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May 15, 2006

Beyond the Liberal Spin

Like just about any news outlet, a lot of our coverage starts with press releases. Groups get our attention through various PR wires we review, or by sending releases directly to TNS editors and reporters. Frequently, we even use press releases as source material -- usually when we are unable to reach the group for comment due to the time of day.

But what we don't do, unlike lots of journalists in the mainstream and alternative media, is take the lead of the press release and adopt it as the approach of our own coverage. In fact, in cases like this piece about US PIRG and ConocoPhillips, we may even turn the intended thrust of the release -- the spin -- right over on its head.

Case in point, the US PIRG media release that drew our attention to the disgraceful ConocoPhillips vote, as we noted at the end of our news brief, was celebratory. The folks at US PIRG were simply elated -- or so they reported -- that they managed to convince a quarter of an oil company's stockholders to vote to investigate how bad one corner of the firm's future operations might actually be.

While I appreciate US PIRG's low expectations, I found their declaration of victory a bit myopic. Maybe from their vantage point of trying to work within the system, they are proud of what they accomplished. But when I stepped back to look at the vote from a wider view, I saw a story about a corporation once again refusing to take responsibility to its impact on the environment.

Comments...

Benjamin Melançon: Stockholder Votes are Noteworthy, More Complex than Presented

The defeat of a proposal to study the idea that the environment should not be further damaged in ways that are currently illegal certainly speaks volumes about corporations' and institutional capitalisms' true attitude toward corporate responsibility. However, the article's opening statement is misleading when it says "an overwhelming majority of ConocoPhillips shareholders rejected the very idea" (of asking the company's board of directors to prepare a report on potential environmental damage related to drilling in a protected Alaskan wilderness area).

It is my understanding that all shares which are not voted by stockholders or their proxies are controlled by management. I do not know what percentage this represents but imagine if the half of the eligible population that didn't vote in a given election had their votes cast on their behalf by one political party (which would otherwise split the vote with another party). Would you portray such an "election" as an overwhelming rejection of the party that received 25% of the official vote? It's also worth pointing out that this stacked democracy is only a democracy of dollars (shares), not people. The majority of shareholders could approve of the resolution, but hold a minority of the shares of stock.

Stockholder activism is an interesting approach to social problems -- paradoxical if one has the logical view that it is the unequal share of power held by rich people (the people who own most of the stock) that is the cause of many social problems (that is, the fundamental problem is that decisions are made by people who aren't affected by them) -- but a 25% vote for even a limited proposal for environmental responsibility means a significant number of people (or, probably more accurately, a significant number of institutional investors representing union members, public employees, and people who have chosen "socially responsible investing") are trying to cause social change using their stock holdings.

[Note to TNS editors: This comment was originally submitted as a letter to the editor based on the original article, but this blog entry is a more appropriate place for it, so the letter may be disregarded! Thanks, ben]


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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.