Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Anti-Shale Gas Bias of Binghamton P&SB Lives On: It's Just Not Journalism Anymore

In upstate NY, pro-drilling partisans have complained since the Marcellus story first broke in 2008 that the Gannett-owned daily in Binghamton — the merged successor to the newspaper I grew up reading, and delivering — has consistently exerted an anti-drilling, anti-fracking spin upon its coverage of the emerging shale gas issue.

Having spent some time during my salad years as a crusading-but-not-very-disciplined newspaper reporter, I have always been pretty skeptical of these kinds of complaints from hot heads. 

You can always tell something doesn't add up, when both sides on any particular contentious local issue are loudly complaining against bias from the daily paper.  Both sides can't possibly be right — at least not all or most of the time — and I have come to believe that many people have simply grown fond of the sport of mercilessly kicking their hometown paper around — even while they read it every day, as it slowly goes out of business.

But this situation with the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin is really starting to make me question my prior worldview regarding hometown journalism in America.

During the 2008-2010 reign of environmental reporter Tom Wilber — who was given an outrageous amount of free rein by his editors, apparently because they liked the results — I was forced to start agreeing with the pro-drilling, land-owning Local Worthies — as they complained vociferously in their online info-sharing forums.  And I also started finding myself agreeing with the fairly worldly oil and gas industry veterans from PA, or WV, or TX, or LA, or OK, or CO — none of whom had ever before in their careers witnessed such relentlessly cranky local news coverage. 

Wilber's whole frame of reference was very badly twisted, and I think that might show most glaringly in hindsight.  Just as a sample taste, here's some Wilberese from November 2009:
"The state's depiction of a clean, tightly regulated natural gas industry just got a shot of muck in the eye."

"As the debate over the merits of Marcellus Shale development reaches a crescendo, an Ithaca researcher has culled a list of 270 files documenting wastewater spills, well contamination, explosions, methane migration and ecological damage related to gas production in the state since 1979."
[Ithaca researcher?  This was the supposed investigatory bombshell from anti-drilling activist Walter Hang — later disposed of by former DEC Commissioner Alexander "Pete" Grannis in a little-publicized, seven-page letter to a key, inquiring NYS assemblyman, still online as a PDF here.  Among many other factual details, Grannis very simply pointed out that there were actually only seven natgas-drilling-related cases on Hang's entire compilation of 270 incidents, stretching back over 30 years.  (Only seven?  In 30 years?  How can there have been only seven?)]

Then, sometime around June 2010, Wilber was said to have quit daily reporting in order to write a book on this issue, and Jon Campbell was reassigned from Gannett's Albany-based team of State Government Overseers.  I thought Campbell did a much fairer, much more even-handed job, and the "truthfulness" of the paper's overall shale gas coverage seemed to be finally correcting itself.  [Although not so its anti-drilling reputation, which may never die among local pro-drilling people — left holding the bag, the short stick, with long memories, and bitter grudges, to all of which, I think they are now bloody-well-entitled.]

Compared to Wilber's zeal, Campbell's copy showed way less evidence of the inner person's wishful need to persuade with every cause-and-effect transition, every emotionally laden word choice, or every nudging-wink-wink turn of phrase.  And Campbell's range of story selection (or angle selection) expanded to include news beyond the simplistically ridiculous pat narrative of...  "Local underdog people, who are merely concerned about the environment, are rallying the populace against the deceitful rapacious schemes of the powerful resource extraction industry, which is now threatening to take advantage of us poor naive innocents here in peaceful Greater Binghamton, NY."

Lately, Campbell has made his way back to Albany, though he's still Gannett's main man on Marcellus, covering shale gas news of statewide interest, and still doing a pretty good job — most of the time, in my estimation.  Stories of more localized interest have been taken over by Steve Reilly, whose text has also been coming through pretty clearly, accurately, and unspun — at least by contrast to the painful wincing inflicted upon knowledgeable readers by other, less-sophisticated media outlets, further afield, such as this stuff here from Utica TV.

Despite these improvements in Gannett's reportorial effort, I have still lately noticed some residual evidence of bias — coming not so much from the reporters, as from the chain of papers as an institution.  To me, these recent twists demonstrate that the editorial brains behind the Binghamton Press, Elmira Star-Gazette, and Ithaca Journal still, frankly, have a bug up their ass on shale gas. 

