‘Courtesy of CMP’: The soft-power of corporate advertising in news

Maine Beacon

With no shortage of events to keep up with this month, many Mainers have likely found themselves on The Bangor Daily News website checking on political news. Since the week of the presidential election, users have been greeted by a pop-up window: “BDN election access provided free courtesy of CMP.”

While an ad like this is unremarkable at first glance, when read alongside recent news of final authorizations to begin construction on Central Maine Power’s New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), the cozy relationship between the utility and BDN becomes yet another troubling example how corporate-media relationships can put independent reporting in jeopardy.

On November 4, NECEC, a controversial 145-mile high-voltage powerline from the Canadian border near Jackman to Lewiston, was awarded the last of a series of permits needed to begin construction. By issuing this permit, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chose to forgo rigorous assessment of the project’s environmental impacts in the latest loss for environmentalists in a bitter fight over the project.

It is important to note that, despite its name, the New England Clean Energy Connect provides no new clean energy—only shuttling pre-existing Canadian energy to new customers in Massachusetts—and offers little-to-no benefits to Mainers. The project’s intense unpopularity reflects that reality: according to a 2019 Critical Insights study, only 15 percent of Maine voters support the project. Opposition grows significantly in counties where the project will be built, such as Somerset (83 percent) and Franklin (90 percent).

Public outcry and broad-based dissent over this project, including a recently failed referendum effort to reverse the project’s government approval, has led to attempts by CMP to advertise its way to public approval. A combination of Facebook ads, television commercials and mailers to residents throughout the state have all been part of CMP’s strategy to shift public opinion. These efforts have carried a hefty price tag, but have yielded little in return.

Disinformation and misleading claims have defined CMP’s advertising, most centering on the basic fallacy that the project will work to slow, or even halt, the effects of climate change. The name of the project itself: New England Clean Energy Connect, is a deceiving attempt to align the project with a clean energy transition. Baseless claims that the project’s opponents, largely grassroots environmentalists, are backed by out-of-state fossil fuel companies who benefit from status quo electricity sales, have even been suggested by the CEO of NECEC LLC Transmission, rapidly becoming a part of supporters’ talking points.

BDN’s partnership with CMP provided a platform for yet another iteration of the company’s tired optics campaign. But what is worrying is not the advertisement, but the potential impact that such advertising partnerships can have on the news itself. In cases where the news does not positively portray high-value advertisers, advertising revenue can weigh heavily on the impartiality of news. For this reason, newspapers ubiquitously present their business operations and their journalistic efforts as completely separated. That said, unfortunate examples of advertisers swaying news coverage in their favor are nothing new.

Take the high-profile 2015 case involving multinational investment bank HSBC and The Telegraph as an example. The London newspaper’s chief political commentator at the time, Peter Oborne, dramatically resigned after repeatedly having stories critical of HSBC rejected.  Coverage of the bank’s illegal activities would have risked the paper’s relationship with a high-value advertising partner and The Telegraph, a newspaper that had been struggling financially for some time, chose to suppress reporting on HSBC.

The comparison is, of course, limited. Bangor is hardly London. Central Maine Power does not carry HSBC’s financial sway as an advertiser and the Bangor Daily News does not have The Telegraph’s reach nor notoriety. Differences of scale and impact abound, but the most important difference is that where The Telegraph refused to run stories that negatively portrayed their advertiser, the Bangor Daily News continues to offer clear-eyed reporting on the NECEC project.

The case with The Telegraph is an extreme outcome of a corporate-media relationship. BDN’s relationship with CMP has not hindered coverage, but it does potentially distort readers’ interpretation of those stories.

Election season is an unquestionably high-traffic period for political news and allowing corporate sponsorship of it grants the advertiser significant exposure and influence. CMP’s sponsorship makes BDN’s online readers immediately and unavoidably indebted to the utility for their access. When aligned with the release of unpopular breaking news concerning the final approval for the NECEC, readers’ gratitude may offset the distaste of the corporation that the news may otherwise provoke.

This type of corporate influence over news consumption begs the question: what makes an appropriate relationship between corporate advertisers and media outlets? The HSBC-Telegraph debacle was later described by author Simon Jenkins as “underscore[ing] the critical balance between holding readers’ faith and staying in business.” It will always be the prerogative of any newspaper to choose its business relationships, but news outlets must do more than simply hold readers’ faith. They have a responsibility to their readers as objective, impartial storytellers, and must work actively to combat any factor that threatens that position.

CMP has a hard-earned reputation as an overt environmental antagonist, proud monger of disinformation and a central character in high-stakes legal and political battles. While the Bangor Daily News’ partnership has not yet impeded the newspaper’s coverage of issues involving the CMP corridor, it certainly has threatened impartial consumption of news on the issue. While attempts to deceive the public to improve corporate image are not new for CMP, this example does serve as a useful reminder of the sinister influence that corporate advertisers can hold over the independent coverage and consumption of news.

- Andrew Blunt

Special to the Beacon

Andrew Blunt graduated from Bowdoin in 2019, where he studied Environmental Studies and Government. Currently, Andrew works on issues of international democracy and is a youth climate organizer in Maine.

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  • Sandi Howard
    published this page in News 2020-11-26 06:52:31 -0500