WATT’S UP? BEHIND THE MEDIA’S COVERAGE OF THE ENERGY CRISIS. by Andrea Buffa.

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In analyzing media coverage of the California energy “crisis,” the one crucial tool you must have on hand is a flashlight. Not for use in case of a blackout, but for hitting yourself over the head to stay awake. As David Lazarus, who has been covering the story for the San Francisco Chronicle for the last year, put it, “It’s important, it affects everybody, and it’s deadly dull.”

Still, the state’s energy crisis has to rank as the number one media story of 2001, and has inspired what reporters and consumer advocates agree is some of the best investigative reporting they’ve seen in recent times. Take Lazarus’s own work: He exposed PG&E’s outrageous action of giving multi-million dollar bonuses to its top executives just prior to the company filing for bankruptcy. He also uncovered possible insider trading by PG&E executives who cashed in stock options just before the company retained bankruptcy counsel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, despite the thousands of stories that have been published about the energy crisis, few have attempted to answer the crucial question of whether there actually is (or was) an energy shortage, a concept that many consumer advocates criticize. Environmentally friendly solutions to the crisis, such as wind power, have gotten short shrift from the mainstream press. And most Californians have little understanding of public power, which has shown itself during the last year to be a successful model of community controlled electricity distribution.

In reviewing the news and feature stories (78 in all) on energy in the Chronicle and the L.A. Times over a 20-day period, we noticed Governor Gray Davis’s point of view getting the most coverage, if only because everything Davis says and does seems to merit a news story. The majority of the Chronicle stories for this period were about comments made by Davis and other politicians on the energy issue, and initiatives put forth by them. In a January 4 story that exemplified the worst of the energy coverage for its dearth of actual news, the news hook consisted of complaints by other politicians that Davis wasn’t showing enough leadership on the energy issue. Although some stories touched on such topics as the effect of the energy crisis on businesses in California and, of course, energy-saving tips for consumers, the overriding theme was that legislators at the state and federal level were attacking each other over energy policy while flailing around, trying to figure out what to do. The influence of campaign contributions and lobbying by energy companies on politicians came through loud and clear in the stories, as did the voices of consumer advocates. Not at all clear was an explanation of the cause of the energy crisis.

The L.A. Times published a greater number and diversity of stories during the period reviewed. Both papers covered the passage of the legislation that gave Davis the ability to buy power on behalf of the state and the visit by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to California. But the L.A. Times also ran an in-depth story on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a report on a Los Angeles energy summit that included very diverse perspectives on electricity and control of power, and a news story on a CalPIRG initiative to push alternative energy sources. Although the L.A. Times sometimes tried to provide a paragraph of background information at the end of a story, it tended to describe the phenomenon of the energy crisis in terms of a shortage–“electricity shortage,” “energy shortage,” and “supply shortage” were commonly used phrases.

The reporters and editors at the L.A. Times and the Chronicle interviewed by MediaFile generally gave their papers high marks for coverage of the energy issue. “I think the media coverage has been outstanding,” says the Chronicle‘s Lazarus. “This is not a newspaper that’s been known for its ability to weigh in on an important story before now. The team approach and the aggressiveness of our coverage represent a turning point for the Chronicle.” Nancy Vogel, a Sacramento-based reporter for the L.A. Times, told MediaFile: “We’re doing fairly well for a story this complicated; it still needs more stories with context. We need more stories that step back and look back into history, and look forward, and that’s hard to do . . . . There certainly is support at my paper for doing longer stories; it’s just that we haven’t had time; we’ve been covering the daily news.”

Most reporters we interviewed also lamented the complexity of the energy issue, both because of their own difficulty in understanding it and the difficulty of making a dull and arcane topic compelling to readers. “I think a lot of reporters are sort of overwhelmed by it,” says Josh Chaffin, a Sacramento-based reporter for Capital Public Radio and Reuters. “They’ve had to take a crash course in energy policy, energy markets. We don’t usually deal with giant corporate contracts with the state. Suddenly, we’re having to worry about things like multibillion dollar municipal bonds . . . to pay attention to agencies like the Public Utilities Commission [PUC] and the Department of Water Resources. I’m positive that [even] the lawmakers don’t know what’s going on.”

Then there’s the whole question of how electricity is actually created and distributed. Says Vogel: “It’s tough to trace a megawatt. It’s kind of like magic to me–just trying to figure out, can you bring in electricity from Canada and sell it in California, and is it the same electron that’s created in Canada that’s coming to me in California? [This] is baffling. Then to get into the marketing–people who are buying and selling electricity . . . .”

