Beyond Ads: How Politico, Vox and Axios Enable the Fossil Fuel Industry

Media outlets are helping the oil and gas industry put a friendly face on their legacies of pollution and climate denial.

by | Feb 27, 2020

Examples of Vox, Politico, and Axios campaigns (left to right)

Recently the Swedish Dagens ETC and the United Kingdom’s The Guardian newspapers made headlines by announcing that each would no longer run advertising from the fossil fuel industry. The moves have kicked off a long-overdue debate about what the media’s role should be in 2020 with respect to the oil industry and climate change.

That conversation needs to extend beyond ads to include many other, more subtle ways that media outlets lend their platforms and credibility to Big Oil.

In 2018 and 2019, for example, Vox Media produced The Arthur Brooks Show, a podcast by the then-president of the American Enterprise Institute. Labeled on Apple Podcasts as a “philosophy” podcast produced by Vox Media, Brooks’ stated focus is civility: finding ways for people who disagree to get along by focusing on commonalities and shared values.

Here’s what you learn about Brooks throughout the show: Born into a liberal Seattle community, he describes himself as politically “center-right,” and a believer in free enterprise. He’s a Catholic and a former professional French horn player, but he doesn’t play anymore. He doesn’t have hobbies, and he works a lot.

“We need to love our work as much as we need to love our family and friends. Work is where we spend most of our time,” Brooks says on the show. “Well, maybe you spend more time sleeping than you do at work, but if you’re like me that’s not even true.”

It feels as if listeners get to know Brooks pretty well throughout the podcast. We hear about how, when his son wasn’t interested in going to college, Brooks called a friend and got his son a job working on a farm. We hear about how the Buddha tells us to “conquer the evil man with kindness” and then how “Jesus takes it up a notch” by telling us to love our enemies.

Then we learn about a program that helps formerly incarcerated Los Angeles gang members get jobs, and in doing so work alongside former gang rivals. We learn that children and dogs are good common ground. Brooks describes his dog, Chucho, as a “huge leftist.”

What we hear almost nothing about is Brooks’ job, the one he spends more time at than he does sleeping: Heading up the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank known primarily for pushing skepticism about climate science. In 2018, Arthur Brooks made more than $2 million in his role as the president of AEI, which has counted the American Petroleum Institute, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Koch Institute, the Walton Family Foundation (the charity group associated with WalMart), as well as two Koch-affiliated groups, Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, among its funders.

In his descriptions and framing, Brooks creates a tidy world in which conflicts can be resolved — or at least avoided — by believing in our shared intrinsic good, as well as having polite, respectful conversations. Good strategies for an awkward dinner party, perhaps, but it’s worth wondering what the actual goal is here, particularly given how much time Brooks has spent helping AEI push takes like “on Earth Day, let’s appreciate fossil fuels,” “the farcical ‘Green New Deal,’” and “Exxon lied, people died — or something.” Brooks was also an advisory member of Charles Koch’s “Well-Being Initiative.” New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer wrote that Brooks’ “discovery that conservatives needed to be seen as more caring had deeply influenced the Kochs.”

All of this would be good to know while listening to Brooks spout advice like, “the currency of your life is not money, the currency of your life is love. If you want to be a life entrepreneur, you’ve got to take some risks in love.”

But none of it is mentioned. On podcast platforms, Brooks is described simply as a social scientist, while his show’s Vox Media branding gives it instant credibility.

In an appearance on Vox’s The Weeds with Ezra Klein in 2015, Brooks talked about how people at AEI all agreed with the goal of free enterprise, but often disagreed with each other on particular issues. He said that half of the economists at AEI believed a carbon tax was a good idea. “The other half of our economists are from the public choice school that says ‘Oh yeah, you know what? In the real world that’s going to turn into an exercise in political log rolling. That’s a stupid idea,'” he went on. “These guys duke it out every single day, you should hear them yelling in the halls, it’s fantastic.” What an adorably folksy, yet intellectual, way to legitimize climate denial.

When Klein asked Brooks about which smaller think tanks people should pay attention to, Brooks mentioned the Koch-funded State Policy Network, where he had just been a guest speaker. He also recommended the Koch-funded Goldwater Institute, as well as the Mackinac Center, both purveyors of climate science denial. Goldwater’s latest push is to delegitimize indigenous land treaties that might affect oil and gas pipeline developments.

Vox has not responded to repeated requests for comment on The Arthur Brooks Show.

