Thursday, July 1, 2010

I Have a Surprising Connection to BP's "Bogus Press" Operation

Stories have broken in recent days about BP hiring professional journalists to act as reporters in order to put a positive spin on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

And darned if I don't know one of the reporters. Actually, I'm not sure he is working as a "reporter." But we've had news stories in Alabama of BP employing the services of several well-known journalists in an effort to manage the public-relations fallout from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

One of the hires is Ray Melick, a longtime sportswriter for two Birmingham newspapers--and I do know him. Interestingly, Melick took a pretty serious trashing the other day from his former employer, The Birmingham News, because of his new role as a BP spokesperson.

BP's "reporting" tactics also have been bashed on The Rachel Maddow Show, and you can check out in a segment below.

I have come to adore Rachel Maddow and despise BP, but the personal connection to the "bogus press" story has left me torn. (As an aside, it provides another example of The Birmingham News' breath-taking hypocrisy--and that's always a good thing. More on that in a moment.)

The Bloom Group, a Republican-leaning public-relations firm in Montgomery, reportedly hired Ray Melick in May, after the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April, sparking a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP, which leased the oil rig, apparently has hired The Bloom Group--and Melick has become BP's spokesperson, at least in Alabama.

On the personal front, I've known Ray Melick for roughly 27 years. We worked together for about eight years at the now-defunct Birmingham Post-Herald. And our paths crossed fairly often during the 19 years I worked at UAB.

Ray and I never were in each other's "inner circle"--you wouldn't call us BFFs--but I've long considered him a friend and a likable guy. I always enjoyed our chats at various functions, which usually involved free food--always a popular item among current and former sportswriters.

Melick has been battered pretty heavily in recent days on several Alabama-based Web message boards and forums. But as much as I have come to loathe BP, I have no desire to join in the Melick bashing.

I tend to think fondly of most of my former coworkers--excluding a manager or two--and Ray Melick is no exception. Perhaps that colors my judgment here, but I generally don't have a problem with anyone taking a job that they think is a good career move and might bring home a nice income.

Heck, I made a similar move back in 1989 when I left the Post-Herald for UAB. It didn't involve much of a bump in pay, but I knew the hours would be more normal and I thought it would be rewarding to work in higher education--a field that, back then, I perceived to be a somewhat noble calling. For most of my time at UAB, it was an honorable place to work. But over the past couple of years, I've learned that UAB's current administration is awash in corruption and fraud. In fact, UAB's current leaders might be every bit as clueless and boneheaded as BP's Tony Hayward.

So I don't feel I have any right to trash Ray Melick for his recent career change. BP might be an oily outfit, but I don't think Ray Melick is an oily person. If Ray handles his new job in an ethical fashion, and I think he will, I have a hard time knocking him.

After all, I've sort of walked in Melick's shoes. I knew back in 1989 that the newspaper business was struggling, and I needed to get experience in a different field. If Melick came to a similar conclusion, and managed to enhance his salary in the process, I suppose more power to him.

According to The Birmingham News, BP is not just working with GOP-connected PR outfits. The big-oil firm also has hired The Matrix LLC, a PR firm that caters mostly to Democrats and has offices in Montgomery and Birmingham. BP, it seems, is trying to straddle both sides of the ideological fence.

Why would The Bloom Group and BP be interested in Ray Melick? Well, Ray has covered University of Alabama football for the past 25 years or so. Given that UA football fans are the single biggest constituency in our state, I'm guessing that BP execs thought, "Hey, let's hire the guy that Alabama football fans know and like and see if he can help us manage the fallout from this disaster."

Is that a cynical calculation on BP's part? Probably. Does it mean Ray Melick made a cynical decision in accepting the job? Maybe. Does that make him a dreadful person? I don't think so.

Our country, unfortunately, seems to run on cynical calculations these days. In the past 10 years or so, I've learned way more than I ever wanted to know about our justice system. And one of its fundamental concepts is this: Every scoundrel, no matter how slimy or even criminal, deserves representation. If that's the case, I don't see why a journalist should be held to a different standard than the one that applies to lawyers--many of whom make millions representing sleazebags.

