Saturday, October 25, 2014

Back On the Home Front

I live in Richmond, just a few miles north of Berkeley. Its progressive City Council has received a fair amount of national coverage recently, including this piece in The Nation.

Chevron's large refinery here was the site of an explosion and fire two years ago that sent 15,000 residents to the hospital with respiratory problems. That was pretty bad, but now Chevron has set aside $3 million to tilt the local election toward Chevron-friendly candidates. The energy giant has targeted candidates in the Richmond Progressive Alliance and showered my neighbors and me with television ads, flyers, billboards, even its own news site, the Richmond Standard. That's a lot of not-so-free corporate speech, but the weird thing is the assortment of candidates that Chevron supports. It's not an impressive bunch, which makes Chevron's very expensive gambit look even worse than it otherwise would.

None of this has been lost on local and national outlets, including Rachel Maddow, the Los Angeles Times, AlterNet, Salon, and the East Bay Express. But much of the initial reporting was done by Richmond Confidential, which is run by students at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

We'll see whether Chevron's gamble will pay off soon enough. But I'm struck by the way the media coverage has worked out here. It's a good example of two points I've made here and there. One is that small outlets often break big stories. The other is that these small outlets need bigger ones to pick up those stories so that a much larger audience can see them. Both kinds of news outlets are required for a healthy media ecology.

Update: It now appears that Radio Free Richmond ("Independent Richmond News Without Fear or Favor") is part of the campaign. Its creator is BMWL, a San Francisco PR firm that has worked with Chevron. This from the East Bay Express, January 2013: "Along with running the anti-soda-tax campaign on behalf of the beverage industry, BMWL & Partners worked with Chevron in 2012 as part of the oil giant's $1 million effort to elect Chevron-friendly candidates running for the city council, including [Nat] Bates." Bates is Chevron's candidate for mayor in this election cycle.

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