An oily gift horse

Saying “No!” to Exxon

The cost of covering Exxon’s oil spill in Valdez, AK, pushed the local public radio station close to financial disaster. Should a grant be accepted from the company causing the situation?

By Annabel Lund

Annabel Lund is a reporter for the Juneau Empire, Juneau, AK.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 3 (June 1989), pp. 5,6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


If you call the newsroom of tiny public radio station KCHU in Valdez, Alaska, you hear this recording: “… KCHU Valdez can no longer afford a news person. If you have a news tip, call the Alaska Public Radio Network.”

The station has been hovering near bankruptcy, due to the cost of covering the wreck of the tanker Exxon Valdez and the resulting economic and environmental disaster. “There was chaos everywhere and we were swamped with calls from news organizations across the globe,” said station manager/news editor Dave Hammock.

Responding to the crisis, the Alaska Public Radio Network immediately flew reporters and engineers to Prince William Sound to bail out network member KCHU’s besieged staff and to file daily reports for the network.

But in mid-April, KCHU announced that its remaining annual budget would be exhausted within a month. Other larger public stations that had assumed costs for coverage were also feeling the pinch.

A Fairbanks legislator, spurred on by his aide, a former public radio newsman, introduced legislation for a $32,000 emergency appropriation.

Lawmakers from the Prince William Sound area “suggested” oil lobbyists look into the situation and Exxon officials, perhaps hoping to improve their oil-blackened image with Alaskans, called KCHU with an offer hard to refuse: a $32,000 grant to the network for oil coverage.

Because APRN executives were on vacation, a network secretary filed the Exxon check and newspapers reported APRN had tentatively accepted the grant. The public was not pleased. After two frantic days of long distance phone calls between Alaska and vacationing APRN board members, a final decision was made – thanks, but not thanks to Exxon’s offer.

“We have strict underwriting guidelines that say a corporation cannot pay for coverage of a particular situation or event in which they figure.” said Diane Kaplan, network executive director. If Exxon had offered money for general news coverage or for a particular regular news program we would have accepted it. There’s no way that grant would have influenced our news coverage at all, but even public perception of a conflict of interest is as bad as the real thing.”

KCHU station manager Hammock believes the guidelines are not realistic. “KCHU is supported essentially by state and local government funding; 85 cents of every state dollar is oil, 93 cents of every city dollar is oil. Who’s kidding whom about not taking oil money?” Hammock says.

The station expects to be back on its feet soon. Response from public fund raising has been phenomenal, the Valdez City Council has given money for the station’s rent and utilities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting promises an unprecedented one-time grant.

The Alaska legislature is expected to allocate generous funding to APRN for oil spill coverage – money to be reimbursed by Exxon.