribly for Both Companies

The Los Angeles Times called it “a corporate advertisement presented as ‘opinion.’” The Washington Post condemned it as “free native advertising.” New York magazineNewsweek, and the The New Republic, among other news outlets, all criticized it.

This past Tuesday, Politico ran “No, BP Didn’t Ruin the Gulf,” an op-ed piece claiming the damage caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was minimal—written not by a credentialed journalist, but by BP’s senior vice president of U.S. communications and external affairs, Geoff Morrell.

Once the backlash began, BP issued a press release about the post, stating, “This is an opinion piece submitted by BP to an influential newspaper to counter several op-eds about the Gulf that previously were published in this and other media outlets. It’s no different than any other op-ed by any other company in any other publication.”

While this isn’t the first op-ed about the BP oil spill that Politico has published—National Audubon Society CEO David Yarnold penned an opposing view a year ago, and Kara Lankford of the Gulf Restoration Program recently wrote a rebuttal to Morrell’s post—there are, in fact, several crucial differences between the BP piece and other op-eds.

First off, the post wasn’t originally labeled as an “Opinion” article at all; it was first tagged “Environment,” as Newsweek showed in a screenshot. The piece was only tagged “Opinion” once the outrage began. (Politico did not return multiple requests for comment.)

Aside from the questionable labeling, what makes this op-ed different is that BP is a sponsor of Politico‘s “Playbook” newsletter, which wasn’t disclosed in the piece. In fact, BP sponsored the “Playbook” piece that ran a day after Morrell’s op-ed.

for folks confused why people are upset about bp’s op-ed in politico:

— Mike Casca (@cascamike) October 22, 2014

According to The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, a weekly sponsorship of the newsletter costs upwards of $35,000. “Playbook” is penned by Mike Allen, who has been accused of writing glowingly about the weekly briefing’s sponsors, including BP, as early as a year ago. He has quoted Morrell as a source in the past, and even included a link to a BP ad back in June 2013.

“I appreciate the fact that the editorial itself had a footnote explaining the author’s relationship to British Petroleum, so that the public could fully understand where he was coming from,” says Kevin Smith, a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee and a past national president. “I think it would have been sufficient to simply add an additional line saying that BP is a corporate sponsor of Politico. That’s all it would’ve taken to put everything in proper context.”

Smith believes this disclosure should be included even if the particular piece in question wasn’t bought and paid for. Judging from the reaction on Twitter, many agreed.

@BenDWalsh “BP didn’t eat those cookies you were saving”, brought to you by BP — Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) October 22, 2014

Enraged by this blatant false PR published as journalism in @POLITICOMag — huge conflict of interest with the author — The Telltale Blart (@Bro_Pair) October 22, 2014

“I think that it’s appropriate that they get called out on this,” Smith adds. “The ethical problems arise when you meld your financial and advertising interests with your interests in informing the public and you can’t keep them separated.”

Smith believes that a news outlet withholding information about corporate relationships is tantamount to lying by omission.

“Any time you put the interest of advertising and your corporate sponsors ahead of the public’s right to information,” he explains, “then you’re making the wrong decision.”

Image by Gerald Herbert

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