Monday, July 21, 2008

Oily Times

What would Ida Tarbell make of today’s global oil cartels? A century ago, Tarbell’s relentless reporting in magazine articles and a book sparked antitrust actions by state and federal officials to break up the oil market monopoly headed by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.

Today, news organizations and governments seem clueless as to how the market system works that has created an international financial crisis. Rather than getting to the bottom of who is causing gasoline prices to skyrocket, Congress is debating which lands and sea beds to open for more drilling, which might produce some more oil years from now or hasten the end of the era of burning underground fossil residue for fuel. News editors seem more interested in documenting the latest lurch in gasoline prices and their corrosive effect on the cost of living than in dispatching reporters to uncover what’s going on.

In the early 1900s, Ida Tarbell’s “Standard Oil expose, bolstered by [her] Rockefeller character sketch, spawned reform efforts within the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, the White House, and governor’s mansions. It led to precedent-shattering court rulings as well as populist movements,” noted Steve Weinberg in a new look at that distant, yet not dissimilar era. Weinberg is an investigative reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Missouri. His recently published book is titled Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller (W.W. Norton & Co., 304 pp.).

The muckraking legacy created by Tarbell and other pioneering investigative journalists is hard to find in current reporting on the latest oil outrage. A Google search on “oil prices” churned through pages of repetitive, surface-skimming news items on the ups and downs of exceedingly costly oil. Then a beacon of light appeared in a local news report in the Malden (Mass.) Observer on the steep rise of home heating fuel costs, which was investigated by a state legislative committee:

“The state senate’s report, ‘Running on Empty,’ places much of the blame on excessive speculation in the oil futures markets. Unregulated trading and market manipulation, the report says, add $25 to $50 per barrel to the price of oil,” reporter Rob Barry noted in the July 16 news story.

“The necessary trade regulations were removed by what is commonly referred to as the ‘Enron Loophole,’ a piece of legislation created by the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which President Bill Clinton signed in December 2000.An attempt to reverse this legislation was vetoed by President George W. Bush earlier this year.

“’Tighter control on speculators and market manipulation could immediately reduce fuel prices by 25 percent,’ said Michael Greenberger, former director of the Division of Trading and Marketing at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.”

Given such oily manipulation wreaking havoc on Americans’ wallets, here’s the extent of official action that the Malden reporter could find: “As oil prices skyrocket, legislators nationwide are asking for more money” from Congress for state heating assistance funds.

Ida Tarbell is likely spinning in her grave. “Reading Tarbell’s expose of the Standard Oil Company is a remarkable experience; in many ways it seems that it could have been composed only yesterday, not more than a century ago,” Weinberg marveled. Yet, despite the scores of probing journalists that Weinberg and others taught at Investigative Reporters and Editors workshops, most of today’s economically battered news business seems devoid of the moral outrage over manipulation of the nation’s pocketbook expenses that Tarbell conveyed to readers of her day.

“Rockefeller, according to Tarbell’s evidence, ‘has introduced into business a spy system of the most odious character. He has turned commerce from a peaceful pursuit to war, and honeycombed it with cruel and corrupt practice, turned competition from honorable emulation to cutthroat struggle,’” Weinberg noted, quoting from her portrayal of the original oil tycoon, who amassed enormous wealth from rigging the costs of oil delivered through a regulation-skirting monopoly to hard-pressed customers.

Tarbell relentlessly uncovered how Rockefeller’s secretive business system worked, traveling great distances to read lawsuits and interview informants. “Starting with court testimony and other statements from independent oil producers over a thirty-year period and bolstered by information from Standard Oil insiders, Tarbell pieced together a corporate espionage saga perhaps greater than anything previously perpetrated by a government,” Weinberg found.

The thrust of Weinberg’s book is that Tarbell “invented a new form of journalism” in a robber baron era that was largely covered by slap-dash, sensationalistic reporting on police blotter crimes and manufactured celebrities. Paying homage to such a legacy of probing for the hidden hand whipsawing the price of a vital commodity, he suggests, is exceedingly timely.

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