And does the public understand all of this? “Absolutely not. I try to write my stories as if people don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on,” says Chaffin. “A silver lining to all of the confusion is that it’s really hard to spin this thing.” Although no particular spin seems to dominate the media coverage, it’s clear that each of the players in the energy crisis has their own spin:

* Governor Gray Davis’ spin is to blame everyone else–the former Republican governor of California and the PUC, the out-of-state power generators, the Bush administration and the FERC–and to portray himself as the champion of California consumers.

* The Bush administration’s spin is that California hasn’t built power plants in years but uses too much energy, so energy supply must be increased–by drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

* The energy generators, natural gas suppliers, and traders who are trying to save deregulation efforts in other states claim California deregulation didn’t go far enough.

* The utility companies want us to believe that they are at the mercy of the power generators and natural gas suppliers on the one side and the PUC on the other and must, therefore, be bailed out and permitted to implement major rate increases.

* As for the consumer advocates, their take on it is simple: this is not an energy crisis, it’s a greed crisis.

Deregulation and the Energy “Shortage”

In a story that exemplified the worst of the energy coverage for its dearth of actual news, the news hook consisted of complaints by other politicians that Davis wasn’t showing enough leadership on the energy issue.

Alternative media journalists and consumer advocates are less complimentary of mainstream media’s energy coverage than are daily journalists. One of the first criticisms consumer advocates have of the coverage on energy is that the media largely missed the story of deregulation. Most Californians have little knowledge of PG&E’s role in pushing for the deregulation that led to our current debacle. And PG&E has definitely used the media to portray itself as a victim–deserving reparations, not blame.

“Most newspapers regret their coverage [of deregulation],” says Vogel of the Los Angeles Times. Chaffin, of Capital Public Radio, agrees: “Everybody missed the story of deregulation–even the consumer advocates, even the legislators,” he says. “They voted unanimously on it in both houses [of the California legislature].”

Aaron Glantz, who covers state politics and the energy crisis for KPFA radio, says that, at this point, California daily newspapers are telling most of the stories that need to be told, but their daily coverage often leaves out important contextual information, which may appear elsewhere in an investigative story. For example, a newspaper may run one story on how the parent company of a utility siphoned off money from the utility to buy other assets–as in the case of Southern California Edison, which bought a cable company in Mexico and one quarter of New Zealand’s formerly public power company–and in the same issue, run a second story portraying the utilities as victims.

According to Rachel Brahinsky of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Guardian was one of the few newspapers regularly covering PG&E and energy issues in the past, but now, “all of a sudden, every newspaper in the state is paying attention to it. All the stories that I had in the back of my mind are being done left and right.” Even public power activist Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange tips her hat to the mainstream media for their coverage on energy issues: “I think it’s been really good. Compared to other things that I’ve worked on, there’s been lots of good investigative reporting. I think the Chronicle has done a better job on this than on any other issue. The L.A. Times has done some great stories. As for TV and radio, they’ve just covered the issue extensively. I’ve never worked on an issue where we’d call a press conference and the press would actually show up!”

Consumer advocates do have criticisms of the mainstream coverage of energy, ranging from most stories’ fundamental assumption that there is, in fact, an energy shortage, to the dearth of stories on public power and renewable energy sources. “Story after story talks about the need for more power plants and accepts the argument that California faces an electricity supply crisis. This is a sound bite,” says Doug Heller, a consumer advocate at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica. Indeed, several of the stories analyzed by MediaFile described the crisis as the “energy shortage.” Consumer advocates argue that labeling the crisis thus leads the public to believe that somehow natural market forces, such as a high demand for energy, created a physical shortage. In reality, “it’s a fake shortage,” says Glantz of KPFA.

Graham Brownstein, a director of community organizing with The Utility Reform Network (TURN), explains what he calls the “market theology” in this way: “Over the last few months, as wholesale prices started to come down a little . . . it was presented that prices went down because of the market. The simple fact is that the guys who had their hands on the spigot opened it up a little, because they were being pressured–including, by the FERC.” To prove his point, Brownstein draws attention to Christmas Eve 2000: “Demand was really low, [but] we were at a stage two alert, and prices were outrageously high.”

