A few weeks ago, we described how the giant oil company Chevron was barraging little Richmond, Calif. (pop. 107,000), the site of one of its major refineries, with corporate PR disguised as community "news." Its instrument was an objective-looking website, known as the Richmond Standard, purporting to be a news portal for residents of Richmond.
Now we have more to say about how Chevron (2013 revenue: $220 billion) is trying to influence the upcoming municipal elections in Richmond, which pit a pro-Chevron bloc of city council members against an anti-Chevron bloc.
So far this year, Chevron has poured an astounding $2.9 million into three campaign committees in Richmond. Of that, at least $1.4 million has gone to a committee supporting the pro-Chevron candidates and $500,000 to a committee opposing the candidate critical of Chevron, including the current mayor, Gayle McLaughlin. The figures suggest that Chevron is preparing to spend at least $33 for the vote of every resident of the city 18 or older.
We know this largely because of the superb reporting of Harriet Rowan of the website Richmond Confidential. Rowan, 26, is a first-year student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, which operates Richmond Confidential to provide practical experience for its students while creating a counterweight to the pap emanating from Chevron's Richmond Standard.
Richmond Confidential may be one of the most important newsgathering enterprises in the country right now. The site runs on a relative shoestring--a Ford Foundation grant that funded its launch ran out some years ago--but it demonstrates how important it is to have a counterweight to corporate PR in what is, essentially, a company town.
"Richmond Confidential has established a very solid identity, and its credibility is not questioned," its faculty advisor, Robert Rogers, told us. "The students are learning while practicing journalism that has a real impact in the community."
Richmond Confidential performs a crucial service because the city receives only spotty coverage from the mainstream Bay Area dailies, the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. But its ability to compete is necessarily limited; the students are unpaid, and the site shuts down during the summer, when school is out.
It's true that there's sometimes a downside to such one-sided corporate political influence. In 2010, Pacific Gas & electric spent more than $40 million to pass a ballot initiative that it drafted, to undermine municipal public power systems. It went down to defeat. Says Justin Levitt, an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles: disclosure of corporate spending "may be a signal to voters to vote the other way. Chevron may not be doing its preferred candidates a favor."
Still, leaving coverage of the election to Chevron's PR organ, the Richmond Standard, could be disastrous for Richmond's residents. For example, you won't find a peep about Chevron's political spending in the Richmond Standard. That's par for the course: The website's entire staff, an employee of Chevron's PR firm named Mike Aldax, told me last month that "if you're looking for a story that's critical of Chevron, you're not going to find it in the Richmond Standard."
Give Aldax a point for candor. But maintaining utter silence about the source of the largest block of campaign spending in the entire city is a bit extreme, even for an openly bogus community news website. There's no mention of Chevron's contributions to the election even in the Standard's section devoted to Chevron corporate announcements, which is entitled "Chevron Speaks." ("That doesn't surprise me," Rowan says, "but it does point out what they are and are not interested in covering.")
What the Richmond Standard does provide, along with its customary fare of police blotter items and announcements from community groups, are nasty stories about Chevron's critics on the council.
One leading target of the Standard is the Panama-born and openly gay Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, who long has been the target of vitriolic heckling from the audience at city council meetings. She's also a frequent critic of Chevron.
When the heckling boiled over at a council meeting in July, the Standard implied that she instigated the fracas--its headline read "Jovanka Beckles' drama-filled night in council chambers leads to call to police."
In fact, as other reports suggested, the heckling started from the audience, and it was Beckles herself who called police--to walk her safely to her car after the meeting. For more complete, and fairer, reports placing the event in the context of four years of frequently obscene harassment of Beckles, you'd have to read reports from the Chronicle and Contra Costa Times here (with video), here, and here. You can come to your own conclusion about who's at fault, but you should note that the Richmond Standard's take is essentially indistinguishable from that of a Chevron-funded anti-Beckles campaign website.
Chevron says its campaign activities reflect its support for "city leaders who share our commitment to policies that foster an economic environment where business can thrive and create jobs to make Richmond an even more attractive place to live and work."
And more inviting for Chevron. The oil company's contributions surely overwhelm all other candidate spending in the city this year. Chevron's independent expenditure committee, "Moving Forward," fashions itself as "a coalition of labor unions, small businesses, public safety and firefighters associations." But as Rowan documented, 99.7% of its funding comes from the oil company. (See accompanying pie chart.)
For a corporation to manipulate a municipal election on this scale should be illegal. Chevron may pose as a company enjoying its free speech rights, as secured through the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, but a pincer movement employing pantsfuls of money and misleading, manipulative "news" demonstrates the potential of a big company's speech to drown out every other voice.
Loyola's Levitt may be right that disclosure laws sometimes signal voters to steer clear of candidates supported by big money. But when a company controls the bulk of election spending and a major community news source too, as Chevron does in Richmond, voters may not even hear the signal.