Melick probably deserves a thumbs down for the way he handled his exit from the News. The Deepwater Horizon explosion came on April 20, and Melick announced that he was leaving the newspaper on May 17, giving no clear indication that he had another gig lined up. In fact, he trotted out the "I need to spend time with my family" chestnut:

When people ask me "what are you going to do?'' all I know to say is, "we'll see.'' One thing I do want to do is spend more time with my sons before they go off to college. For a guy who has gone to as many ballgames as I have in my life, I have gone to very few with my own boys, because who takes their kids to work?

Maybe Melick wasn't terribly forthcoming with readers when he left The Birmingham News. But I have a bigger problem with the newspaper itself. In a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, columnist John Archibald essentially deemed Melick a tool for big business the other day.

This coming from a newspaper that has supported just about every pro-business, anti-regulation candidate that has come along in recent years. In other words, The Birmingham News supported the very conditions that led to the oil spill. But now it's trashing one of its own for going to work for BP. Get this from Archibald:

Just weeks ago Melick was a popular face on these very pages, an award-winning sports columnist for The News who earned Alabama's trust by talking reasonably--both in print and on sports radio--about the most critical of Alabama topics: Football.

He's the guy in boots with the comfortable drawl. . . . It makes him perfect for BP's homespun message: You can trust us. We're just like you.

Ray's doing a good job for BP. So he's . . . dead to me.

He's "dead to me"? Good grief, how childish can you get? Archibald reminds me of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who was all "drill, baby, drill," until the Deepwater Horizon started gushing. Now Jindal, and Archibald, are trying to pass themselves off as tree huggers.

None of us needs to be taking a lesson in ethics from John Archibald. This is the guy who was Alice Martin's water boy while she carried out one bogus, politically motivated prosecution after another during the George W. Bush years. Hey John, anyone who supports a butcher like Alice Martin is . . . well, dead to me.

Maybe I feel compelled to stand up for Melick because we share a common bond. In our Post-Herald days, we played many pick-up basketball games together. As the two tallest white guys available, we almost always wound up on opposite teams, guarding each other. I had the vertical leap of a snail--and Ray's was maybe worse--so we were a good matchup.

I've often thought you can tell a lot about a person's character by playing pick-up basketball with them. If Ray Melick is a crappy person, it certainly escaped my attention--in the office and on the basketball court.

That doesn't mean I would want to be working for BP these days--although given my current unemployed status, and the "fruits" of my job search, I'd probably be lucky to be working anywhere these days. But if Ray Melick had reason to believe he was making a wise career move by going to the Bloom Group and representing BP, I find it hard to knock him? Besides, his decision seems to have irritated the windbags at The Birmingham News, so it can't be all bad.

I do wonder about a few things regarding Melick's new job. Do his duties include representing only BP, or does he work with other clients? Did he know going in that BP was going to be his main focus? Did he, and other folks at The Bloom Group, have any idea the oil spill would turn out to be as bad as it now looks? Did he, and other folks at The Bloom Group, know about BP's ethical baggage, as evidenced by a report yesterday in The Washington Post and another recent report at Bloomberg News? Do Melick and his new coworkers care about such things?

Here is perhaps the biggest question regarding Melick: Given what we all have learned in the past month, does he now regret his decision to join the Bloom Group and represent BP? I've seen signs over the years, that Ray Melick has a pretty solid conscience, so I suspect the answer is yes. I also suspect it's too late for him to turn back now, so he'll probably keep doing his best in a tough situation.

Ray Melick has shown over the years that he is a genuine reporter. If he is now in the position of being a phony reporter . . . well, I feel bad about that.

Mainly, I hope that Melick will someday be able to tell the story of how BP plugged the well, compensated those who have been harmed, and helped return the Gulf of Mexico to normal.

Hopefully, that story will be told sooner, rather than later.


Anonymous said...

This is a strange piece. It's like you're talking out of both sides of your mouth - into a megaphone.

Anonymous said...

We discuss this PR issue here:

Anonymous said...


Please don't call all our clients sleazebags. They are all human beings.

Not that some should not go to jail. But there are many not there who should be. And some in high places. Even in Alabama.