Maybe this is just anecdotal.  Or maybe this is like the blind man (or the blind-folded man), confused after being led around and asked to identify certain parts of the elephant — by touch or smell alone.  Or maybe this is just "cherry picking" from a whole unsorted pile of possible facts — like that now-famous insult to the field of investigative reporting, Ian Urbina of the New York Times.

But here are three recent pieces of coverage — or pieces of non-coverage — from Southern Tier Gannett which have struck me as journalistically unfair.  These examples have also struck me as revealing more about the passions in the hearts of the people we rely upon to organize this information, than about the news itself. 

(I only see the print version of Binghamton intermittently, so what I have to say is based on the presumption — which may or may not be completely accurate — that what they put online is fairly reflective of what actually shows up as ink on paper down at my mother's house in Whitney Point, NY, before it starts getting yellow in the recycle bin.)


DEC COmmissioner Joe Martens by New York NOW
NYS DEC Chief Joe Martens with public radio reporter
Karen Dewitt
, a photo by New York NOW on Flick
Shortly after the Cuomo Administration went public June 30 with its plan to take a Cautiously Gung Ho stance on shale gas, hand-picked DEC Commissioner Joe Martens made a special appearance before Binghamton newspaper pro's on July 6.  Jeff Platsky, who has a hand in the paper's online efforts, put up a live feed, which I did not see, but which was said afterwards to be too choppy to bother trying to keep online for posterity. 

At my nurging, however, they managed to dig out an audio-only version, taken from a reporter's recording device, and right here you can download the whole 32 MB Windows-Media-Player-compatible file yourself, and listen to an hour and eight minutes of it, while you are busy doing the dishes or something.  Martens' visit — to me, as I sit here, entertaining myself by interpreting things as though they were movie cliches — it was almost as if he was the doctor, coming out in scrubs, to break the somber news, that the paper's baby, its three-year-old campaign against shale gas, was not in fact going to live through the Cuomo Administration.  The recording reveals the excruciatingly limited range of questions that were on the minds of these editors and reporters — something a print media reader doesn't often get a chance to objectively weigh — which is another way of saying it reveals what questions never even friggin' occurred to them.

The tone and direction of these questions, coming from the anonymous reporters and editors sitting around the table, is so uniformly slanted toward the same old ground — tirelessly sculpted by professional anti-drilling activists over the last three years in New York State — that I have become convinced these guys were emotionally crest-fallen at the quite evident official failure of their (in their minds) heroic campaign.  They seemed badly stuck within their old ossified frames of reference.  (Yeah, but...  Can't this thing still be beaten?  How can opponents still slow this thing down?  This is still a bad thing, right?)  They were struggling to make the transition to the suddenly new reality that the state's top elected official, Governor Andrew Cuomo, had heard every possible argument for and against shale gas — and he was now coming out openly for it.

Give me a notepad, and five minutes, and I could think of any number of questions they never even thought to ask of Martens while he was available — questions of interest, and of real-life significance, to anybody who owns land in upstate, or anybody who pays taxes, or anybody who still wants to work for a living in this particular geographic area (criteria which presumably define a large share of the Binghamton paper's remaining readership). 

Mr. Martens, do the state's legal experts expect "takings" lawsuits from Catskills and Skaneateles watershed landowners — now that these people are in line for being permanently enjoined from developing their most valuable mineral resources?  Do you think it would be fair to compensate those landowners in some way?  Who should pay for that — NYS taxpayers, or NYC/Syracuse drinking water consumers?  What does NYS plan to do about its previously made gas lease deals — some continuing indefinitely, due to being "held by production" — given that this same state now proposes to disallow shale gas drilling upon its own lands?  How do you think these draft regs are going to compare to what's now already in place in PA — which is now 3,000-plus Marcellus wells ahead of NY?  From the point of view of your own people — that is, the experts who wrote this draft SGEIS — do you think the populace has been grossly misled on this issue, either from the pro-drilling side, or from the anti-drilling side?  What was the operational distinction behind deciding that conventional drilling could still go on in state forests, while unconventional drilling has been tentatively ruled incompatible with the public purposes justifying the state's continued ownership of these at-one-time privately owned lands?  Tell us about the science behind the proposed unfiltered drinking water watershed bans, and the primary aquifer bans?  How much of these were political decisions, much more so than actual impact? 


