Corrections | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein



Above the Fold

     On May 25th John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil, was invited into the New York studio of NBC’s Nightly News to make a striking proposal.  Brian Williams introduced the retired executive’s plan this way: “You’re an advocate of something that has worked in the Arabian Gulf, which is surrounding it with super tanker ships.” 

    Hofmeister replied, “There was an unpublicized spill, in the early ‘90’s in the Arabian gulf, where there was so much oil–far larger than anything we’ve seen in this country–where a fleet of supertankers was put to work with powerful pumps inside these supertankers to both pull in oil, and push it out.   Depending on the need.  You can take these supertankers in formation, take water and oil together off the surface, a million barrels per copy, go unload it in tanks, separate the water and the oil, discharge the water back into the sea.  I think we should be seriously considering some kind of tank formation, with three, four five supertankers, get this oil off the surface, so it doesn’t wash up into the wetlands.”

    It was a striking idea–exactly the kind of bold proposal the White House had failed to come up with, the sort of thing which–if it actually worked–might obliterate the ghost of impotence which so far has shadowed all of the efforts to contain the disastrous spill in the Gulf.

    So it seemed perfectly logical, a couple of days later, when ABC’s Jake Tapper included the tanker issue in his question to the president at his White House press conference:

    “You say that everything that could be done is being done, but there are those in the region and those industry experts who say that’s not true….There are industry experts who say that they’re surprised that tankers haven’t been sent out there to vacuum, as was done in ‘93 outside Saudi Arabia.”

    The president ignored that part of Tapper’s question, and so the question lingered–why wasn’t the administration pursuing this bold move?

    When Brian Williams solicited “frequently asked questions” about the disaster from his viewers, FCP replied with this one:

    “What has the administration said in response to the retired Shell president on your air who said a flotiilla of super tankers should be deployed to suck up the oil?  The president was asked about it at his press conference but never answered.   What has NBC done to get an answer?”

    FCP’s inquiry seems to have reached Williams’s personal producer, and may have sparked the first serious effort by the news organization to answer this question. 

   Apparently, it didn’t take very long to find the answer: the consensus of most experts is that the super-tanker suck-up strategy only works on extremely contained oil spills–and therefore isn’t a practical approach to the vastly dispersed catastrophe in the gulf.   This news became part of  the Nightly evening news budget–but then got cut for time around 5:30 PM.

    However, Williams still had the perfect opportunity to set the record straight and resolve the mystery of why the administration had apparently rejected the supertanker recommendation, because the ex-Shell president was back on the broadcast that night.   But instead of challenging Hofmeister’s plan with the new information gathered by NBC’s staff, Williams greeted Hofmeister this way:

       “When you were last on the air with us I asked you about the idea that some have proffered about surrounding it with supertankers–you said it wouldn’t work with this kind of spill.”   

    That, of course, was the exact opposite of what Hofmeister had said.   Why did Williams exonerate his guest by re-inventing his original statement, instead of challenging him on it or asking him to retract it?

    FCP put that question in e-mails to Nightly executive producer Bob Epstein and senior broadcast producer Aurelia Grayson, as well as Williams’s personal producer Subrata De, NBC spokesperson Summer Wilkie, and NBC Washington bureau chief Mark Whitaker.

    Having heard nothing back from anyone at NBC, after twenty-two hours FCP telephoned Summer Wilkie’s office, to make one more effort to determine whether anyone thought it mattered that the managing editor of Nightly had said something flatly false on the air.  Finally, at 2:14 today, Williams issued this statement to FCP:

    “I made an honest mistake while anchoring from the field and interviewing John Hoffmeister [sic] via remote.  He had appeared on our broadcast before–I confused his view on supertanker efficacy with that of a previous guest.  I’ve apologized to John.”

    A spokesman for Williams said he would acknowledge this error on his blog sometime Tuesday–but that would still leave nearly all of the viewers of Nightly in the dark.  On the air would be the proper place for this correction.

