Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On natural gas special, WPXI gives us plenty of gasbags

Posted By on Tue, Jun 22, 2010 at 8:35 AM

Those of us who don't have cable, and couldn't see Gasland on HBO last night, had to make do with "Fueling Pittsburgh," WPXI's special on the region's burgeoning energy industry. I mean, I suppose we could have just read a book instead, but come on.

I expressed some misgivings about the program in a blog post yesterday, noting that its sponsors were big players in the gas-drilling business. And truth to tell, it was sometimes hard to tell where the ads stopped and the show itself began. (The program also was sponsored by Westinghouse and -- surprise, surprise -- safe, clean nuclear energy was featured prominently.)

But, like the blowout of that well in Clearfield County, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. You can't say WPXI ignored environmental issues, exactly. But it never really confronted anybody with them either.

The first thing you noticed was how breathless the hour-long special was. Things moved fast. There was almost no explanation of how horizontal drilling worked, or what exactly "fracking liquid" was -- even though it was repeatedly cited as a source of environmental concern. And WPXI's on-air talent are clearly dazzled by the economic possibilities of fuel sources like the Marcellus Shale (which as Danielle Nottingham told us, provides "clean-burning, job-producing natural gas").

"By some accounts, energy exploration in western Pennsylvania is the new gold rush," co-host Peggy Finnigan enthused as the broadcast wrapped up. By that point, in fact, a spokesman for gas-driller Range Resources had assured us that while "In many ways, the technology we use is second only to NASA." (Even so, he added, there's a place for you even if you don't have a high-school diploma:"[A]s long as you're a hard worker ... there's tons of career opportunities for those folks.") 

Much of the program was taken up by corporate profiles of energy leaders ... several of whom were also, by an amazing coincidence, sponsors of the show. We were told about how Westinghouse -- which by the way was founded right here in Pittsburgh, in case you didn't know -- is kicking ass in the nuclear biz. We learned how Bayer, which used to just make aspirin, is on the cutting edge of manufacturing energy-efficient materials. And while the program nods to the danger of coal mining, we were assured that our very own Consol is one of the safest mine operators around. Oh, and although Range Resources is based in Texas, it has roots just next door in Ohio. Yes! I am telling you!

There was also a segment on solar power, represented here by a small businessman, and one on wind. But it's clearly the energy giants that excited WPXI. The program was bookended by interviews with Dennis Yablonsky, who heads the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. "This Marcellus Shale represents a game-changer," he assured us -- citing an oft-quoted assertion that there may be more energy beneath our feet than you can find in all of Saudi Arabia

Yablonsky did acknowledge that, yes, there are some risks to all this potential. Any time a worker is injured or killed in an industrial accident, he allowed, it is "not good." 

And it's not that WPXI ignored things like environmental concerns. Dan Volz, a public-safety expert who has had harsh words for the business, appeared in the show's second half-hour. So did Bob Donnan, a blogger who has waged his own online campaign against the industry. And in an early segment about community response to shale development in Upper Burrell, WPXI did the classic one-the-one-hand-this/on-the-other-hand that approach, quoting a neighbor on each side of the issue. 

So can you say the WPXI program was a whitewash? Not really. It acknowledged environmental concerns -- early on and more than once. And if it barely scratched the surface, well, that was how "Fueling Pittsburgh" handled a lot of its material. 

What you ended up with, though, was two starkly different views of the industry, and no attempt to mediate between them.

When Upper Burrell's township manager frets that shale drilling is "contaminating water tables," for example, WPXI makes little effort to verify the concern. (As a Scranton Times-Tribune report did yesterday, finding hundreds of "violations for spills that reached waterways, leaking pits that harmed drinking water, or failed pipes that drained into farmers' fields, killing shrubs and trees.")

Similarly, there is no attempt to question all those amazing-slash-dubious job estimates that seem to transfix WPXI's on-air personalities. And when the industry asserts that its procedures are safe, there's no response from its critics, who are confined to their own segments elsewhere in the broadcast. and on the other side of the scale, there's no industry response to, say, Volz's calls for a moratorium on drilling either.

"Fueling Pittsburgh" walls the two sides off from each other in separate segments, so they just end up talking past each other's concerns. If the fossil-fuels business were as good at sequestering pollutants as "Fueling" was at sequestering criticism, all our energy problems would be solved.

In fact, when it came time to mention environmental and worker-safety mishaps -- or any sort of controversy -- WPXI never mentioned the company involved by name. Mines just collapse, gas wells just explode. In the upbeat stories, by contrast, the corporate brand is always front and center. The criticisms of Volz and others are never really attached to anyone -- it's a vague, if persistent, alarm directed everywhere and nowhere at once. Which means that by quoting such concerns, WPXI gets to protect its reputation for balance, without raising doubts about the reputation of any particular industry player -- its sponsors least of all. 

About those advertisements. I counted them.  Range Resources had seven commercials during the hour-long broadcast. Westinghouse and Bayer had four apiece. One-third of the 44 ads I counted during this broadcast, in other words, were sponsored by companies profiled in the special. (And I'm including PSAs and station promos in that total count.)

At the end of the show, David Johnson asserted, "We want to thank all our sponsors." Pretty sure they'd already taken care of that, actually.

In any case, if you missed the show -- and you have cable -- you can catch it on PCNC on June 26th at 10 p.m., or 4:30 p.m. the next day.



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