Examining Split Hairs In a Disaster - WhoWhatWhy

Examining Split Hairs In a Disaster

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There’s some fancy footwork going on, but the New York Times doesn’t seem willing to deal with it head on. Let’s consider a short section of an article on the New York Times’ website, headlined U.S. Plans ‘for Worst’ in Gulf, Seeing Risk in Leak Strategy. The section deals with BP’s culpability:

Mr. Dudley denied that BP, the British oil company, had cut corners in drilling the original well. He shrugged off a report Sunday in The New York Times that said that as far back as last June BP engineers expressed concern that the metal casing the company wanted to use might collapse under pressure.

“The casing designs that are used in the Gulf of Mexico, we’ve used those in other places,” he said. “I think those are statements that an investigation needs to go through and look at. Cutting corners is not the way I describe how we do our business.”

Right on its face, several questions (and answers) present themselves:

  • (1) Did BP’s managing director, Robert Dudley, as the Times summarizes, “den[y] that BP..had cut corners”? Actually not. What he said was that “cutting corners is not the way I describe how we do business.” That might sound like splitting hairs, but with liability like BP faces, splitting hairs is about everything. He didn’t actually deny that the company had cut corners. He simply said that he doesn’t describe that as a company policy. But then, what company actually announces that it cuts corners? So, what he said was technically true, while meaning nothing.
  • (2) Did Dudley directly dispute the claim, paraphrased by the Times, that “as far back as last June BP engineers expressed concern that the metal casing….might collapse under pressure?” Nope. He simply noted that the company had used the same casing designs elsewhere. But that in no way disputes that the engineers registered their doubts—about using that casing in that particular location at that depth.

The very nature of his statements is misleading. And that needs to be pointed out, explicitly, to the public.

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