In Lazarus’s opinion, the real question is not whether there is a shortage, but “whether the power generators manipulated capacity.” The fact that polls show most Californians don’t believe in the shortage theory is a result of good reporting in the media, says Benjamin. “There are certainly lots of reports that [claim] energy shortage, but there are so many stories about manipulation that people have come to the right conclusion that this is a manipulated shortage rather than a real one.”

What about energy alternatives?

Benjamin is more concerned about the way the media has been covering public power: not at all. In the stories analyzed for this article, only two mentioned public power–S.F. Chronicle, January 5, 2001, and L.A. Times, February 2, 2001 –even though the 40+ California communities that control their own electricity have shown that theirs is a successful model. The San Francisco ballot initiative that would bring power under public control locally by creating a San Francisco-Brisbane Municipal Utility District also receives little attention in the mainstream press. The Guardian has endorsed the initiative, to be voted on in November, and reports regularly on public power.

“Before the energy crisis, public power wasn’t on the radar screen at all for the mainstream press. Now it’s a minor blip here and there,” says the Guardian‘s Brahinsky. This is a disservice to readers, she argues, because “people need to know what happens when you take the profit incentive out of an essential service.” Lazarus, while complaining that public power advocates tend to make their case in “shrill tones,” acknowledges that not enough attention has been focused on MUD and public power.

Another angle of the energy story that garners little attention is renewable energy sources. While Gray Davis’s “build our way out of this crisis” solution gets the most attention, alternative solutions are not treated as serious options. Alternative solutions include increasing from ten to 20 percent the amount of renewable energy currently purchased by utilities. Renewable resources include wind, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and biomass plants.

“Wind is now the cheapest available source of energy. It’s totally do-able on a large-scale. Where’s the reporting on wind?” asks Brownstein of TURN. “We’re happy that we’ve gone from being the crazy, whacko consumer advocates mentioned in the back of the business section. Our positions have moved up in the hierarchy, but we tend to still be positioned as reacting or responding to the folks who are really driving the system. It’s the advocates around the state who are proposing the solutions that really work. How about articles about our solutions–with reactions from the other side?”

Some Stories Still Left to be Told

Now that the daily reporting on the crisis has become less frenetic, it seems about time for some reporting on long-term solutions–including solutions that address environmental concerns. There are some other stories that need to be told as well. Lazarus and Chaffin agree that there’s more to be said about the role of big money and big business in the energy debacle. “Pay attention to the money angle, the campaign contributions. That’s the number one issue. Why does a reader have any reason to trust a decision made by any politician who takes power money?” asks Chaffin, pointing out that every California legislator, except one, receives money from the power companies.

Numerous Chronicle and L.A. Times stories reviewed for this article addressed the lobbying and campaign contributions from energy players aimed at Davis, Bush, and the California legislature. On February 1, the L.A. Times reported that “the parent company of Southern California Edison showered lawmakers with thousands of dollars in contributions in December–the same month the company announced it would eliminate hundreds of jobs and suspend quarterly dividend payments.” The article documented that Governor Davis received $10,000 from Duke Energy, $15,000 from Edison International, and in 2000, $48,500 from PG&E.

On May 1, the L.A. Times wrote that PG&E spent $622,000 on lobbying in California during the first three months of 2001. In a June 2 story, it documented the financial interests of Bush cabinet members and advisors in energy companies, including at least $100,000 worth of shares in Enron. The Chronicle covered many of the same stories, gleaned from campaign finance records, as well as a June 2 story about the energy company contributions received by S. David Freeman, Davis’s Energy Czar, during a 2000 race for the State Assembly.

Finally, the global angle on this story is yet to be told, and it’s only natural that it should be mentioned by Global Exchange’s Medea Benjamin. “There’s been very little about how this is part of the global corporate agenda of privatization and deregulation,” says Benjamin. “These companies that have been gouging us in California are global companies that have been doing the same thing in India, Mozambique, and Indonesia.” Enron, for example, has projects around the world, including a Bolivia-to-Brazil gas pipeline and a power plant in India that is the largest electricity generating power plant in the world. According to Multinational Monitor (Dec. 1995), Enron’s projects around the world have been dogged by controversy, including allegations of price gouging. Human Rights Watch has even accused Enron of complicity in human rights violations at the Dabhol Power project in India. Meanwhile, just as many states in the U.S. are putting energy deregulation plans on the back burner, the World Bank is pushing for power privatization in developing countries, including Uganda, Nigeria, Mauritania, and Peru.

Before the energy crisis, public power wasn’t on the radar screen at all for the mainstream press. Now it’s a minor blip.

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