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News Coverage Vs. PR: Is Fracking a Panacea or a Ponzi Scheme?

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How to separate fact from fiction in evaluating fracking, the new and burgeoning next phase fossil fuel proffered by the gas and oil industry? Although recent New York Times stories covering the economic side of the fracking equation provoked the gas industry to cry "foul," and accuse the Times of everything from being anti-gas to committing journalistic faux pas, it's vital to understand the overall context for the debate: the expansion of PR and the contraction of investigative journalism, as found by studies conducted by the Pew Research Center. In a recent column, the Times Public Editor, Arthur S. Brisbane invites reader input on the role PR now plays in influencing news coverage. Brisbane may weigh in on the gas industries' concerns about the Times recent fracking coverage, so in this blog, I'll examine the interplay between PR and journalism in major news media coverage of fracking. (In full disclosure, I've covered fracking here on Huffington since 2009.)

From the start in its rapid acquisition of territory for the complex industrial process called fracking, the gas and oil industry defined a PR strategy that purveys simple upbeat messages, and downplays the actual complexity. Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, and other supporters, keep it simple, stupid, with messages like:

  • We need energy, right? Gas is proclaimed to confer "energy independence."
  • We need "environmental," right? Gas is re-branded as "natural" to imply that through all phases of its acquisition and production, gas is "clean and safe."
  • We need jobs and a stronger economy, right? It's claimed that fracking for gas builds local economies and creates jobs, even though it undermines agriculture, tourism, and property values in the communities it invades.

There has been little probing or analysis in the mainstream media of these assertions. Leslie Stahl's interview with McClendon, which was recently re-run on 60 Minutes, is a classic example of journalism morphing into gracious PR with a pseudo-reportorial veneer. When McClendon issued the stock denial, "drilling is safe," what followed was a cutaway nod of a silent Stahl without any followup question. A few minutes of air time went to a wan rebuttal by a local citizen-activist. Had CBS bothered to probe McClendon's safety claims, they could have readily discovered that the blanket assurance of a one hundred year history of gas drilling, does not so readily apply to this new form of fracking (horizontal hydraulic fracturing) which uses over 500 toxic chemicals, many non-existent one hundred years ago. This new form of fracking is relatively recent, as McClendon himself confirms in an employee message when he refers to the "last seven years of the gas shale revolution." This new form of fracking was specifically exempted nearly seven years ago from most standard environmental and health regulations by the "Halliburton loophole," enacted by former Vice-President Dick Cheney. This is an unstudied, unregulated new process, which goes unexamined when journalistic outlets, like CBS don't investigate.

In the days of Don Hewett and Mike Wallace, reporters delved, and journalistic outlets backed them with the unshakable gravity of the Fourth Estate. Since 2005, when fracking was exempted from most standard environmental protections, the New York Times all too often covered the industry's advent as a rural human interest story, a debate between squabbling neighbors, rather than an unregulated global industry striding into rural areas to amass territory. With properties atop the aquifers upstream from major cities, rural landholders are not qualified to assess the impacts on their neighbors, no less cities downstream. Though portrayed in the media as a hickish Hatfield-McCoy style feud, the real question about fracking is why individual citizens are left to cope with high stakes players in a global game of energy monopoly, without appropriate governmental protection from the many ramifications to health, communities, the environmental, critical resources, and the economy?

The lead news outfit investigating fracking is ProPublica whose Abrahm Lustgarten won a George Polk Award for the ongoing investigation and reporting begun in 2008. The Times coverage changed early in 2011, with the launch of the Drilling Down Series, investigation of the full ramifications in the best journalistic tradition. In February 2011, the NYT's Ian Urbina reported on the migration of hazardous radioactive fracking waste into local rivers and water supplies.

In response came the stock denial, "drilling is safe." This disengagement from accountability and public dialogue detracts from the assumption that the industry is open to efforts (by public officials like Governor Cuomo, or willing environmentalists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) to make fracking safe. Then in late June, Drilling Down revealed the contents of documents by industry insiders which cast doubt on the economic viability of shale gas fracking, with some quoted as calling the venture "inherently unprofitable," or a "giant Ponzi scheme."

Like the PR phrases, "safe," "natural" and "energy independence," "Ponzi scheme," is a short sound byte that leaves an indelible impression. After years of simple upbeat messages, the gas industry and its friends are now loquacious, critiquing the Times, and Urbina's reporting. New York Magazine reported that "The article created a stir in energy circles, where oil, coal, and gas companies are fighting over billions in federal subsidies."

While I'll not probe into the economic analysis of fracking, neither side disputes that the success of the fracking business model depends on Chesapeake showing economic promise to larger companies that may eventually buy them out, such as Exxon. It's less critical for the company to address citizen and environmental concerns.

Reassuring employees in an open lettter published on Chesapeake's Facebook page, McClendon urges his staff to "get involved by joining Chesapeake Fed PAC, our political action committee." Of the volunteer grass roots citizens groups across the nation, whom he claims have influenced the Times, he warns that "Our opponents are extremely well funded and organized."

But in the end, it all boils down to values, as McClendon makes clear his own lack of interest in the free press, in journalism, and in environmental accountability. In his open letter, he asks "What value has the NYT or environmental activists created during these same past seven years? You either create value in this world or you consume/destroy it -- we are value creators, please never forget that."

More 'Connect the Dots' on media messaging, health, society and environment with blogs, radio shows and action links at: HealthJournalistBlog.com and on Facebook.

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