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Why Are ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Washington Post’ Producing Ads for Big Oil?

The late Herb Schmertz was a public-relations legend, a dedicated oil man who revolutionized the way his industry and other corporations manipulate American news, public opinion, and government policy. As a senior PR executive for Mobil, Schmertz pioneered what he called the op-ad. Beginning in October 1970, Mobil paid The New York Times to publish regular op-ed articles, written by the oil company, in which it delivered its views on energy, the environment, and other issues of the day. In a 1991 interview revealed here for the first time, Schmertz explained: “Everything we did was organized as if it was one big political campaign.” The goal of the campaign, Schmertz continued, “was to win elections also. On public-policy issues.”

And win they did. By 1983, Schmertz and his colleagues in Mobil’s press office were privately congratulating themselves on how their advertorials had shifted The New York Times’ editorial positions. There has been a “substantial change in The New York Times editorials over the years toward the very positions we have argued,” the Mobil PR team crowed in an internal report uncovered by the nonprofit Climate Investigations Center. “Of course, we can’t prove a direct relationship,” the team added. But that was the goal, Schmertz confirmed in the 1991 interview, saying it was “part of the political campaign.”

Schmertz’s influence lives on in the increasingly common practice of US news organizations featuring content prepared by and with oil companies and other large corporations. Known as native advertising, branded content, or sponsored content, it looks and sounds like genuine news, even as it provides a one-sided, corporate-friendly take on climate change, clean energy, or other issues. And these days, the oil companies don’t even have to produce the content themselves. Numerous top news organizations—including the Times, Politico, and The Washington Post—have pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, and organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute to create the companies’ advertorials.

Call it greenwashing with a twist—the twist being that the fossil-fuel companies’ claims of good corporate citizenship are now being supported by respected news organizations. At a time when the same news organizations must dramatically improve their coverage of the climate crisis (see Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope’s article in this issue), such a financial relationship with the very companies that are helping drive the crisis is problematic at best. Journalistic catechism commands a strict division between the business and editorial sides of a news organization. In an era when revenue losses are leading to draconian staffing cuts in newsrooms across the country, it strains credulity to believe that any news outlet can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside funding and not be influenced, if only unconsciously. After all, as Schmertz and his colleagues confided, Mobil achieved that influence by the 1980s, long before the revenue crisis struck American journalism.

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