It’s often said that good journalism is, essentially, good storytelling. That’s why a news piece is often called a story — it’s important to report the facts accurately, but it also takes skill to shape these facts, make sense of them and present them in an interesting and appealing way. While turning news into stories has proven itself to be integral to journalism, it can also increase the risk of oversimplifying events and ideas into a formulaic plot that isn’t exactly the truth. That’s what happened this summer with the BP oil spill.
When it dawned on the American public that the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico this April was really more of a disastrous gusher than it was a minor spill, and that it had already started to ruin lives and the environment, everybody wanted someone to blame. Headed by outwardly unsympathetic CEO Tony Hayward (who was seen relaxing on his yaught during the peak of public outrage) and arrogant chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg (who called those affected by the spill “small people”), BP presented itself as the perfect villain in a tragic narrative. The media latched onto and propagated this idea, and it became the story in most people’s minds: Although Obama should have acted more quickly, BP deserved the lion’s share of blame for the spill.
And it certainly does deserve blame. After the spill, it came to light that BP’s research and planning for disasters was laughably inadequate, and the company’s sluggish and limited response felt like something made specifically for political cartoonists and late-night talk show hosts to skewer. But to believe that the spill, and the obscene amount of time it took to properly fix the leak, was entirely or even mostly BP’s fault is a dangerous and self-serving view for Americans to have.
Corporations exist to make money for their shareholders. This is a simple fact. No matter how many commercials a company puts out touting philanthropy, the company’s bottom line is to make money, quickly and often. According to BP’s website, 39 percent of its beneficiary shareholders in December 2009 (this includes both individuals and institutions) were American. Therefore, you could say that part of BP’s job was to make money for Americans.
Compare that to the supposed first priority of any government, especially a democratic one such as ours. A democratic government should protect its citizens from infringement upon their rights, and from disasters — disasters that could possibly be prevented, such as the oil spill. Looking at these two agendas side by side, it is clear which entity holds more responsibility for damaging the lives of many Americans: the government.
Through tougher regulations and standards for drilling, and more effective work from agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. government could have prevented the oil spill or at least responded to it more effectively. The government could have demanded proof from BP that drilling in the gulf couldn’t produce an unmanageable spill, or at a least required a better thought-out response plan in case the unthinkable happened. In the marriage between energy giant BP and the U.S. government, it took both sides to produce such a monumental failure.
Another duty of a democratically-elected government is to represent the people. And what do the people want? Oil. We say we don’t like global warming, and bringing up high gas prices is a sure way to start a passionate conversation. Yet collectively we overwhelmingly choose cars over public transit or other alternatives.
Of course, all this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still hate BP for causing this country’s worst environmental crisis ever. But it does mean that we should remember to spread the blame around a little more. Give some blame to the Bush administration (remember them?) for relaxing standards in government. Blame Obama for not reversing this attitude of complacency enough to prevent the spill. Blame corporate interest groups in D.C., and blame Congress for representing their interests more than those of their own constituents. And every time you stop at a gas station, don’t forget to send a little blame your way.