Since January, the residents of Richmond, Calif., have had a new place to turn for information: a "local community news" outlet, created and run by Chevron.
The Richmond Standard is Chevron's little way of responding to the 2012 fire and explosion at its Richmond refinery, which sent 15,000 Bay Area residents to the hospital, as well as to the years of reports of health problems experienced by those living within breathing distance. Which when you think about it, it's an even better P.R. strategy than giving out free pizza.
The site, in in its own words, was set up in order to "provide Richmond residents with important information about what's going on in the community." That includes everything from McDonald's offering free coffee to a neighborhood watch group's attempts to reroute prostitutes' commutes -- but coverage is light on news related to the massive amounts of pollution coming from the refinery. That's probably related to the Richmond Standard's other mission statement: "Dedicated to shining a light on the positive things that are going on in the community." Melissa Ritchie, a company spokesperson, stated it more bluntly: "If someone wants to oppose Chevron, this is not the place for that."
The site also included this breaking news story: "Clouds over Chevron refinery today only steam." (They were "actually harmless ... according to refinery officials.")
Back in February, the East Bay Express asked the site's editor, Mike Aldax, whether he planned on wearing his "former reporter for the San Francisco Examiner" or "executive with Chevron's San Francisco-based public relations firm" hat while working on the site. "My role is, in a sense, both," Aldax replied.
Aldax tried to draw a distinction between the news, which he alone is in charge of covering, and the "Chevron Speaks" section, which is reserved for blatant corporate propaganda. But already, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the relationship between the two is getting fuzzy: In an article about an upcoming environmental impact report concerning the refinery's plans to expand, Aldax relied heavily on an interview with a refinery spokesperson while barely paying lip service to the project's opponents. The money question, of course, is what he plans to do if there's another disaster at the refinery:
"I would absolutely cover the fire, because it's a major thing happening in the community," Aldax said. "I'd make sure I gave the readers all the information they need about the fire."
But he probably wouldn't investigate the causes, he said. Instead, the Standard would use the "Chevron Speaks" page to explain the fire.
"They'll be able to come out and say, 'Here's what happened,' " Aldax said.