    MEANWHILE, OVER AT THE NEW YORK TIMES, the letters department was tying itself in knots, trying to straighten out the latest prevarication of David Blakenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, and star opponent of marriage equality last winter in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the constitutional challenge to California’s ban on gay marriage being brought by David Boies and Theodore Olson.

    Blakenhorn was eviscerated in that trial on cross-examination by Boies, who, among other things, elicited the fact that this so-called “marriage-expert” had never taught a single course at any college or university, had no degrees in anthropology, psychology or sociology–and whose only peer-reviewed paper was a study of two cabinetmakers’ unions in 19th-century Britain.

    Boies also deepened the mystery surrounding Blakenhorn’s opposition to gay marriage, after getting the witness to acknowledge that he believes “that adopting same-sex marriage would be likely to improve the well-being of gay and lesbian households and their children,” that “the principal of human dignity musty apply to gay and lesbian persons,” and, finally “that we would be more American on the day we permitted same-sex marriage than we were the day before.”  Apparently, Blankenhorn would prefer us to remain less American.

    Money may actually be the answer for why Blankenhorn offered himself as an expert witness opposed to gay marriage, but more on that later.

    Like every other opponent of marriage equality, Blankenhorn has been desperate to distance himself from George Rekers, another so-called expert in this field, ever since Rekers was caught by Miami New Times returning from a ten day jaunt in Europe with a 20-year-old companion he had found for himself on

    This was more than a little embarrassing, since Rekers has spent most of his professional life arguing that homosexuality is a curable disease–and he was a co-founder with James Dobson of the Family Research Council, a major force within the religious right, and one of the most virulently homophobic institutions in America.

    Rekers may have made more money than anyone as an expert witness for bigotry, having collected $200,000 from the state of Florida for his testimony in support of a state law banning adoptions by gay people, and another $60,000 for his appearance at a similar case in Arkansas.

    So naturally, Blakenhorn was mortified when Frank Rich pointed out that a court document filed in the California case revealed that the star witness had read one of Mr. Rekers homophobic screeds before offering his “expert” testimony.

    Rushing to protect his reputation, Mr. Blankenhorn simply ignored the naked fact of his Rekers connection, and dispatched a letter to the Times declaring, “I have never met Mr. Rekers or read any of his writings…This matter is particularly important to me, since in my report to the court, as well as in my testimony on the stand, I clearly and emphatically rejected the anti-gay views that Mr. Rekers has apparently expressed.”

    The trouble was, as Mr. Blankenhorn revealed in his own blog, thirteen days after his letter to the Times was published, Mr. Blankenhorn had read one of Mr. Rekers reports–and Mr. Blankenhorn had actually sworn to that fact in a deposition taken by opposing attorneys.

    That fact, Blankenhorn wrote, was also “reported to the court in a separate document…containing a list of everything that I as an expert witness had ‘considered’ in preparing for my role in the case.’”

    When some alert reader at the Times noticed this posting, a letters editor asked  Blankenhorn to write a new letter, correcting the previous one, in which he had falsely accused Frank Rich and the author of a news story on the same subject of making a connection Mr. Blankenhorn had pretended did not exist.

   That second letter appeared on June 5.  But afterwards, in his own blog, Blankenhorn remained unrepentant.  The Times, he said, has “strict standards, especially when those standards suit them.”

    In other words, when you write a letter that directly contradicts your own sworn deposition, the Times will ask you to write another letter correcting yourself.  What will they think of next?

    In the hope of clarifying some of Mr. Blankenhorn’s motives, FCP e-mailed him, asking what kind of checking Mr. Blankenhorn had done before sending his first furious letter, and how much he had been paid for his testimony in the California trial.

    Mr. Blankenhorn declined to answer any of FCP’s questions.  

    FCP regrets Mr. Blankenhorn’s silence, because it makes it impossible to answer one more important question: Has Mr. Blankenhorn’s career as an expert witness been as profitable as Mr. Rekers’ was?