On Tuesday, as apocalyptic wildfire smoke began to blanket the East Coast, the digital media start-up Semafor hosted the “definitive conversation on permitting reform” — sponsored by lobbyists for fossil fuel interests and set up as a victory lap for special guest Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, who had just pushed through a controversial gas pipeline in the new debt ceiling law.
But within minutes of Semafor’s top editor congratulating the coal-baron-turned-senator on his victory, climate activists stormed the interview, derailing the event and leading the Semafor editor to scream on camera at the protestors, “Get off my stage!” The spectacle quickly went viral.
The event perfectly encapsulated the problems with Beltway news outlets’ lucrative corporate sponsorship model. By seeking out fossil fuel industry cash and cozying up to the industry’s favorite politicians as the world burns, media outlets are picking a side in the battle to protect the planet’s future livability — settling down with the arsonists against all other life on Earth.
“Media outlets need to reevaluate,” said Rylee Haught, an organizer with the environmental group Climate Defiance who was involved in Tuesday’s protest. “If they’re taking giant chunks of cash from fossil fuel CEOs, they should be prepared for us to call them out at any time and shut down an event like this. When you’re platforming people like [Manchin], you need to be prepared.”
Sponsored by groups with major ties to fossil fuel interests, the Semafor event was meant to “explore the futureshape [sic]” of permitting reform as “America’s economy enters a period of substantial infrastructure investment.” The outlet’s Beltway journalists were scheduled to interview “policy makers, business leaders, advocacy groups, and thought leaders” — including Manchin.
The conservative Democrat helped write many of the permitting-reform provisions included in the recent debt ceiling law negotiated by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican. Broadly speaking, the changes will expedite energy and pipeline projects.
Manchin publicly championed provisions in the legislation to fast-track the Mountain Valley Pipeline from West Virginia to southern Virginia, and shield the long-stalled project from further environmental challenges. Environmental groups say that the pipeline would emit at least twenty-six coal plants’ worth of greenhouse gasses and exacerbate the climate crisis.
“Congrats on that Mountain Valley Pipeline, how’d you do that?” Semafor’s editor at large, Steve Clemons, said to Manchin at the start of their conversation.
Within two minutes, activists with Climate Defiance had interrupted the interview, shouting about Manchin’s “dirty deal.” Semafor’s online video feed quickly cut to black, while video posted later by the protesters showed Clemons yelling at the disruptors.
Clemons and Manchin ultimately concluded their discussion in a smaller room. Once there, Manchin went on to brag about how the country is “producing more fossil fuel.”
All in all, the event lived up to its promise to illustrate the “futureshape” of something — not permitting reform, but rather the looming clash between industry-funded news media and activists who want to save the planet.
Cash Grabs in the Guise of Dialogue
Semafor isn’t the first media company to employ the corporate sponsorship model, in which newsletters and events are “presented” or “supported” by companies with distinct financial interests in the topics being discussed.
It’s a lucrative business model, one that’s been very successful for Beltway tip-sheet companies like Politico, Axios, and more recently Punchbowl News. Politico’s flagship Playbook newsletter may feature a bullet point–style roundup of the day’s top stories, alongside a message from the tobacco giant Altria about how the company is “leading the way in transitioning millions of adult smokers from cigarettes to a smoke-free future.”
The corporate sponsorship model poses obvious potential ethical issues for journalists — especially when the sponsors have an interest in the stories being covered. Late last year, Semafor’s climate editor left the company because the company refused to stop running ads from the oil and gas giant Chevron on his stories.
Advertising has always been complicated for publications, though historically, it was protected by firewalls between a newspaper’s editorial and financial departments. With sponsored newsletters, the lines often blur further — as the journalists tend to frame their play-by-play coverage of legislative dealmaking in ways that encourage the policy outcomes that their corporate sponsors want.
