The Guardian today reported that BP gave top priority to those now-famous oil-water separating machines developed by Kevin Costner's company, out of a field of some 123,000 other devices in its public call for solutions, even though they failed twice in field tests and "did not show particular promise." Why? Because Costner is famous, their source says. "He was on TV. He was telegenic, and there were enormous amounts of money being spent," one unnamed government analyst told the paper. During BP's Gulf of Mexico oil leak disaster, the machines got lots and lots of coverage, almost all of it positive.
Even The Guardian lauded the idea, saying Costner was taking on the role of "saviour of the Gulf of Mexico." ABC reported early on that the devices were "heading up" the spill, saying in its lede that BP had "turned to" Costner to help with its cleanup effort. "Kevin Costner to the rescue," ran The Telegraph's headline over a story a month later on BP's purchase of the machines. CNN reported that BP had "enlisted help" from Costner after his testimony to Congress, but it didn't mention that the machines were an entry in an open call to the public for solutions. In fact, none of the above-mentioned stories did. Perhaps there's merit to the practice of getting a celebrity to champion an experimental piece of technology to solve a problem as massive as the BP spill. It certainly does wonders for drumming up press coverage. But there were some nasty details that went under-reported, both about the machines' performance, and the behind-the-scenes bickering characterizing its deployment.