Vox is far from the only media outlet helping the oil and gas industry to put on a friendly face. Axios frequently runs newsletters sponsored by fossil fuel corporations. For a week in January, for example, Koch Industries funded Axios executive editor Mike Allen’s daily morning newsletter. One edition prompted readers to listen to a podcast in which Charles Koch talked about the “important role of innovation in environmental responsibility.” Others included notes from Koch Industries about a “sixth-grader who wowed engineers with his life-saving idea,” or “why Koch is investing in emerging tech.”

A recent Axios Sneak Peek newsletter featured notes from Koch Industries about a group, which Koch bought in 2017, that is working to end hunger in Detroit. Meanwhile, Charles and his late brother David messed with Detroit for years. In 2013, Koch Industries was found responsible for dumping petroleum coke, a byproduct of petroleum production, along the Detroit River, polluting mainly working-class minority communities. The Kochs have also tried to manipulate politics in Detroit, pushing to kill a bailout for the city in 2014, and a public transit proposal in 2018.

Axios is an equal-opportunity distributor for fossil fuel giants. “Let’s create climate solutions together,” urge newsletters sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, emphasizing the positive attributes of natural gas. The ads peppered throughout Axios Generate, the outlet’s newsletter on oil and gas, blend in especially well with the editorial content. In a Chevron-sponsored edition, we learn that the “American Petroleum Institute is now supporting the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and, separately, technology for capturing carbon dioxide.”

Axios did not respond to requests for comment.

And then there’s Politico, which distributes fossil fuel-sponsored newsletters and content, and hosts events sponsored by Big Oil as well. In the recent past the outlet has run sponsored content from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, Chevron, and BP. One recent post from AFPM emphasized “rising U.S. production of oil and natural gas,” and then went on to say that “American facilities are going to be producing the cleanest products we’ve ever had in history.” Ads from BP emphasize investment in America, while ads from the American Petroleum Institute promise that working together on big solutions is the way to “keep reducing emissions while meeting America’s energy needs.”

Politico’s California Playbook has also been sponsored by Common Ground California, part of the Common Ground Alliance, which is funded by the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, Shell, Kinder Morgan, and BP, among others.

Politico, in turn, rewards its sponsors by highlighting them in special columns, like the Politico Playbook birthday Q+A with Steve Lombardo, chief marketing and communications officer for Koch Industries. Lombardo made sure to mention in the interview that Koch-owned Georgia-Pacific, a major polluter, has been working to raise awareness about human trafficking.

“Birthdays have been a feature of Politico Playbook since its inception nearly 13 years ago, and also appear in our state Playbooks,” Brad Dayspring, of Politico, said. “Our readers have long enjoyed the feature.”

He added, “There is a strong firewall between Politico’s newsroom and non-editorial departments, meaning that editorial decisions are separated completely from advertisers and sponsors.”

It’s a common response, but one that fails to address the key issue: When these outlets lend their credibility to any fossil fuel company willing to pay for it, how does it affect readers and their view of the world?

The news outlets mentioned here aren’t exactly alone, of course. The Charles Koch Institute partners with a range of news outlets for its Koch Associate Program and Koch Internship Program, including The Christian Science Monitor, The Detroit News, and The Miami Herald. The New York Times and The Washington Post brand studios — their in-house ad agencies — have created campaigns for Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and the American Petroleum Institute.

Throughout his podcast, his columns in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and his books, Arthur Brooks tries really hard to come across as a compassionate, reasonable guy. He describes a world in which opposing viewpoints should be explored, and all sides heard out. It’s hard to disagree with that basic premise without sounding, well, unreasonable.

But it’s difficult to have a basic debate about any topic, including climate and energy, when one side’s talking points have been completely fabricated for the purpose of making a profit at everyone’s expense. There’s nothing to be gained by taking time to consider the perspective of an industry that’s literally destroying the planet. Years ago, AEI helped create the practice of false equivalence in public discussions about climate change. Now, Arthur Brooks is telling us in his podcast that when we hear something we disagree with, the best thing to do is to try to learn from the other side.

The idea that an industry that exists solely to deliver profits to its shareholders could have a reasoned “side” on regulations that might limit its ability to do so, is as laughable as the idea that a major media outlet would lend its journalistic credibility to a slick PR message masquerading as a philosophy podcast.

Naomi LaChance
+ posts

Naomi LaChance is an investigative journalist covering corporate influence.