The New York State Business Council's research arm, or think tank, the Public Policy Institute, released a significant report on July 14 (PDF here), which was soon thereafter updated on July 21 (PDF here) — following release of new economic data from PA, whose real-life experience formed the basis for most of these projections.

Except to give these links, I'm not going to get into the nitty-gritty of these numbers.  I just don't have the stomach for it, anymore.  Suffice it to say, these were the latest economic forecasts — measured in either private-sector dollars, or tax dollars, or just plain employment numbers — ascribed to grande, venti, or trenta development of the Marcellus in New York, should it ever get rolling, already.

You can legitimately take the position that all these numbers are simply rosy optimism from enterprise-enthusiastic experts — spun, distorted, ordered up, glossified, and paid for ultimately from industry's treasure chest of persuasive dollars.  And I will certainly let you have your say — a least after I've had a chance to read the damn thing for myself!  But you cannot legitimately take the position that this report was not news, or that ordinary citizens of New York don't first deserve full, honest, detailed coverage of that news!  Especially not in New York's Southern Tier, where it's now widely believed that thousands of dollars in fossil fuels hide deeply under essentially every single acre of ground down there. 

But that's basically what Gannett Binghamton-Elmira-Ithaca did — though they did so in a passive-aggressive way that gave them a very thin cloak of deniability.  Sure, sure — heck, yeah — they covered the report.  See, right here, July 14, there's a paragraph hiding inside this story headlined, "Poll: New Yorkers evenly divided over fracking report." 

But what this means is this:  Instead of simply outlining the forecasts and assertions of this study in a straight-forward, stand-alone story, and instead of simply reporting that it was paid for with industry dollars and sponsored by a pro-business group, Gannett chose to "dispose" of it — by mentioning it in passing as one paragraph inside a story which angled toward a completely different piece of news.  The Gannett organization already had seven — count 'em, seven! — whole on-topic paragraphs from this same reporter — Joseph Spectoras proven by what ran here on their Albany blog.  But, in Binghamton, they used only one paragraph!

Remarkable!!!  (Shall we say... politely...)

If you have an activist-created "study" on the home loans lending system supposedly ready to melt down under the heat of the havoc Marcellus shale is surely going to cause upstate property values — then, yes, that runs in full.  If you have an activist-created "study" inspired by the desire to graphically scare people with maps of the proportion of upstate land the owners of which have already chosen to put under lease to the natural gas industry — then, yes, that gets its own story.  But if the number-crunching brainiacs at the NYS Business Council say Marcellus shale could trigger a quarter million new jobs in upstate... that's not interesting... that's not relevant... and that's not news.

[I got just two words to say on that:  What the...!!!]

These kinds of editorial decisions are the face of journalistic bias!  Whether rooted in a philosophical ideology, or a bitter emotional cynicism about the state of the modern world — these editorial choices add up to a willful, undutiful, unprofessional, reader-disserving bias.  And it's no wonder the paper in Binghamton has been losing both subscribers and credibility.  Maybe the more self-reflective of these editors alleviate their professional guilt by talking themselves into believing that nobody's ever going to notice their subtle manipulations.  But, in the end, I don't believe that.  Ordinary people do see through these kinds of things, and they do strike back by losing trust — and well they should!


In a similar case of passive-aggressive reporting, the Binghamton paper has not yet done a straight-forward story on the jobs impact, landowner impact, and private-sector investment impact of an announced $250 million natural gas pipeline, designed to run 37 miles northerly, right into its readership area in Sanford, NY, in eastern Broome County, from neighboring Susquehanna County, PA (where they also have many readers).

This proposed pipeline is called Bluestone, and it's actually one of three pipelines planned or underway — all of which are designed to resolve separate geographic aspects of exactly the same infrastructural need:  To gather natgas from PA's burgeoning Marcellus fields, but to get around the PA bottleneck by moving the product to easterly, big-spending, big-city, natgas-guzzling markets via the ginormous Millennium Pipeline, which runs west to east, but further north, right through the heart of New York's Southern Tier. 

This is one of a number of possible stories which demonstrate the inescapable geographic sprawl of the Marcellus shale economic phenomenon — even while actual drilling remains banned in NY for what has now been three full years.  Sometimes that phenomenon has gotten covered, even by Gannett — such as here, when Laser Northeast recently broke ground on its similar pipeline project, slightly further to the west, the furthest along among the three. 

