NPR’s serenades to the “natural”(1) gas industry are getting more and more blatant. Let’s pick apart some of these egregious transgressions from journalistic integrity.
National Petroleum, er, National Public Radio has been straying ever farther from journalistic integrity, especially when it comes to its “reports” on “natural” gas and the Halliburton-developed technology known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
As more and more instances come to light of water contamination, air pollution and people and animals getting sick from the chemicals used in the environmentally destructive practice, NPR waxes ever more poetic about fracking’s supposed benefits, using a script lifted directly from industry propaganda.
There’s a new “corporate team” (NPR’s terminology) in place at the organization and perhaps the new corporate leader and news chief are willing to insist on journalistic standards. NPR is headed by new (December 2011) President and CEO Gary Knell, whose responsibilities include “oversee[ing] the fiscal, operational and journalistic integrity of NPR.” Even newer (February 2012) than Knell is Senior Vice President for news Margaret Low Smith, who “has been instrumental to NPR’s review of its code of ethics, which resulted in the NPR Ethics Handbook.”
That handbook declares (with my boldface pointing out the “hedge” language whereby the corporation might disclaim responsibility for its “journalists'” work):
“NPR [work will] … meet the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression…. Our journalism is as accurate, fair and complete as possible. Our journalists … strive to be both independent and impartial in their efforts. Our methods are transparent and we will be accountable for all we do…. Journalism is a daily process of painting an ever truer picture of the world. Every step of this process – from reporting to editing to presenting information – may either strengthen or erode the public’s trust in us. We work hard to be worthy of that trust and to protect it.”
The public’s trust is pretty eroded after we’ve been forced to listen over the past several years to NPR “reports” extolling the glories of fracking, while communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Wyoming, Colorado, Michigan, and another 25 or so states around the country are being treated as collateral damage in the race to make a short-term gain for a few large landowners and industry bigwigs – and the 1 percent.
New York: The State That Might (Stop Fracking)
Watching this, grassroots activists in New York State are fighting for their lives (I should say “our” lives, because I am one of those activists) to keep Gov. Andrew Cuomo from permitting fracking to begin in our state. We fight with the hope that our success in criminalizing fracking will give our allies in other states some leverage with which to stem the harm to their communities and properties that are occurring and that will continue, inevitably, to occur if fracking continues.
We have much to fight, because many of the big environmental groups have sold out to the industry (about which much has been written in recent months, and even years). While we try to educate our fellow residents about the harm of the fossil fuel industry, which spends many tens of millions of dollars on marketing and lobbying each year, we must rely on independent journalists to help combat the Big Gas spin that bombards people daily.
Sadly, we need independent journalism also to alert people to the misdirection they are given by “Gang Green” – and when people’s efforts fail because of this direction, they feel disempowered, disillusioned and are often driven away from activism altogether, further hurting the cause of human, nature and planetary health.
We desperately need independent, non-industry media. Many people still rely on NPR and PBS to give them the true story, believing that because these “public” entities don’t air formal “advertising,” they are not industry corrupted.
But NPR affiliate stations in New York have been increasingly featuring “non-advertising advertising” plugs for Big Gas companies. And national NPR frequently mentions its donor American Natural Gas Association, perpetuating the lie of gas as a “clean, domestic fuel.”
This morning (March 7, 2012), NPR went beyond the pale with a John Ydstie segment called “Is U.S. Energy Independence Finally Within Reach?” It might as well have been paid advertising. But this kind of industry hype barely disguised as NPR “reporting” is actually nothing new: It follows a lengthening tradition by NPR in which the “people’s radio station” seems to be in cahoots with industry, repeating its lies unquestioningly and using industry-sanctioned “experts” as “sources.”
In this it’s very reminiscent of another widely venerated mainstream media outlet that helped beat the war drums in 2002-2003, claiming the Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Now NPR and other parrots – because NPR is hardly the only culprit in this shameful episode in journalism history – are telling a gullible public that Big Gas/Big Oil have an invincible weapon (the fossil fuel methane gas) to help us toward “clean, green, energy independence.”
And NPR and the other lazy or corrupt journalists shames the profession now as badly as did The New York Times in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when its hubristic, blind obeisance to the government’s PR program surely makes it culpable in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and the contamination of tens of thousands of acres of the land they rely on for survival. Colluding with industry now by touting fracking, NPR and others are also culpable – because, although some of it will take time to manifest, irreparable harm is being caused to hundred of thousands of US civilians and the irreplaceable water, air and earth that sustains them.
