I nearly quit journalism again in May.
There I sat on first day of the SALT Conference joined by more than a dozen media colleagues.
This was a rare opportunity for us and other media outlets reporting on the energy sector. The hedge fund conference had generously scheduled a 20-minute block with oil-and-gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens — closed-door, media-only, on-the-record.
This was a change to ask the billionaire anything: His expectations for oil prices over the next 12 months, the impact of the Saudi Aramco IPO, if he shares Jim Chanos’ bearish view on Cheniere Energy’s or even why he was so wrong with his crude price outlook in recent years. I had a list of questions and a pen to cross them off — as I expected colleagues to tackle similar topics. But I never even had to take the cap off.
What did roughly 85% of the questions center on during that meeting? Pickens’ support of Presidential candidate Donald Trump and his personal view on Muslims.
To be fair, Pickens had just taken the stage with Sam Zell and encouraged a moratorium on Muslim refugees fleeing to the United States. Pickens also had expressed support for the brash Republican candidate. His on-stage comments were controversial over matters of religious freedom. But did they require 17 minutes of follow-up questions designed to obtain sound bites?
The media heard what he said on stage. Those comments were also on the record.
Looking around the room, several other reporters, shared my surprise by the feverish descent led by other colleagues into all things Donald. After a dozen Trump questions – even though Pickens repeatedly admitted his lack of political prowess – someone asked for his oil price target for the year ahead. “Something I know a lot about,” he smiled, almost 10 minutes into the meeting. Of course, Pickens was being disingenuous as he has been an outspoken advocate and major GOP donor for years, up until pledging neutrality in 2008. Still, he made his bones in energy.
After Pickens projected oil at a range of $50 to $60 per barrel this year, and $70 in 2017, a foreign press member tacked back to Trump. This time about Pickens’ take on the new London mayor’s expectations that he would be banned from the United States over his religion.
Pickens deflected, while precious interview minutes ticked away. After more Trump talk, I intercepted the exchange to ask my question: Given Pickens’ target price for oil, it still wouldn’t be high enough to stop the ongoing wave of sector-wide bankruptcies and defaults in the United States. I asked how much and where there could be pain and consolidation in the months ahead.
He said he expected more bankruptcies, then offered a surprise response on the “where”: “You would know. You work in the oil industry, don’t you?”
I replied, “No. I’m a member of the press.” He flashed a look as if he didn’t believe me, almost surprised someone with a press badge knew about the rough state of energy financing.
Before I could press on where he saw pain coming — be it the Bakken, Eagle Ford, Marcellus — another question was asked about, you guessed it, Trump.
This exercise didn’t stop. At a hedge fund investment conference interview with T. Boone Pickens, I counted just three questions about the energy sector, one about environmental policy, and one about hedge funds. The rest were about Donald Trump, Muslim immigrants and Pickens’ policy goals working with Republicans.
Yes, I get it. If it bleeds it leads. Trump’s nomination has economic consequences. But here we were, repeating the same questions that everyone else in the world would be asking Pickens outside that room.
The “Billionaire Wants to Ban Muslims” headlines came the next day. They vanished in the next news cycle. A month later, does anyone remember what Pickens had to say that afternoon about Trump? Does anyone believe a Muslim ban is even feasible?
This was another lost opportunity for actionable insight. Instead, this quest for sound bites and outrage ruled, fueling talking points for opinion media.
There were 30 other things that our readers probably would have liked to have known. What has been the executive-level reaction to the death of Aubrey McClendon? With natural gas prices still low, is Pickens exploring potential acquisitions? How does today’s furor at hedge funds and quarterly capitalism compare to the 1980s when he was dubbed a corporate raider?
Those questions remain unanswered, no lines through the list. We let audiences down.
But this is the state of the media these days.
When the robots take our jobs, I won’t be surprised. This industry is already full of drones.