MOST of the reporters who brought the grim reality of Exxon's Alaskan oil spill into American living rooms have gone home. As they lose their free media forum, environmentalists and state officials watch Exxon and the oil industry crank up their public relations apparatus, and worry about how it could affect their ability to force changes in oil-industry drilling and transportation practices. ``Exxon's gone out of its way to minimize the effects of the spill, by understating the numbers of animals killed and miles of beaches affected,'' says David Ramseur, a spokesman for Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper.
In testimony before a United States House subcommittee in May, Dennis Kelso, commissioner of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation, called company statements ``part of a deliberate disinformation campaign.'' He cited magazine interviews in which he said Exxon chairman L.G. Rawl tried to blame the company's slow spill response on the state of Alaska.
State officials also point to frequent assertions by Exxon management that animal death tolls were exaggerated. On May 19, when Alaska had retrieved corpses of tens of thousands of sea birds, hundreds of otters, and dozens of bald eagles, an Exxon official told National Public Radio that Exxon counted just 300 birds and 70 otters. According to Exxon spokesman Bill Smith, the official later said he had misunderstood the question. But millions of listeners had already heard him.
At Exxon's annual shareholder meeting, Mr. Rawl continued to talk of the ``good news'' of a record salmon catch in Alaska, even after a Valdez fisherman pointed out that the comment was misleading because the salmon were not from the spill area.
Exxon showed shareholders and reporters a film about the spill most notable for its shots of pristine wilderness and healthy animals. While the filmmaker, Jack Hilton, says those fishermen, scientists, and others interviewed - all of whom gave the cleanup positive reviews - were not paid to appear, he concedes that many are currently on the Exxon payroll.
Environmentalists are frustrated. ``The only time people get a different story is when individual reporters go out and get it,'' says Sharon Newsome, a vice-president of the National Wildlife Federation. ``It is certainly a PR campaign we can't match.''
Exxon adamantly denies this. ``Exxon is not, and has not, engaged in a PR contest with anyone,'' Mr. Smith says. ``We have taken responsibility for the accident from the first day, we have promised to clean up the environment, we have promised to pay all valid claims, and we have said we will stay on the job until the job is done.''
Smith says Exxon feels it has been bludgeoned by the relentlessness of the television camera. ``TV news showed the same dead bird for seven weeks,'' he says. Clean beaches resulting from Exxon's cleanup, Smith says, don't make it on the news as often.
However, a memo from Art Wiese of the American Petroleum Institute written April 25, does outline a vast, hard-hitting effort by the oil industry to present its own interpretation of events.
He lists 22 steps the group is taking to ``counter charges of environmentalists ... regarding the impact of the accident on our industry's legislative agenda.'' Chief among these is its decade-long battle to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. The spill is expected to increase opposition to such a move.
Mr. Wiese cites letters mailed to all 1,600 daily newspapers, dozens of television appearances, and individual briefings of 16 syndicated columnists who, he says, are ``favorable'' to industry positions. ``Briefings for editorial writers immediately were begun for those newspapers that up to now have been cornerstones of our ANWR support,'' he writes, mentioning the New York Times and the Washington Post. The institute also commissioned a Gallup poll to learn public views on oil industry credibility.
``We have been responding with letters-to-the-editor to all editorials, columns, and news stories that question whether ANWR should be opened in the wake of this accident. There have been hundreds of such letters prepared,'' Wiese says.
Jim Sugarman, of Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law, expresses concern over Exxon's recent hiring of former US Attorney General Griffin Bell to conduct an internal investigation. Mr. Bell is to tell the board who is responsible for the spill and which company officials or employees, if any, should be sued by Exxon. Bell handled an internal investigation of E.F. Hutton's involvement in a check-kiting scheme, and was criticized by a number of states' attorneys general for not finding fault with upper management.
Responding at least in part to demands from large institutional shareholders, Exxon has agreed to put an environmentalist on its board. Although trumpeted at the time as a major concession, company officials have been unwilling to say who the person might be. In addition to a background ``in environmental affairs,'' the candidate must have extensive knowledge of financial and oil industry matters. Environmentalists say this precludes many from their ranks, and Smith concedes that such a description would even fit former Interior Secretary James Watt, a nemesis of ecological interests.
Those perhaps most intimately familiar with the spill and its consequences - Alaskan fishermen - say Exxon early on tried to silence their criticism. Fishermen who rented their boats to the company for the cleanup effort were required to sign agreements not to talk to the press. Jerry McCune, president of the Cordova District Fishermen's United union says Exxon halted the practice under pressure from the union's lawyers.
National Wildlife Federation's Ms. Newsome complains that efforts to enact tough oil-spill sanctions have already been weakened in a House subcommittee by amendments from congressmen close to the oil industry.