An Alaskan journalist's perspective on local and national issues

Posts tagged ‘Exxon Valdez’

Discussions with a Brilliant Journalist (Part 2)

Once again, the Atwood Chair of the Journalism and Public Communications, Richard Murphy, department came to speak to the class.  He demonstrated his excellent knowledge in the field, a dedication to journalism almost unseen today, and showed a history that is not only important to Alaska, but left an impact all over the world.

It is still a memory that burns hard – the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  Murphy talked about how he heard of it, with a phone call late at night.  At first, he didn’t believe it.  But he looked into it anyway, and because of that, started some of the great reporting in Alaska’s history.

The level of dedication to this story was absolutely amazing.  The reporters who went down to Valdez were living in a crampt apartment that they rented.  One story that was really telling of what a farce the reporting is with groups who are well-respected, like the New York Times was that one night, they just went to a press conference, and once it was over, hit the bar.

Murphy talked about what could be a film scene.  All of the journalists are in that bar, having only listened to what the company told them.  The camera pans back, outside.  It is raining like crazy, miserable weather.  Out there is a long Anchorage Daily News reporter, with his gear and a sleeping bag, headed to a ship where a group of volunteers, none of whom are getting paid, are going to collect birds to help.

This level of dedication served them well, and did change the conversation about this.  When Exxon’s people had a press conference, and they were assuring the press that no animals had been harmed by this spill, one reporter holds up a copy of the Anchorage Daily News with a picture of a dead oil-covered bird, and asks, “then what is this?”  A powerful moment in this discussion, and it shut everybody in the room up very quickly.

And the lies that Exxon was putting out there outrageous.  The dead animals one was bad enough, but when the ADN published that the ship’s captain was drunk, they immediately retaliated by saying this was a lie, and that they were trying to deceive people.  Never mind that the next day, they fired the captain for drunkenness.

What’s worse is that the government was also often complicit in their lies.  The Coast Guard started to work to keep reporters away from the actual ship.  They were helping to cover up the facts because they didn’t want to stop sucking at the tit of the money that these people brought in.  Of course, this isn’t unusual.  After the collapse of 2007, Congress very quickly came to the bank’s defense.  But that’s off-topic.

One thing worth mentioning was that there was a lot of faith placed in a lot of people that couldn’t be done post-9/11.  One journalist couldn’t get back to Anchorage to get his photos developed, so he grabbed a guy heading out on a plane, who he didn’t know, gave him the rolls of film in an envelope, and told him to call a number and get them to that person.  They never lost a roll of film.  That’s incredible.

Murphy remarked that some of the biggest news agencies just came and went, often doing no more than going to press conferences and listening to what Exxon told them.  Which, of course, isn’t journalism.  Not the good kind, anyway.  But the Anchorage Daily News stayed there all summer.

He polished off this tale of the coverage of Exxon Valdez by remarking that there was one press-conference where everybody was, and Exxon promised all the people that they would help them.  Now, 20 years later, they are in court still fighting to not have to keep their promises.

That remark led to the tragedy of journalism currently in Alaska.  Murphy said that if something like Exxon Valdez happened now, the ADN wouldn’t even be able to charter a plane down.  The top two floors of their building are being rented out to a film company.  It is a graveyard in their news room.  He seemed very saddened by this.

The leaving remark that Murphy brought was that journalists often thing that they can change the world.  They can’t do that, but (and this is very important), they can change the conversation.  They can direct what the nation is talking about.  And this leads to the ultimate failure of the mainstream media – they aren’t getting people talking about anything.  They are just saying stuff.

Murphy is a brilliant reporter, and has left a legacy most worthy or all the respect of journalists everywhere.  He is everything that this industry should be, and the journalism industry will be losing a piece of itself when he leaves it.

Peace out,

Lefty

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Anti-Pebble Initiative Approved, but was that the right thing?

It was in the Anchorage Daily News today – how the anti-Pebble Mine initiative was approved.  It was pretty clear, given the amount of press coverage that the Pebble Project had that this was going to not only be a big event for Alaska, but also for the country.  It is almost ironic how this whole affair became less and less about the people of the community, and more about a values system.  As a rational person, one must ask the very important question – was the fact that this initiative passed the right thing?

Now, this initiative passing does NOT mean that the mine will never be built.  People seem to believe that this vote will end this debate once and for all.  That myth needs immediate debunking.  In fact, the Pebble Partnership intends to challenging this in court next week.  The Pebble Partnership seems to be of the mindset that this vote will be defeated in court.

To anyone who followed this debate closely, it quickly devolved from a rational discussion about what is best for Lake and Peninsula Borough, to a campaign of fear mongering and misleading the voters.  This was on both sides.  The tragedy is that neither side is innocent here.  For a left-leaning voter, that can be a bit of an annoyance, because the goal of liberal political activists should be to encourage rational debate, even if that can never happen.

However, the ultimate thing to be considered is this – what about those living in Lake and Peninsula Borough?  Quite sadly, the fishing industry in Southwest is not the glorious money-maker that those who were part of the Save the Salmon group seemed to miss.  The fact is that the estimated income of the fishing industry is over $100 million.  While that sounds like a lot, the problem is that a lot of that income is not going to the community.  In fact, most of the Limited Entry Permits in Bristol Bay are to out of state companies, so the profits are going to them.

While the subsistence fishing is a valid risk to consider, if the bulk of profits for commercial fishing are going out of state, how does that help Lake and Peninsula?  There is a real Catch-22 here – how did the anti-Pebble groups convince people that more money is a bad thing?

Those who were proponents of Pebble were showing how over 1,000 long-term jobs could be created.  In an area that is economically depressed like Lake and Peninsula Borough, this could be a great thing.  However, the battle went out of state, and then the message got totally lost.

It vaguely seems reminiscent of how the Exxon Valdez crisis was handled.  Exxon apologized to the New York Times about it, which made Alaskans very, very angry.  It was talking to people who didn’t live here about things that they didn’t care about.  It totally ignored the issue – that this was an Alaskan issue, and the focus needed to be on Alaska.

When people like Robert Redford weigh in, it is easy to get lost in the celebrity attention.  And it worked, apparently.  Celebrities saying things about a state that they don’t live in got to a lot of people.

The real question now becomes – how exactly do those who are against Pebble propose fixing the economic depression that Lake and Peninsula, or rather, all of Rural Alaska is in?  How exactly do they tell the people who are without significant opportunity for jobs that having less of them is a good thing?  Subsistence is the one major good argument that has been made against Pebble, because getting food is very difficult in rural Alaska, but what about jobs?

If most of the commercial fishing permits are for out of state companies, how is that helping the residents of Bristol Bay?  After all the talks about the salmon, the wildlife, and how Bristol Bay “doesn’t want Pebble,” that is the real problem.  Pebble may not have been perfect, it may not have been the right answer, but when they are saying that $200+ billion are underneath the ground in Lake and Peninsula Borough, how can people look the impoverished community members in the eye and tell them that not doing what is right for their community is the right thing to do?

It is good to be environmentally conscious, but the fact is that something has to be done.  Alright you anti-Pebble people, now the ball is in your court – if Pebble isn’t the answer – what is?

Peace out,

Lefty

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