Published on March 20th, 2018 | by Carolyn Fortuna0
Shame On You, NPR: Failure To Interrogate Oil Industry Hurts Clean Energy
March 20th, 2018 by Carolyn Fortuna
In my youth I was a rabid rock music aficionado. Now I find that I learn more by spending audio time tuning into news talk radio. Not too long ago I was driving and, as usual, listening to National Public Radio (NPR). A story about the oil industry came on, and I turned up the volume, thinking that I would enhance my background knowledge of the fossil fuel industry’s demise in light of the growing demand for clean renewable energy.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
Let’s take this NPR interview to demonstrate what is socially significant about media representations. The way the media frames a story is often as important as the topics they are discussing.
The NPR radio story was titled, “Though Prices Aren’t as High as Before, West Texas Enjoys Oil Revival.” The reporter, Mose Buchel, told us that “the U.S. is on track to surpass Saudi Arabia and Russia next year to become the world’s biggest oil producer — pumping out more crude than at its peak nearly half a century ago.” Then the host, David Greene, informed us that “the United States is now producing 10 million barrels of crude oil a day.”
Important information to know, right?
Sure, and as a climate change activist, I was expecting — at the very least — a bit of gentle humor about how the US is caught in a quagmire in which clean renewable energy is the way of the future, yet the US continues to be pointed toward the past by an intransigent fossil fuel industry and a moment-to-moment malleable executive chief.
After all, we know that the oil industry can no longer rely on its monopoly of the transport market. The oil industry cannot reconcile expansive petroleum policies with veiled ambitions of adapting to other fuels when the time is more convenient.
Yet NPR set a context for examining the oil industry so that a “business as usual” approach seemed to suffice. Meaning-making for us as NPR listeners depends upon not only what is explicit in a text but also what is implied. We usually think of NPR as “progressive,” yet hegemonic struggles work to give a sense of universality to particular cultural norms, even in media texts that we might generally think consistent with our ideologies. These struggles include ways of representing beliefs and practices, including how a good citizen thinks and acts in the public space. That public space, according to NPR, continues to contain valuable oil production quotas for the US economy but doesn’t require analysis of the devastating effects of fossil fuels on the environment.
Reading Media Texts for the Reality of Climate Change
“An unexamined life is not worth living.”
We make choices every time we read. In this uncertain era in which we live, when disinformation is rampant and a US presidential election was likely manipulated by a foreign power through social media, it’s important to slow down our reading of media texts.
One way to do so is to look at texts from what’s called a “representational point of view.” We step back to look at which elements of events are included in the representation of those events and which are excluded. We assess which elements are given the greatest prominence or salience. In doing so, we can see the media texts in terms of comparison between different representations of the same or broadly similar events.
The NPR report began by introducing Kirk Edwards, owner of Latigo Petroleum, who recalled how the US oil industry 4 years ago was realizing over $100 a barrel and “drillers were making crazy money. Then came the crash, courtesy of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.” The soundbite of the Norman Greenbaum song, “Spirit in the Sky,” played in the background.
Notice how the word “crazy” seems admirable and remarkable? And how the word “courtesy” puts the blame on the Other — namely, OPEC? Word choices in media and other texts convince us to think in a particular way. Nowhere does the NPR reporter use the opportunity of the inherent media platform to analyze the oil industry’s responsibility for the social, political, cognitive, moral, and material consequences and effects of burning fossil fuels on climate change. It is imperative that we step back and attempt to understand these consequences and effects if we are to raise moral and political questions about the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry on our contemporary US society.
Instead, we hear a Texan tell “the story of oil in America.” Buchele notes that a pervasive fear spread through the community just a few years back, wondering “if the good times would ever come back. But they did,” Buchele notes, “even though the price of oil is nowhere near that old high.”
Representations of the Oil Industry: Cognitive Dissonance
Capitalism does not imply an exclusive focus on economic issues, as it has ramifications throughout social life — it transforms and impacts politics, education, artistic production, and many other areas. Neo-liberalism in the US that led to the current Trump administration’s worldview of isolation as “good” is driven by the demands of an unrestrained capitalism.
