Mar 1 2014

‘There Really Is a Double Standard’

Drew Hudson on NPR fracking coverage

It’s distressing enough for people concerned about the environment to hear stories on National Public Radio that present hydraulic fracking as not just a source of safe energy but also an economic boon. When that’s combined with the network airing ads from the fracking industry, the questions only multiply. One activist group expressed those concerns in a petition to NPR that collected some 45,000 signatures—but they didn’t stop there. In December, they went to NPR, expecting to meet with the ombud, and they wound up with an opportunity to speak with the CEO. Drew Hudson, executive director of Environmental Action, spoke to CounterSpin about their experience. This is an excerpt from that interview.

NPR fracking coverage

“It’s just hard for people not to believe that NPR isn’t choosing to cover the issue based on where their funding is coming from.”

CounterSpin: First, let us know what was in that petition you were taking to NPR. What did those 45,000 people want to say?

Drew Hudson: About 45,000 folks had signed on to a petition asking NPR to reconsider two things. The first was to reject the financing from the Natural Gas Alliance, which we believe is poisoning their news coverage just like it’s poisoning so many water supplies across America. And the second one was to reevaluate the way that they are covering the whole issue of fracking and energy in America.

Too many of the stories we hear seem to present fracking as clean or natural, when in fact it is anything but, and, as too many communities around the country have already seen, the gas industry comes in promising a lot of good jobs and benefits, as well as a cleaner and more sustainable energy future for all of America, and the facts are really very different.

And we count on NPR to bring us fact-based reporting, to really dig into these issues, and instead we were hearing a lot of puff pieces that were reporting misinformation from the gas industry itself.

CS: There was also a double standard in terms of ads: They are willing to run those ads from the industry, but not willing to run certain other kinds of ads. Can you tell us about that?

DH: We were looking for a way to present our concerns about fracking on the air, and it was actually a suggestion from one of the members, who said: “You know look, if the Gas Alliance can buy air time, why can’t we do the same thing? Get our message out, tell people about the dangers of fracking and encourage them to get some real information not presented by people who are making a profit from this really dangerous drilling technique.”

So we raised money from all the folks who had signed the petition, and actually ended up raising about $10,000 online from small donors all around the country, and went to the biggest NPR station in the country, WNYC, and said, “Hey, we want to put our message on the air, we want to sponsor a message that says fracking is not safe, it’s not clean, and especially in a state like New York, which is considering gas drilling and at the moment has a moratorium on it, it seems really important that people be encouraged to get that information.”

What we found out is that there really is, as you said, a double standard at work here. The Natural Gas Alliance, with its deep pockets and tons of money from fracking all these wells around the country, is able to go in and say more or less whatever they want on the national NPR programs like Morn-ing Edition and All Things Considered, but when you approach the local stations like WNYC, or all kinds of other local affiliates around the country, they don’t have that same freedom and flexibility.

And, in fact, they were not willing to run an ad on the air that would say words like “fracking,” or “come get the facts about dirty energy and gas”—those were phrases that they said would be too much advocacy to put on public radio, which of course is different than commercial radio. And so they wouldn’t air our spot.

We did eventually negotiate with WNYC’s lawyers to get a spot out there, but it was very different from where we started.

CS: Can I just underscore—the word “fracking” itself was considered too controversial?

DH: The word “fracking,” they said, was too pejorative; it sounds like a bad thing, and therefore to even say it on the air would encourage people to be opposed to the process of drilling by fracturing.

I think it goes to our real point, which is if you describe accurately the facts of fracking—that we are going to inject a slurry of toxic and yet secret chemicals into the ground with enough force to shatter the bedrock and release natural gas—nobody would think this sounds like a good idea, and that’s part of the problem. It only sounds good when NPR dresses it up and says, “Oh, it’s about clean air and jobs, and it has all these benefits, and learn how Ohio farmers are getting by thanks to fracking.” These are all very misleading statements, and they don’t express the real truth of this drilling technology.

CS: So you expect to speak with the ombud, that’s what usually happens—if you can get that far, that is. But what happened when you actually got to NPR?

DH: It wasn’t until we got off the elevator on the upper floor to meet with the ombudsman that it turned out Paul Haaga, who’s the acting CEO of NPR right now, was waiting to meet us as well. He was an unexpected guest, and we thought at first he would, you know, say hello and appreciate our concerns and move on, but he actually stayed for the better part of an hour.

It was a really good conversation to be a part of. Again, we were not meeting with the news department, so we were not telling them what news stories to cover, but to have the CEO there, listening to concerns—and I think he was as surprised as anyone to hear some of the points we were making.

We had some specific examples where they had used numbers that were horribly flawed, about the job benefits of gas in Pennsylvania, for example. NPR runs a story like that and then turns right around and reads one of these very pro-natural gas sponsored messages—it’s just hard for people not to believe that those things aren’t associated, and that NPR isn’t choosing to cover the issue based on where their funding is coming from.

CS: Finally, what do you and don’t you expect to see from NPR going forward, and what are your plans going forward?

DH:  We’re definitely not considering this a victory just because we’ve been heard, as it were, by the CEO and the senior people at NPR. They did commit to look into this issue about missed stories and the things they’re not covering, in particular about fracking and its impacts, and they promised to revisit the issue of the sponsored messages, but they certainly didn’t promise to turn away all that money from the Natural Gas Alliance or anything like that.

One thing we’re really hopeful to see in the next few weeks is a write-up from the ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, talking about his review of the coverage and whether or not he thinks the news department has missed anything. Then we’re going to do more work with local stations.

We think that at the end of the day, the local affiliates, the WNYCs and WHYYs and all those people around the country, are a little more receptive to listener feedback. And so we’ll be doing more work in Pennsylvania, New York and California, because those are three places, obviously, where this drilling technology is either about to or could very soon make a big impact on their energy future and their environmental future, if it isn’t already.


Extra! March 2014