Jun 28 2013

AAM Responds on Funding of Fracking Show

But ombud glosses over conflicts of energy industry sponsors

America Abroad Media has responded to FAIR‘s recent Action Alert (5/31/13) about the public radio service’s pro-fracking public documentary (4/13) that was backed by funders with a financial interest in promoting natural gas. AAM acknowledged the need for a clearer explanation of fracking’s environmental risks, but unfortunately almost completely ignored the funding conflict in its response.

“The action alert from FAIR generated 477 emails from FAIR supporters, at the time of this writing,” AAM ombud Jeffrey Dvorkin reported (6/5/13). (Twenty-five of those messages were shared in the comments section of this FAIR Blog post.) The flood of reader messages prompted an eight-page response from Dvorkin, who, according to the AAM website, has only issued one other report as ombud.america-abroad

The documentary, “Global Energy and Innovations,” was funded by a foundation controlled by the ruling family of Qatar, an oil state that has recently made fracking-related investments worth billions of dollars, along with the Stuart Family Foundation, a conservative group that has funded deniers of climate change. Among AAM’s general funders are ExxonMobil and Chevron, oil companies that are involved with Qatar’s investment in fracking.

But Dvorkin spent only 95 words out of his 2,598-word report discussing the documentary’s questionable funding. And neither the producer’s nor the AAM president’s comments, which he sought and published within his report, even mentioned the program’s funding.

Dvorkin wrote:

Nor do I sense an editorial bias in favour of the energy industry. Funders remain at arm’s length from the editorial direction of the program. Even so, many in the public radio audience are nervous about their possible influence, and often for good reason.

The dilemma of public broadcasting in America is the necessary reliance on well- resourced funders. The challenge for media organizations is to make it abundantly clear to those underwriters that they have no say in editorial matters. The credibility of public broadcasting with the audience is predicated on that shared understanding.

A funder does not have to have a “say in editorial matters” for the prospect of self-interested support to have a corrosive effect on public media integrity. Dvorkin gave listeners no reason to assume that Qatar’s support for a program that served its financial interests was merely a coincidence, as opposed to an investment in programming it assumed would be friendly. Nor did he provide any details on how funders are kept “at arm’s length.”


Fracking tower  (cc photo: Helen Slottje)

Fracking tower (cc photo: Helen Slottje)

The other 2,503 words that were not spent discussing the show’s funding conflicts were devoted to reviewing its editorial decisions with the producer and president. Dvorkin wrote:

The goal of the program was to look at how America’s energy dependence has shifted in a short period of time to increasing energy independence and the implications of that shift for U.S. foreign policy. It was also to focus on why fracking technology is now more attractive to the energy industry, and to examine the negative impact of fracking on the more promising renewables such as solar and wind power.

As a result, there was less time left to discuss the environment, which is already over-reported, according to the documentary’s producer, Martha Little. Said Little:

This, I thought, was a fresh take on what has been a well-reported subject … the serious and expansive environmental impacts of fracking. So there was a conscious effort not to spend too much time on the environmental consequences of the drilling itself, but more the long-term implications for the energy market.

But Little acknowledged that the program should have done more to discuss the dangers of fracking:

Having said that, I do regret that we didn’t lay out early enough what fracking is as clearly and completely as we could have, and that includes the environmental risks. We do pay attention to this later in the program, but I would concede that we could have spent a bit more time outlining both the risks and rewards of the new technology.

Actually, the “rewards” of fracking were pretty well-covered in the report. We are left to wonder if she also regrets not disclosing the funders’ financial interest in the subject at hand as well.

AAM president Aaron Lobel weighed in by telling listeners that “insufficient coverage is not the same thing as coverage that was tilted towards one side or the other.” While he acknowledged that the show could have depicted both sides of the debate more evenly, he had little to say about how that “insufficient coverage” came about.

To fill in the holes, Dvorkin expanded on the history, science and politics of fracking, providing valuable information and sources the show left out. This was valuable background, though buried in a long document that most listeners are unlikely to ever see.

He had a final suggestion for AAM:

AAM should commit to doing another series on the international implications of the changing energy environment, with specific attention to the consequences of cheaper and abundant energy sources.

That’s potentially an interesting subject. But as long as America Abroad Media counts on getting funding from major energy industry players for its coverage of the energy industry, it’s unlikely to be any more illuminating than “Global Energy and Innovations” was.