Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fox hunt: Anti-fracking hero’s arrest sure to backfire

Josh Fox
I very much doubt GOP Congressional representatives intended to turbo-charge the anti-fracking movement when they held hearings to call into question the EPA’s review of the controversial process. And maybe they wouldn’t find themselves in the middle of a media storm if they had just given Josh Fox a pass to film the public hearing for his upcoming movie, Gasland II.

As readers of this blog have surely learned in news flashes, tweets, and headlines, something entirely different happened. Fox, an academy award nominee, was attempting to film video at a hearing by the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning, when he was denied access. Fox later told the Huffington Post that Andy Harris, chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment had denied his application for credentials prior to the hearing, also, adding "This is not transparency. This is a lockout and it's bad.” A tape of Fox’s arrest, obtained by the Huffington Post, shows two uniformed police officers looking toward the GOP leadership for signals on how to deal with Fox, who refused to move his camera mounted on a tri-pod just inside the entrance of the room.  

What did Chairman Harris do? He seized the opportunity Fox laid in front of him for a public relations disaster. Being the people’s champion and advocate for open government, Fox quietly held his ground for a tense minute or two, occasionally attempting to explain to the police that he had a right to be there. After all, it was a public meeting, held in public space, regarding a subject of overwhelming public interest. Moreover, it was a subject that had been characterized and lambasted for its lack of transparency. And then, with a directive uttered by the chairman, Fox, a public personification of free speech, was handcuffed and lead away. He declared flatly: “This is a public hearing. I am within my First Amendment Rights and I am being taken out. “ This image is troubling enough as a 60-second stand alone clip. I’m guessing that Fox, the artist who has mobilized an impressive and committed grass roots force through his work, will make the showdown even more disturbing in the context (and perhaps the climax of) his upcoming feature.

 Letter writing campaigns protesting Fox’s arrest have already begun. Democrats are also using the incident to stir the political pot. According to Associated Press report, Democrats forced two votes, one to allow Fox to film the hearing and a second to recess the hearing for a week so that Fox could obtain credentials. Both motions were defeated on a party line vote. “This is blatant censorship and a shameful stain on this Congress,” said Rep. Maurice Hinchey. “I stand by Josh's right to record this hearing. His arrest was a huge mistake."

The subject of the hearing that was the stage for the controversy is especially relevant. Gasland, a movie that gained critical acclaim and a devoted following that crystallized the anti-fracking movement, brought the phrase “Halliburton Loophole” into the mainstream. The phrase refers to the exception under the 2005 Energy Policy Act that frees hydraulic fracturing companies from federal regulations governing chemicals injected into the ground.  The hearings that Fox tried to film concerned a review of EPA’s research that associated groundwater contamination in Pavillion Wyoming with hydraulic fracturing. The EPA is also looking into pollution associated with shale gas development in Dimock, Pa. as it reassesses the safety of fracking.  Gasland, featured on HBO in 2010, featured reports in both of these areas as it offered viewers the first major rebuttal of the industry’s carefully polished image of natural gas as a clean, abundant, cheap bridge fuel to the future; a rebuttal that made images of flaming tap water iconic.  The image of Fox being lead from a Congressional hearing in hand cuffs might cheer leaders of the industry that Fox had tormented with his filmmaking. In reality, there could be no of a worse a PR blunder, nor more effective reinforcement of critics’ portrayal of the industry image of cronyism and back-room-dealing.  

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