Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Pointing fingers

Journalists have had an unhelpful-and all too human-response to the BP oil spill

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

As calamities go, it wasn't quite on the scale of the shattered oil well off Louisiana's coast. Just 50 yards from our front porch, a car came way too fast around the bend in the road, careened out of control, wiped out a prize 40-year-old dogwood, and found its way an hour later to the junkyard. The driver was arrested for DUI.

As best I can calculate it, the accident happened the same week that the BP oil platform exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico. In the two months since, I've been comparing the "community" response.

There are plenty of differences, of course. The local damage was almost certainly less than $25,000-except, of course, for the tree that's no longer there. Wanton environmental destruction is very hard to measure. The damage in the Gulf has already cost BP alone well over a billion dollars, and the cash register is just getting warmed up. But who will pretend that the devastation in this case can be measured in dollars and cents?

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So my point is not to argue that the two calamities deserve equal media attention. What has struck me though is how easily and quickly a mishap of these kinds-at either end of the scale-leads to childish and unproductive finger pointing. Ever since Adam and Eve's response to the first and greatest of all calamities, we've become very adept at blame shifting. It's become part of who we are.

For me, it was all too easy and natural to point to city officials who over the years had ignored our several requests to install a new stop sign at that bend in the road. A $250 stop sign to prevent a $25,000 accident? Seems so simple and obvious. How can the hard-of-hearing authorities just keep turning a deaf ear to my superb wisdom?

With respect to the BP oil well catastrophe, the finger pointing has become almost as big a disaster as the uncontrolled flow of oil. From a know-it-all president to hundreds of know-it-all columnists and commentators, we've watched valuable energy and attention get regularly diverted to a way-too-early show trial to prove somebody "guilty because we said so."

What might have been helpful: a thoughtful suggestion or two about what might be done to stop the oil. What we've been getting instead has been a gusher of junior-high journalism, like this from Peter Daou in the Huffington Post: "A calamity is unfolding before our eyes-the greatest oil spill in history-and America's response is little more than a big yawn. . . . Where is the outrage? Where are the millions marching in the streets? Where is the round-the-clock roadblock coverage tracking every moment of the crisis, every effort to plug the leak, every desperate attempt to mitigate the damage? Where is the White House? Where are the Republicans? Where are the Democrats? Where is the left? Where is the right? Where is the 'fierce urgency of now?'"

Or if you prefer something a little more mainstream, try Bob Herbert in The New York Times: "The response of the Obama administration and the general public to this latest outrage at the hands of a giant, politically connected corporation has been embarrassingly tepid. . . . This is the bitter reality of the American present, a period in which big business has cemented an unholy alliance with big government against the interests of ordinary Americans, who, of course, are the great majority of Americans. The great majority of Americans no longer matter. America is selling its soul for oil."

Could be, of course. But that's quite a paragraph-without a scintilla of journalistic evidence. It's a whole lot easier to lob a hundred pseudo-journalistic grenades at British Petroleum, and everyone else out there, than to make even a single practical suggestion about plugging a leak.

I've got no zeal at all to defend the folks at British Petroleum. Zillions of lawsuits from shrimpers, fishing boat operators, motel owners, and Barack Obama himself may well-and maybe should-put BP out of business.

But I'll give BP this. When they decided to put a brightly lit, 24-hour-a-day camera on their efforts to solve their problem, they set a standard to which a few journalists and politicians might well pay attention.

Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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