Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Audiences at public talks show texture of fracking debate. Next up: Revolution Books, Joint Landowners Coalition

My nature and disposition are better suited for reporting and writing than public speaking. But it’s hard to write a book about an issue like fracking and then duck out of the fray.

So I do what I can as a speaker -- a role I find both challenging and fruitful. As a reporter, I seek out sources as part of my work-a-day routine. Less frequently do they seek me out (although the frequency is increasing in the Internet age.) The dynamic is different at public talks. Here I encounter in one spot a freewheeling mix of those there to listen and those there to tell me something, with protocols and expectations that tend to change from group to group. Speaking invitations have taken me to some diverse venues including geology conventions, libraries, bookstores, universities, a retirement communities, and a brewery. Some audiences tend to be neutral, some opinionated, and some committed to specific positions for or against gas drilling. Some are more informed than others. Some have unique experiences or are tied to the outcome of the story in a compelling and personal way. Some spontaneously become sources: the young couple in Greenville, Pennsylvania who await drilling crews to begin Utica Shale exploration on their property with large measures of both hope and anxiety and little concrete information; or community members in Oberlin, Ohio mystified about the workings and functions of a nearby disposal well; or a geology expert in Buffalo who offers technical insights in the interest of boosting clarity and credibility in my work. Spontaneous public turbulence is vital to all journalism. It can complicate a simple story line, but it also aerates and enriches reporting by broadening a reporter’s knowledge base and empathy for stakeholders.

In upcoming weeks, I will be participating at events hosted by groups at opposite ends of the fracking spectrum. On Wednesday, I will give a talk at Revolution Books in Manhattan– a store that provides customers “who refuse to accept the horrors of today’s world” with “the books and the deep engagement with each other about why the world is the way it is and the possibility of a radically different way the world could be.” I expect the audience will include anti-fracking activists who feel Big Energy’s grip on natural resources and influence on global politics comes at the expense of public health and the environment.

On May 30, I will moderate a forum in Albany hosted by the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, a group that sees shale gas development as an economic engine and means for national independence. The forum will include speakers from the industry, medical community, and academia who will “debunk myths” about shale gas development. I expect the audience will include some people who feel that environmental and health risks are merely a fabrication of liberal interests challenging the system of free enterprise.

I have agreed to both of these forums, partly to serve the discussion and partly to observe the discussion. As a journalist, I think it’s critical to be engaged in and witness to all aspects of this debate and to learn as much as I can as I go. I will not take sides on whether the risks of shale gas development outweigh the rewards. But I am not exactly a disinterested observer. I feel strongly that fighting for transparency in matters of overwhelming public interest is fundamental to the work of any journalist, and there is a critical need for transparency, and aggressive reporting, in matters related to the energy industry.

I also believe that the press serves as an agent for reform and a popular counterbalance to concentrations of wealth and power. Some call this watchdog journalism, which is a fitting and non-political name. But I don't shy away from this: This brand of watchdog journalism embodies liberal ideals that have been associated with the traditional media since the days of Joseph Pulitzer and Upton Sinclair. Journalists are not there to take sides, but to equip society – commoners as well as elites -- with the tools it needs for self-governance, and that begins with a spotlight on matters of public interest.


  1. I don't think Upton Sinclair was asked to moderate a discussion sponsored by the American Meat Council (or whatever it was called) at the Union Stock Yards post publication of "The Jungle."

    "Everything but the squeal" - Philip D. Armour on uses for pig parts

    1. Don’t know, but I agree he probably wasn't asked. The question is, if so, would he have participated?

    2. Hypothetically speaking, not at Armour's or Swift's abattoirs. Maybe Jane Addams Hull House a couple miles to the north.

      Here in Illinois environmental groups like NRDC thought they walked away from the negotiating table with O&G and the Prairie State's finest politicians thinking they reached common sense based fracking regulations for the New Albany shale in Southern Illinois. They didn't. They got played or they played the citizens of Illinois. Here's a nice synopsis: "Illinois Fracking Bill: A Worst Case Scenario"

      NRDC and similar NGOs touted the Illinois regulations and negotiation process as groundbreaking and a model for the rest of the country. We're pretty much hosed when environmental groups, government environmental agents, and the press are all AWOL.

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  3. You set up a false equivalence. At the NY pro-environment event, you are the speaker, however at the Albany pro-drilling event you are mostly a bystander.

    While you call the Albany event a "forum", it seems not to be a free exchange of ideas, but instead the speakers (Boling, Siegel, Baker, and McLinko) were selected to present only one side of the issue. This JLCNY event seems to be propaganda to which you are supplying credibility by your presence on stage -- very different from attending as a spectator in the audience to witness the developments.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Not sure I would call it a false equivalency, but I see your point that being a speaker is different than being a moderator. Had I been asked to be a panelist, I would have. And my message would have been the same: Pro-transparency.

      In that spirit, I do my best to embrace and enable public discussions of the issues where possible and where I’m invited. My choices (which have included roles as moderator, panelist, and speaker for groups ranging from the Broome County Chamber to the Albany Law School) occasionally open me to criticism that I’m allying myself to one camp or another. Yes, I would have liked to see a Roger Downs or Tony Ingraffea on the panel. Regardless, landowners are significant stakeholders, some of their story is recounted in my book, and some are sources of mine.

      Whether we call this a forum, of not, JLCNY is allowing ample time for question and answer. Although I stated in my post that I expect the audience to include pro-drillers (by natural selection) I think the discussion would be served by a mix of people, and I hope there will be people in the audience from both sides versed in the issues. I’ll guess we’ll find out.

      A agree they are looking for credibility. As a moderator, I hope to do what I can to ensure the audience is served. Not sure where you’re from or whether it’s feasible for you to attend. Perhaps we’ll see you there?