EARTHWORKS

What happened at NPR

Drew Hudson's avatar
By Drew Hudson

December 18, 2013

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This blog was written by Drew Hudson, Excutive Director of Environmental Action, and originally appeared here.

When we brought your signatures, comments and questions to NPR, I expected to meet with the Ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, and talk about our concern that the fracking industry's sponsorship is polluting NPR's coverage of energy and the environment. We didn't expect to spend an hour explaining the science of fracking, climate change, and water pollution to the CEO of NPR - Paul Haaga Jr. But when our team (including PA Fracktivist extraordinaire Karen F. and Lauren P. from our partner Earthworks) got off the elevator, that's exactly who was waiting to meet with us and that's exactly what we did talk about.

Talk about taking your concerns right to the top of the organization!

We tried to make the most of the opportunity, so our presentation had 3 basic parts:

First, we delivered your names -- more than 45,000 in all -- and explained that it's hard for many loyal NPR listeners to believe that these gas ads don't contribute to a culture of silence surrounding fracking at NPR news. I also talked them through the story of how when we tried to air our own ad, we discovered a double-standard that allows the fracking: Corporations, with their deep pockets, are allowed to say blatantly false and self-promoting things on public radio. Meanwhile do-gooders like us are prevented from even using the word "fracking". In response, Mr. Schumacher-Matos says he's reviewed the coverage and remains confident that there's no pay-for-play broadcasting going on, nor does he think that the stories NPR has aired are biased.

Second, Karen walked them through the story we think NPR reporters are missing. Their failure to cover big news like the EPA cover-up of fracking research in Wyoming, Texas and Pennsylvania, is not just disappointing, it's a disservice to listeners. Their choice to instead run 'puff pieces' with headlines like How Fracking In Pennsylvania Helps Clear The Air In New York, makes it hard to accept that the news department is unbiased. Both the CEO and the Ombudsman were shocked to hear about the EPA cover-up, and admitted that this was a big story to have missed. 

Finally, Lauren showed them specific examples of times when their local affiliates (especially in PA and TX) have actually gotten the story RIGHT, only to be passed over by the national news desk that's supposed to be constantly looking for local stories to promote to a wider audience. I thought the most damning example was the story of Dimock residents standing shoulder to shoulder with EPA whistleblowers to get clean, drinkable water for their community after the EPA (under political pressure) canceled their research and pronounced Dimock's water 'safe to drink when it's clearly not.

The story of Dimock's drinking water DID get covered by the local station WHYY, and even promoted on NPR's 'State Impact' site as an example of good local journalism. However, on shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, which are heard by millions more people every day, there was no coverage and no context. Just a few weeks later, while Dimock was still struggling, they ran a piece on PA fracking that made no mention of water pollution and touted job numbers from the fracking industry and their ally Gov. Corbett that had been widely discredited. To account for all the jobs cited as 'facts' in this story, you need to count people employed as strippers and prostitutes as part of the fracking industry. Mr. Haaga wanted to be clear that NPR didn't "make up" those numbers - they just reported the tragically flawed but official information from the Corbett administration.

I think our concerns were well received. Both the Ombudsman, Mr. Schumacher-Matos, and the CEO, Mr. Haaga, listened and took notes during our conversation. Mr. Haaga stayed for almost an hour, despite being an unexpected guest, and asked us many questions about the science and politics of fracking. We were happy to answer and get the chance to explain our side of the story to the most powerful guy at NPR. We also felt good about Mr. Schumacher-Matos, who promised to look into our concerns, pass along the feedback to the news department and investigate the consistent failure to report fracking impacts on public health and the environment in favor of news about how the fracked gas boom is impacting the economy.

We should also be clear about what we don't expect: neither the Ombudsman nor the CEO can make the news department cover these stories, or cover them better. Their opinions will carry weight and encourage people in the right direction -- but that's a lot different than getting Steve Inskeep to say "fracking is polluting our drinking water and accelerating global warming" (which is true) instead of "learn how a farmer in Ohio has helped support his family farm with the production of natural gas on his land." And nobody at NPR has promised to drop the ANGA ads altogether (though it's possible they will revisit the wording after this conversation).

So - while we were pleased and excited to get this audience with NPR's top people, our campaign doesn't stop here. We'll keep an eye on Mr. Schumacher-Matos' blog and his Facebook page for any findings and recommendations he publishes as a result of our meeting -- and we'll tell you all about them. It's also up to us to keep the pressure on -- by writing to the Ombudsman and NPR every time we hear a story that gets it wrong on fracking by leaving out important impacts on our air, water and climate or to congratulate them if they take our feedback to heart and actually improve their coverage. Stay tuned for more!

Tagged with: npr, fracking

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