Elements of social events are selectively filtered according to recontextualizing principles. That means some are excluded, while others are included but given greater or less prominence. Capitalism as a “norm” underlies this NPR story about the oil industry.
In this NPR article, the “soundbite of fracking” is admittedly “pretty loud,” but nowhere does NPR use the moment as an opportunity to describe the enormous amount of water that is mixed with various toxic chemical compounds to create frack fluid. According to Greenpeace, a significant portion of the frack fluid returns to the surface, where it can spill or be dumped into rivers and streams. Underground water supplies can also be contaminated by fracking, through migration of gas and frack fluid underground.
2. Abstraction: What is the degree of abstraction/ generalization from concrete events?
One of the local oil employees interviewed in the NPR story, Tommy Taylor, remembers, “We used to frack jobs on the tailgate of a pickup, and you were standing out there whether it was hot or cold or raining or snowing. And so we’ve come a long ways.”
He uses a recollection reminiscent of a simpler era in the US in which sinewy families bore under hard times, regardless of privation, necessity, or weather, to move ahead in conjunction with (the myth of) meritocracy. What’s lacking in the nostalgia is the tragedy that the US is poised to plunge headlong into being the principal source of new carbon dioxide emissions in coming years, an irreversible calamity.
3. Arrangement: How are events ordered?
NPR reporter Buchele says, “Operations like this were forced to become faster and cheaper during the downturn. Subcontractors, of which there are many in the oil field, started charging less to stay in business. And technology improved.” A quick and necessary cycle is described here as a practical matter of financial necessity. That necessity is positioned as good and admirable.
During an interview with Politico, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger saw the events of the oil industry as much less naturally sequenced and placid and much more threatening. “If you walk into a room and you know you’re going to kill someone, it’s first degree murder; I think it’s the same thing with the oil companies.” He argues that a class action lawsuit would, at the very least, raise awareness about fossil fuels and encourage people to look to alternative fuels and clean cars.
In the NPR story local oil advocate Jim Henry says, “Highs are better than lows (laughter). It’s a high now (laughter)… We’re having a lot of fun. Everybody’s making money.”
These “highs” come at the expense of the planet. New York City doesn’t see the consequences of burning fossil fuels as laughable. It is suing the 5 largest oil companies to reimburse the city for losses due to several recent hurricanes. This will help to pay for the infrastructure improvements needed to protect the city from the impacts of rising sea levels and even more powerful storms in the future.
Some media texts receive a great deal more interpretive work than others. Why is this? Some texts are very transparent, while others are more opaque. Interpretation in any form involves a great deal of conscious thought about what is meant by visuals and symbols within a text or why something has been said or written in a particular form and style. Certain social actions and hierarchies become legitimate, and even the dominant character behaviors like “mansplaining” and shareholder over the common good are foregrounded.
We can only arrive at a judgment about whether a claim is ideological by looking at the causal effect it and related claims have on particular areas of social life. For example, do people in the US believe that the country must be highly competitive in the global oil marketplace in order to thrive? Do persuasion campaigns like those supported by the Koch brothers contribute to sustaining the influential power of the US oil industry at a time in which the world is turning much of its resources to clean renewable energy? In Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey (2012), he notes that the Koch brothers were owners of a tar sands refinery (p. 95).
Ideologies are prevalent belief systems. They’re transferred generation to generation, even when young rebels swear to be better and act differently than their forebears. Ideologies continue on because they have representations that permeate all aspects of social life and establish, maintain, and change social relations of power, domination, and exploitation.
It’s important to step back and analyze all kinds of media (and other) texts to determine what ideologies are at play. In doing so, we may learn that even our favorite sources for information and entertainment aren’t as pure or inspirational as we wish them always to be.
Author’s Note: If this kind of media language analysis fascinates you like it does me, I recommend picking up a copy of Norman Fairclough’s Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language.