Why anyone continues to pay for The New York Times or listen to NPR’s national “news shows” is a mystery, when the hardworking non-corporate-state-corrupted journalists at unfettered, independent media such as Truthout, Alternet, Center for Media and Democracy, Center for Public Integrity, Democracy Now!, DeSmogBlog, Free Speech Radio News, Moyers & Company, TruthDig and many others, including local media and individual activists’ sites, are churning out great investigative pieces and thoughtful analyses by the hour.(2)
Let’s Pick Apart Just One Sentence
NPR aired a series of stories on shale-gas fracking in 2009 that was inarguably pro-gas, although disguised as “neutral.” Let’s pick apart just a single sentence from “Face-Off Over ‘Fracking’: Water Battle Brews on Hill,” by Jeff Brady, May 27. This is the third sentence in the story:
Environmentalists want the federal government to regulate the practice [of fracking] because, in some cases, fracking may be harming nearby water wells.
Response: Note the carefully chosen words. “Environmentalists want …” makes it seem like a bunch of fringe tree huggers are whining about something that the rest of us don’t need to worry about. As I have pointed out and will continue to point out throughout this book, not everyone who is shouting (not whining) about the dangers of fracking would, before fracking came to town, have called herself or himself an “environmentalist.” The word, in any case, must stop being used as a pejorative or as a lump categorization.
Because if you’re not an environmentalist, you’re an idiot. We have only one environment and we depend on it to survive. Anyone who is not concerned about it is obscenely stupid, arrogant and hubristic, but mostly stupid. Even if you buy your own island, it is susceptible to rising sea levels, hurricanes or typhoons or cyclones and other natural catastrophes. You can’t buy your way out of global climate change, no matter how many carbon offsets you purchase.
Next, NPR misstates that “environmentalists want the federal government to regulate….” In fact, many anti-fracktivists want and wanted in 2009 to take fracking out of the broken and usurped regulatory system. They knew then and more know now, that fracking cannot be made safe via regulation, that only a total ban on fracking can protect our water, air, soil, food supply, communities, public health, property values and way of life. I can only conclude that either NPR deliberately made a blanket misstatement here or the reporters and producers were very lazy.
In the subsequent phrase, NPR’s deliberate choice of “in some cases” makes it seem like these cases are rare. In fact, they are increasingly common with fracking as more and more water sources are being contaminated, some permanently or at least very, very long term.
Further, NPR chooses to say “may be harming nearby water wells” and deliberately ignores what had already been proven in many places including Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the water supply of an entire neighborhood was poisoned by fracking.
So, we see how, in a single deliberately worded sentence – the third sentence of the story, which has great impact – NPR made strong statements in support of the gas drilling industry while ostensibly giving a “fair and balanced” view. That might sound like an infamous, ultraconservative TV faux news channel, but it’s National Public Radio.
The online comments on the story were heavily industry shill written (by “trolls,” as the online community has aptly dubbed them) and preposterously claimed the story had an anti-fracking stance! That’s a good example of how much money industry can spend on hiring people to “troll” stories online and make “average reader” comments that are industry favorable. The rest of us just have to take time out of our workday, school day or personal time to comment unpaid.
In my forthcoming book, I’ve footnoted a further dissection of this single story, which I chose arbitrarily from among hundreds of stories on fracking as an example of how misleading even the supposedly neutral ones are; the writers are either lazy assenters to industry framing or crafty pro-industry framers themselves; it’s hard to tell.
Even the Ombudsman Spews Industry Spin
That NPR story was followed by more, including a September 2009 three-part series on “natural” gas exploration that barely mentioned the public health and environmental threat. NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard reported that she was “inundated with phone calls and emails about the series.”
Her online response started thus: “New technology has made natural gas a promising alternative in reducing the United States’ dependence on other countries for energy sources. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels and some experts say there’s enough untapped natural gas in the U.S. to last 100 years.” (Emphasis added.)
Good grief! And she’s the ombudsman. Who are these “some experts”? Other experts say there’s enough to last ten years or fewer. No matter how long the US supplies of “natural” gas will last, the harm done by this process is so significant to so many aspects of natural and human health that Shepard should have started with something that at least acknowledges this. And at the time she wrote this, there was literally no evidence that “natural” gas was cleaner than other fossil fuels. She pulled that out of her ear. (Subsequent evidence has shown that the extraction of “natural” gas via fracking makes it as dirty as or dirtier than oil and coal extraction.)
Shepard went on, “Some NPR listeners were quick to accuse NPR of shilling for the natural gas industry. These listeners drew a connection – a false one in my view – between the series and a sponsorship campaign that began on Sept. 17 by an industry lobbying group, American’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). The perceived connection was reinforced by ANGA sponsorship banner ads appearing on the series’ web presentation.”
Next, Shepard chided the listeners who, responding angrily to this series, pointed out that it had neglected to mention such things as leaks; explosions; air pollution; water contamination; fish kills; earthquakes; injuries; human health effects; tourism and recreation impact; worker deaths; crime increases; property devaluation; road damage; noise and light pollution; industrialization of rural communities; wildlife harm; cropland contamination; food supply insecurity; the fracturing of communities and families; the impact on mental health; and the reallocation of resources from renewable-energy research, development and implementation: “None of those who contacted me complained about natural gas as an energy source. Nor did listeners object to the basic reporting in the series. They did insist, however, that NPR left out an essential part of the story.”
