When Gasland aired on HBO in the summer of 2010, it offered the American mainstream public the first feature-length look into shale gas development, and it wasn’t pretty. A hallmark of the movie is a scene where Mike Markham, who lives in a natural gas field in Weld County, Colorado, holds a lighter under tap water to demonstrate the consequences of nearby drilling operations. A cloud of yellow flame explodes in the sink as Markham leaps back.
Gasland was nominated for an Academy Award, not just because of its exposure of an unregulated industry causing undisclosed problems, but because it was a compelling work of art. Fox has since led rallies against fracking (the process of injecting the ground with a chemical solution that makes extracting gas and oil from rock economical) and has become a champion in the movement against the perpetuation of fossil fuel dependency.
Methane migration is a phenomenon of gas moving through the ground into enclosed spaces, creating hazards along the lines demonstrated at the Markham household, or worse. Methane migration is sometimes but not always related to gas drilling, with the burden of proof typically falling to the landowner. Predictably, Fox has been a target of the oil and gas industry for his depiction of methane migration at the Markham home. The time and energy spent to discredit him -- through films such as Truthland and Frack Nation -- are an indication of his influence. Fox, who was a featured speaker at rallies after his film was released, has also drawn criticism from those who argue that fracking has opened access to carbon resources that are less damaging to the environment than coal, and which provide the means for an immediate transition away from foreign oil dependence. I have also heard the argument that true environmentalists (who are also consumers of cheap abundant energy) should be weighing the impacts of unregulated mineral extraction in other countries against what’s happening in their own American back yards.
Among other things, Fox’s critics point to an assessment by the state of Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission that concluded Markham’s water well was polluted by methane unrelated to gas drilling. Did Fox sensationalize, or even misrepresent, the Markham circumstances to serve his purposes? The Colorado agency has a stake in Fox’s portrayal of its regulatory effectiveness, and viewed through Fox’s perspective, the agency’s rebuttal of his work has no bearing on the accuracy of Gasland. That’s because his film is both an expose of the gas industry and the regulatory bodies that oversee it. Both are in collusion and neither is to be trusted, according to Fox. (He cites examples ranging from the Haliburton Loophole – which spells out fracking’s exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, to instances buried in the COGCC rebuttal that document other drilling-related methane migration cases in Weld County.)
Others, such as Andrew Revkin, a long-time science writer for the New York Times and now blogger for the Times’ Dot Earth, have given Fox low grades for his presentation. In Revkin’s view, Fox’s work is lax in distinguishing impacts of fundamentals such as drilling versus fracking - (methane migration is most commonly associated with drilling); or in explaining the differences between risks of pollution related to above-ground storage and handling of fracking chemicals versus subterranean impacts – shortcomings Revkin characterizes as “Josh's conflation of many things.” Fox has attacked Revkin for supporting shale gas as an alternative to coal, and specifically for endorsing a plan by Andrew Cuomo to begin permitting drilling and fracking in certain parts of New York State. (This post was partially inspired by Fox’s debate with Revkin, and subsequent conversations with them.)
The controversy surrounding Josh Fox is about fracking. But it also tells us plenty about the changing form and expectations of journalism. For most of the 20th Century, during the golden age of newspapering, reporters learned their craft on a newspaper’s payroll, where they were naturally selected by the merit of their stories, gauged both by public interest and trust built with readers and sources. After years of proving themselves to be reliable on cop and municipal beats, reporters eventually advanced to investigative stories. Those with established resumes also tended to land the most attractive magazine assignments. (The same pattern held true for broadcast journalism.)
The Internet has given rise to a volunteer corps of citizen journalists and a decline in the number of staff writers and newscasters. While Fox is a professional film maker with resources and some journalistic experience, he is also a principal role model for many citizen journalists who, once merely consumers in the Market Place of Ideas, now have access to participate as vendors. My book, Under the Surface, credit people such as Vera Scroggins, an amateur videographer who lugs equipment over hill and dale, into town and country, recording municipal meetings, interviews with residents, and fracking spills that were beyond the wherewithal of the sparse professional reporting staff in rural northern Pennsylvania, where the fledgling shale gas industry took root in 2009. She posted footage on the Internet, providing a repository of information otherwise unavailable. Participation of people like Vera is a good thing. But there is a cost. Filters for noise and confusion – i.e. credibility -- that professional journalists have traditionally brought to the public are disappearing with the attrition of the professional journalism corps (due largely to the failure of broadcast and print media to economically adapt to the proliferation of free content on the Internet).
There are plenty of citizen journalists who are motivated by political or ideological interests. There is no dishonor in this. Both journalism and activism have traditionally been intertwined, as a free press has always been an agent for reform and even revolution. Editorial comment has long been a vital subset of journalism. But making a distinction between the two functions is, in my view, an essential aspect of the type of transparency that journalists ask of sources and subjects, and that our readers have come to expect.
I have a guiding ideology of my own, and it’s embodied in the school of journalism that celebrates Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer advised:
Always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.
I openly wonder whether this old-school newspaper approach is falling from public favor in the era that has brought us Fox News and a proliferation of advocacy journalism on the Internet.
The controversy surrounding Josh Fox is also about politics. OK. I know what some readers are thinking, because I have heard it many times in this debate: Politics! That surely has no role in the discussion of something as important as our energy future and the merits and drawbacks of hydraulic fracturing. But before we dismiss political thinking as inferior to cold, hard science, keep in mind that scientists do not make the decisions in this country. Politicians do. Science has many masters, and politicians are served by science that supports their ideological worldviews. In a free country these views are (ideally and with some exceptions) representations of the views of the electorate.
We’ve seen since the birth of our country, through the Civil War, labor movement and Civil Rights eras, that political polarization is a painful part of self governance. In that vein I offer (along with the words of Pulitzer) this from Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. Brennan wrote for the court that dismissed libel charges against the New York Times in 1964. The court ruled in favor of the Times 9-0, even though the work in question, an advertisement titled Heed Their Rising Voices, contained factual errors about the arrest of civil rights protesters in Alabama. This, according to Brennan, is why:
A profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.
So let the fracking debate continue. As long as muckrakers are allowed to shed air and light into all corners of public affairs, and average citizens are represented, I have faith the country will follow the right course.