But, other times, the story gets stubbornly ignored — or buried behind inconsequential chaff.  On July 6, I noticed here — courtesy of a very key website by New Yorker Jim Willis, known as Marcellus Drilling News — that Michigan-based DTE Energy had the day previously announced it had secured the necessary natgas-moving contracts to make the Bluestone pipeline a build-able reality.  There was a dollar number involved, $250 million over five years, and a time frame for being initially in-service, sometime by the middle of 2012.

Well, that's pretty big, pretty quick, and pretty interesting, I thought.  Did the Binghamton paper run this?  Even though they may not like it, they would have to cover this, right? — I said to myself.  After all, how often would a daily newspaper in a seriously stressed, rust-belt city completely ignore a private sector proposal to drop $250 million in engineering contracts, government filing fees, surveyor bills, title-searcher charges, easement purchases, legal legwork, reports from environmental consultants, 16"/20" pipe purchase expenses, earth-moving costs, trucker's pay, property taxes, and pipe-welder's union scale — right in its own backyard?  (Plus, think about all the traffic tie-ups sure to affect newspaper readers — during that phase of orange cones everywhere, surrounded by fully employed, hardhat-and-sunglasses-wearing flagmen, and flagwomen!)

Checking for it, I found that Reilly of the P&SB had actually picked up on this way early [May 22, but no longer free online, apparently] — but only in connection with the scent of controversy involving the Bluestone project.  It turns out — even before the pipeline was fully announced, or applied for, or approved — DTE Energy was being investigated by an arm of state government over the mysterious clearance of 9.5 acres of land in a pipeline-shaped line near Sanford, NY.  The nature of the pipeline, where it was to come from, and where it was to go, the cost of it all, and the time frame of it all — that was merely touched upon in the last paragraph, or left out entirely.  Possibly, it's true — the news hadn't yet been released.  But, clearly, the paper's news focus was exclusively the trees, and the whiff of conflict, and the official investigation — and not economic development.

Sometime around July 7, I did a lot of complaining against the P&SB on Twitter, much of it sent in such a way as to directly ding its various tweeting reporters.  Just to be clear — I got no dog in this fight.  I own no land down there.  It's not even anywhere near my hometown.  I know for a fact I've been to Windsor — at least once, for sure, in a canoe, on the Susquehanna River — but I don't think I've ever even been to Sanford.  And I've never worked on a pipeline project in 11 years of title searching for oil and gas.  But I do read the newspapers.  And I do love upstate NY.  And it seemed preposterous to me that a developer could put out a press release, revealing significant additional detail on this size of a project, with unquestionable positive (and negative) local impact — and the Binghamton paper would choose to run nothing. 

Then, finally, July 21, they got back to delivering the new Bluestone details — but the story is still specifically calibrated so as to give primary emphasis to the interesting-but-essentially-insignificant side issue of the trees.  "Michigan firm's gas pipeline plan hits snag," the headline reads — as though the situation with the tree investigation could actually prove to be an impediment to this development. 

Based on Reilly's own reporting, here's what I believe is the bottom line with these trees:  Yes, landowners situated along the proposed pipeline —
who had already signed easement deals with the developer, and who had been informed in detail as to the routing, at least on their land — made independent decisions to maximize their return on the project by harvesting the trees (their trees) well-beforehand — trees which were destined to later come down, if the plan were to go forward as mapped, as they expected it would.  It's true the pipeline is not yet a governmentally approved development, and it's true that land-clearing actions by the developer in advance of development are not allowed, and it's true that the state authorities were investigating.

But, still — gimme a break!

These are your own damn readers behind this — breaking out the chainsaws in order to salvage the best from those opportunities which present themselves, in order to pay their NY taxes, and to hold on.  And you've got everything repeatedly spun so as to make the pipeline company out as some kind of culprit?

What this situation really means to me is that the only way an unsubsidized, $250 million, purely-private-sector, natgas-related investment along the PA-NY line is ever going to make the papers in Binghamton — is if there's some kind of hint of evil-doing, behind which the economic facts might be begrudgingly presented.

I'm telling you — that's flat-out dishonest!

It's just not journalism anymore.

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