Because of criticism of the first segments, lead reporter Tom Gjeltjen included this in the third segment: “The concern is that [fracking] might cause some contamination of drinking water supplies. There are chemicals that are used in that water. Now, the natural gas people say that that can be dealt with by tight regulation, very close monitoring of the pipe itself and the dispose of the wastewater. But that is a concern.”
Perhaps the most appalling of the NPR stories on fossil fuel exploration was a September 25, 2011, “Weekend All Things Considered” piece credited online to “NPR staff,” but delivered on air by Guy Raz. “The New American Oil Boom” was narrated by Raz, who was positively breathless talking about the oil and jobs boom in the town of Williston, North Dakota. (Listen to the 11:50-minute piece if you can, don’t just read it.)
I was driving my car when it aired and I had to pull over because I was literally nauseated by Raz’s hyperbolic delivery of what was essentially an advertisement for oil drilling. He actually said, Wow!” when talking about the low unemployment rate in this booming-on-the-way-to-busting town where people, one can safely presume, once enjoyed some tranquility, quiet and remoteness.
Raz chirped, “Scientists figured out how to extract oil from rocks and sand and it means that within a decade, the U.S. will be producing close to as much oil as Saudi Arabia and within five years, America could pass Russia as the world’s largest energy supplier.” He sounded pretty proud of himself for this “report.” Williston’s Bachen rock formation, reported Raz, “has trapped within it 11 to 20 billion barrels of oil, enough oil to power the United States for four years.”
When the Williston mayor told Raz that the unemployment rate in his town is now somewhat less than 2 percent, Raz gushed, “Wow! That’s incredible!” (And, yes, you could hear the exclamation points.) “As a matter of fact,” Raz went on, “jobs are so plentiful the town literally cannot build houses to meet demand!”
Whether talking about “man camps” or Williston’s $1,000-a-month parking spaces, or the average wait time of 30 minutes at the local Walmart, Raz was almost but not quite as enthusiastic as when, 4:22 into the story, he mentioned the wonderful new technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that makes it possible to extract all this oil and make all these jobs. He spoke to one Texas academic, Charles Groat, professor of energy and mineral resources at the University of Texas in Austin, who talked about how things should be done safely and that “people want assurances from the operating company that things were being done right.”
“I wonder if there’s a downside here, too,” Raz mused. “It seems to send a signal that we shouldn’t worry about consumption, or conservation and those kind of things.” Groat wrapped up his response thus: “The environmental side needs to be paid attention to and certainly can be handled, I think.”
The second person Raz interviewed in this segment, after an interlude in which he talked about how the “center of the gravity of the world’s energy supply has been the Middle East,” but “that power center will soon shift to North and South America and fast,” was a woman he introduced only as “Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University.” (He subsequently addressed her as “Amy.”)(3)
Myers Jaffe said, “We’re not importing LNG; that NG is being diverted to Europe.” She went on to say, “If we’re going to produce domestic oil and natural gas … we should be investing that extra income in R&D for solar, for better, safer nuclear…. The administration put a lot of money into subsidizing existing companies with existing technologies and we’ve just had three solar panel companies, you know, go bankrupt…. Rather than subsidize things that are not gonna be competitive, we need to actually use that money to do R&D to create technologies, the same way that the industry created these technologies to produce natural gas and it turned out so commercially successful.”
Raz’s final exuberant summation: “Domestic production of oil, by the way, is increasing so fast that according to the U.S. government, in just three years, production will be growing faster than the rate of demand!”
I hope it’s safe to say that we will be listening more critically to NPR and other “news providers” in future. But let’s go beyond that. Let’s give them a piece of our mind and demand that they practice journalism in the public interest, as they were founded to do.
1. I do not use the term “natural” gas. The only natural state for gas (mostly methane) trapped within shale rock deep in the ground underlying New York State is to remain where it is. The term “natural,” like many other carefully chosen terms used by industry, is intended to give the false impression that shale gas is a benign and “clean, green” fuel, when in fact its extraction via fracking is likely as dirty as coal (see story).
3. Raz does not mention that Myers Jaffe is a fellow of the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy, whose recent “collaborators and co-authors,” according to her CV, include the Petroleum Energy Center of Japan and Shell Center for Sustainable Development. He neglects to inform listeners that Myers Jaffe has a serious bias toward industry and gives keynote addresses or moderates sessions for such groups as the Society of Petroleum Engineers (2002); the International Energy Agency Natural Gas Meeting (2004); the Association of International Petroleum Negotiators (2007); the CFA Institute (international professional investors’ organization); and the Offshore Technology Conference (2001, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008), where sessions included, in 2008, “Make it snappy, we’ve got oil to find” and “OPEC not worried about biofuels.”