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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

WQED-TV natural-gas roundtable is roundly criticized

Posted By on Wed, Jan 25, 2012 at 4:12 PM

Public-TV station WQED takes pride in its ongoing coverage of natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. But a program scheduled for tomorrow night features a panel that critics have charged is unfairly tilted toward gas-drilling interests. The ensuing controversy has apparently led QED to erase critical comments from the Facebook site dedicated to the show.

Titled Managing Marcellus: Energy & The Economy, the roundtable is the latest in a series of programs on the region's natural-gas boom dating back to mid-2010. When it was announced on Jan. 19, the show featured four panelists: Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for gas-driller Range Resources; Dennis Yablonsky, head of the Allegheny Conference, a group composed of local corporate CEOs; Tom Murphy, who represents the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research; and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Sec. Michael Krancer.

Penn State has major funding ties to the gas industry, and has been criticized by environmental activists as pro-drilling. Michael Krancer represents the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett, is notably friendly toward drilling interests -- and has himself been known to attack researchers whose studies suggest drilling's risks.

Critics, some of whom began posting on the station's Facebook page, quickly pointed out that the panel included no environmentalists or other outspoken critics of gas drilling, which has polluted air and water across the state.

The show "is basically an infomercial for the fracking industry," wrote drilling opponent Mark Knobil in a Monday e-mail calling for protests at QED on the night of the show. ("Fracking" refers to hydrofracturing, the chief method for obtaining gas from deep rock deposits.)

Late Monday, QED announced it had added a fifth panelist: Jan Jarrett, head of Penn Future, an environmental-advocacy group critical of drilling and how it is regulated by the state.

The panel was assembled by QED senior producer Alicia Schisler, who defends the original four-member line-up. "I don't think it was unbalanced with pro-drilling interests to begin with," says Schisler, who was reached by phone earlier today.

Schisler says she had originally sought to include on the panel Kathleen McGinty, the former environmental advisor to Vice President Al Gore who served as DEP secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell. McGinty couldn't be secured, but Schisler says she was already trying to book Penn Future's Jarrett before she learned of complaints about the panel.

Schisler says that QED's coverage of Marcellus Shale issues has been balanced, and indeed, a quick look at the station's online video archives confirms that earlier QED specials have had more diverse representation. A November 2010 "town-hall meeting" included on its panel of four at least two outspoken critics of the gas industry, Duquesne University professor John Stolz and Washington County landowner Stephanie Hallowitch, who said her family's home was made unlivable by nearby drilling activity. A March 2011 expert panel included two drilling opponents, along with an industry rep and a Penn State rep.

Some critics of the Jan. 26 program had also noted that it was funded by the Colcom Foundation, founded by the late Cordelia S. May, sister to billionaire right-wing philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife. But Colcom's mission aside -- it touts itself as a conservation group -- Schisler says Colcom has "zero input" on the WQED program's content. Schisler adds, "No one from the industry has funded this broadcast or any other one that I'm aware of."

Schisler notes that while the Jan. 26 program has no studio audience, viewers can ask questions of the panelists live via Twitter, Facebook and email.

Despite the addition of Jarrett, drilling critics remain concerned that the panel "is stacked on the side of the drilling industry," as Knobil put it in a Jan. 24 email.

Critics say that WQED has scrubbed comments criticizing the broadcast from both the station's Facebook page and the Facebook page devoted to the show itself. However, it appears that more recent critical comments remain, including one that calls out the station for "deleting *all* dissenting opinions from the Managing Marcellus page [while promoting] pablum from the industry's Marcellus Shale Coalition."

Schisler says she has no involvement with the station's Facebook page, and couldn't speak to what might have happened to comments there. (ADDED: Schisler does oversee the Managing Marcellus page, and says no comments have been deleted.) A spokesperson from WQED has not responded to a call for comment.

Drilling opponents are calling for a protest at WQED studios at 8 p.m. Thu., Jan. 26. The studios are at 4802 Fifth Ave., in Shadyside.

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