This is a guest post by ClimateDenierRoundup.
A couple of weeks ago, Reuters reported on a new effort by the American Petroleum Institute: Explore Offshore. Its goal is “to convince Hispanic and black communities to support the Trump administration’s proposed expansion of offshore drilling.”
Per Reuters, a key part of the American Petroleum Institute's (API) effort to convince minority communities to support a product that disproportionately hurts them is through a series of op-eds. Media Matters took a look at the pieces that have been published so far, and surprise! They’re misleading. They can’t even get the API talking points (which are going to be biased) right, as one API stat about economic benefits of drilling was exaggerated “by a factor of 20.”
But we’re all too accustomed to these sort of shenanigans from the industry. What’s perhaps even more galling is that this minority-targeted effort is run predominately by old white men. In the leadership circle of Explore Offshore, there are as many women of color as there are men named Jim (that is, only two). The one African-American man involved, Steve Gilchrist, counts Steven Bannon as a friend. (Bannon, you no doubt remember, used Breitbart to launder White Nationalism into the mainstream.) And while the group touts itself as bipartisan, the sole Democrat among the national and state Chairs is Jim Webb, who has expressed an “affinity for the Confederacy.”
Clearly, then, this movement seems to be an inauthentic and cynical attempt to use minority communities as pawns of the pro-oil agenda. Typically, this type of thing might fall under the banner of “astroturfing,” the name for advocacy efforts that appear as grassroots but are in reality a corporate PR campaign.
But API isn’t even bothering to cover its tracks. In fact, though Media Matters mentions that some of the op-eds don’t disclose Explore Offshore’s API backing, API has been relatively vocal about its new project.
While Explore Offshore may not be strictly astroturfing, it has the characteristics of something similar: corporate ventriloquism. This term was coined by a team of four writers in a book on the coal industry’s rhetoric responding to environmental concerns, Under Pressure. In it, they describe how companies are moving beyond secretive astroturf campaigns and into more overt advocacy campaigns.
After the embarrassment of the 2009 “Faces of Coal” campaign, in which the coal lobby’s attempt to show real everyday Americans supporting coal was exposed as an astroturfed, stock photo farce, the industry appears to have learned that a sliver of honesty is the best policy.
In a way, Under Pressure explains, that’s even more dangerous. Once astroturfing is exposed (and at this point, it pretty much always is) it tends to lose all potency and backfire. When corporations are upfront about their backing of advocacy that advances their interests, though, they still get to control the message (like a ventriloquist) while also entering into the public discourse as though they’re a neutral party.
Instead of hiding its influence, a corporation’s engagement sends the message that it is just another voice, with the right to free expression just like anyone else once the U.S. Supreme Court ruled corporations are people. This “flattening,” as it’s described in Under Pressure, glosses over the vast difference between industry with millions to spend on free speech, and the general public’s relatively limited ability to do the same.
Corporate ventriloquism allows industries to spread their exact message through a secondary source, just like astroturfing, but without threat of embarrassing expose that would undo the messaging work already accomplished. And in the process, this technique further legitimizes their profit-driven pursuits as just another voice in the crowd, as though those who seek to protect public health from pollution and those who only want to protect polluters are equally valid.
Explore Offshore, with its focus on minority communities, adds an additional layer of offense and exploitation. A group led predominantly by white men is using overinflated promises of wealth to try and secure the support of communities who will pay the price of fossil fuel pollution with their health.
They’re offering a promise of employment, sorely needed, without mention of climate changing, asthma-inducing, wildlife-destroying pollution that comes with it, in the process pitting people of color against the very environmental threats that impact their community more than any other. A faustian bargain presented as a fantastic opportunity through corporate ventriloquism.
But they’re content with mere corporate ventriloquism, the oil and gas industry has taken its “free speech” to the next level: corporate minstrelism.