One of the more odious developments in this corporate-sponsored news model is the events companies are hosting with writers and newsmakers, in the name of dialogue. These discussions pair lawmakers and policymakers with journalists under the banners of corporate sponsors — and that sponsorship often feels like the only real point to these events.
Punchbowl News, for instance, held a “pop-up conversation” with Maine Republican senator Susan Collins on Thursday on “national security and foreign relations,” sponsored by the defense contractor Raytheon. Next week, the outlet will host an event with Representative Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, sponsored by telecom conglomerate Comcast.
Semafor’s event description gave off a uniquely cash-grab vibe: “Today, permitting reform is paralyzed by a complex knot of interests tugging and pulling in different directions,” wrote the company. “As America’s economy enters a period of substantial infrastructure investment, particularly on federal lands, there is a need to unpack America’s permitting system and bring the many stakeholders involved into dialogue with one another.” (“Stakeholders” is Washington-speak for industry groups.)
The debt ceiling deal’s permitting-reform measures, which will help speed up approvals for energy and pipeline projects, should be a boon for the fossil fuel industry. Notably, the legislation did not include provisions sought by progressives to expedite approvals for electric transmission lines for renewable-energy projects.
The debt ceiling deal specifically fast-tracks the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would transport fracked gas across hazardous Appalachian Mountain terrain, including through more than two hundred miles with “high landslide susceptibility.” The legislation attempts to block judicial review of permits issued for the pipeline project, potentially threatening ongoing court cases over it.
Manchin, who has been pushing lawmakers to approve these measures for much of the past year, was one of the top beneficiaries of campaign cash last election cycle from executives at NextEra Energy, the electric utility company spearheading the Mountain Valley Pipeline project.
The Semafor event was sponsored by American Clean Power, a purported clean-energy lobbying group that has backed the permitting-reform measures. NextEra reported donating $950,000 to the organization in 2021.
Semafor listed the US Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s top business lobby, as a “partner” on the permitting-reform discussion. The lobbying group, whose members include major oil and gas companies, received $100,000 from NextEra in 2021.
“Stalling for Time”
Climate Defiance describes itself as “a brand-new, youth-led, grassroots organizing collective focused on using peaceful, nonviolent direct action to resist fossil fuels.”
In April, the group led its first major action: attempting to blockade the entrance to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the annual gala where the president makes jokes before the Washington press corps, demanding that Biden fulfill his promise to block new fossil fuel projects on federal lands.
Climate Defiance’s decision to protest at events with journalists and policymakers is deliberate: politicians and media are both climate problems for the same reason.
“Not only does Biden need to be held accountable, but we know that the same folks that are funding the worst politicians are also passing out cash to the corporate media outlets that will continue to say the things that the fossil fuels CEOs want them to say, more than uplifting folks like us,” said Haught.
Haught, one of Manchin’s constituents in West Virginia, said that the fight to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline is a personal one for her, given how the fossil fuel industry has polluted the state and sickened communities. And she believes that events like the one Semafor held with industry groups and Manchin aren’t helpful.
“It was just a bunch of people in suits, having a conversation about having a conversation,” she said. “They literally sit around, and they’re like, ‘This is so important. And I’m so glad that we’re fostering all these ideas, everybody seems to have different ideas to how we move forward.’ But they’re really stalling for time, while fossil fuel CEOs continue to ravage the earth.”
The write-up from Semafor was a bit more positive, but it also contained what sounded like a dash of guilt.
“Semafor’s permitting reform event on Wednesday featured a robust discussion between host Steve Clemons and lawmakers, industry stakeholders, and environmentalists trying to find the sweet spot for a bipartisan deal,” the outlet wrote, adding: “It also featured a rousing edition of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ from protesters upset over Manchin’s successful lobbying to approve the Mountain Valley Pipeline in the debt limit deal.”
In truth, without Climate Defiance’s intrusion, the Semafor event would have just been an unnecessary cash grab that few people watched. Instead, it became a viral illustration of all that’s wrong with the corporate-sponsored media model — and what climate activists are up against as they try to save the planet.