A Look At Good, Bad Media Performance
Includes, Finally, A Balanced Oil Pipeline Report

Today an admittedly limited look at news media practice—or malpractice—in this third century of constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of the press.

I’ve served as either reporter or editor or publisher or columnist for 66 years under the protection of that precious freedom.  You might well question whether my views have kept up with the times.  But hear me out before you pass judgment.

It pleases me to be able to start with praise for superior performance by both the print and broadcast media.  (The criticism will come later, including, regrettably but perhaps predictably, another example of flawed coverage of the highly controversial Pipeline XL controversy.)

Among the praiseworthy performances:

The top-of-front-page story in last Monday’s Omaha World-Herald which, in refreshing contrast to a good many of the pipeline stories which preceded it, gave an interesting, balanced both-sides-of-the-issue perspective, pointing out how varying interests place both Democrats and Republicans on the pro-pipeline side of the controversy and other Democrats and Republicans united in opposition.

The story written by Robyn Tysver gave even-handed summaries of the positions of the pro-pipeline and anti-pipeline forces.

Pipeline Controversy Produces Strange Bedfellows

The story also called attention to some of the strange bedfellows the controversy has produced, such as the Arabic news organization al Jaeera and actor Alec Baldwin, well known as a far-left liberal, among the activists taking public stands against the pipeline.

Unmentioned in print in Nebraska to date is the fact that the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa have also come out against the Keystone XL Pipeline, having been recruited by a conservation-oriented activist organization which is opposed to development of new crude petroleum resources in Canada, advocating dependence instead on solar and wind power.

Most visible and vocal of the anti-pipeline forces is, of course, Jane Kleeb, head of BOLD Nebraska.

In fairness to Governor Heineman and, I would think, a majority of other Nebraska opponents of a Keystone XL Pipeline Sand Hills route, their opposition is unlike that of Kleeb and the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu in that the governor and others favor construction of a built-somewhere-else pipeline which would make North America less dependent on oil imported from Saudi Arabia and South America.

But in the short term, Heineman and other Nebraska opponents share the same goal as Jane Kleeb, Alec Baldwin, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu:  Don’t extend the Keystone XL Pipeline across Nebraska’s Sand Hills.

Splendid W-H Analysis Of Missouri River Flood Cause

Another major World-Herald story which gave a balanced account of a hotly controversial issue was the work of World-Herald reporter David Hendee.  Hendee took an intensive look at the complaints that the Army Engineers had mismanaged flows into and out of their six Missouri River dams in a way that caused many millions of dollars of damage to farms and homes and roads and highways in the Missouri River Valley below the Gavins Point Dam.

Hendee’s carefully document conclusion—which displeased a good many of those who blamed the Engineers for the disastrous flooding—was that given the capacity of the dams and the history-making flow of water into the dams, especially from torrential rains in Montana, there was no way the Engineers could have managed the dams so as to avoid the flood disaster.  It was, in my judgment, a masterful piece of journalism.

Praiseworthy, too, is The World-Herald’s continuing close attention to conditions at the Beatrice State Institution for the Developmentally Disabled and to the problem of finding proper foster parent homes for children under state government care.

Some TV Programming Also Worthy Of Praise

Turning to praiseworthy TV performance:

Local TV stations give generally good sports coverage, usually without the press box second-guessing and coaching-from-a-distance which mars a good deal of print sports coverage, as I see it. And in sports coverage, as in so many other cases, the Nebraska educational television network does a superb job.

Local TV stations also deserve limited credit for the occasional pursuit of a significant story (but it happens too seldom).

Praiseworthy also is much of what NETV and the nationwide PBS network offer in programming.  Master interviewer and commentator Charlie Rose and the PBS evening news, for two examples.

Turning to the negative side of news media performance, it is timely to start with the way the Keystone XL Pipeline issue has been reported.

Legislature Might Block But Can’t Reroute Pipeline

The Tuesday story which told of the special legislative session convening that day to consider and possibly take action on the controversial routing of the Keystone XL Pipeline made two major mistakes, as I see it.

First, the story said the focus for the special session would be on whether a legal and constitutional way can be found to “reroute” the pipeline.

The fact is that all the special session can legally and constitutionally do would be to find ways to block the routing across the Sand Hills.  The Nebraska Legislature can take no action which would authorize rerouting the pipeline to another path.

Block the Sand Hills route?  Perhaps.  Authorize rerouting the pipeline on a different path?  No way.

Governor Heineman and some other opponents of the Sand Hills route can express a hope that a pipeline will be built somewhere to move crude oil from Canada to refineries in the United States.  But the Nebraska Legislature clearly has no authority to authorize rerouting the pipeline on another path.

The other major flaw in Tuesday’s story, as I see it, was figuratively burying an interesting and pertinent view expressed by the governor of South Dakota in the 35th and last paragraph of the story.

South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard made clear that he believes TransCanada has offered significant “additional protections” in pipeline negotiations with Nebraska officials—protections including a $100 million bond to cover any possible cleanup costs from pipeline leakage, encasing in concrete portions of the pipeline which come closest to the underground water table and moving emergency response workers closer to the pipeline.  Said South Dakota Governor Daugaard:

“The squeaky Cornhusker wheel shouldn’t get all the grease.”

Interesting that public recognition of TransCanada’s addition of very significant safety and clean-up assurance provisions comes from the governor of South Dakota, not the governor of Nebraska.  And I wonder why the South Dakota governor’s interesting and pertinent comments wound up in the last paragraph of the story.

In any controversy, there is a tendency for the opponents to make the most noise and get the most news play.  But it’s the job of the news media to see that the facts don’t get overwhelmed by the rhetoric.  In the case of the pipeline controversy, there have been too many missed opportunities for equal attention to both the pros and the cons.  The cons have gotten the major play time after time.

Expert Opinion Downplayed, Opposition Spotlighted

One egregious example—unfortunately not untypical:

On an inside page in a news story which started and ended with focus on a rancher—described as a pipeline activist who has the nickname “Pipeline Cindy”—there appeared the views of University of Nebraska-Lincoln hydrologist  Jim Goeke, described in the story as “perhaps the leading expert on the Sand Hills and its water.”

Goeke, who has sunk hundreds of wells in the Sand Hills in 35 years of research, was quoted as saying he agrees with the analysis of TransCanada officials (the TransCanada Corporation would build and own and operate the pipeline) that pipeline leaks would have minor, localized effects.  He told The World-Herald that because groundwater moves so slowly in the area—about a foot or two a day—spills would likely affect areas of less than 300 feet away.

Goeke’s unqualified endorsement of the Sand Hills route has been referred to twice on inside pages.  The contrary opinion from another University of Nebraska professor, John Stansbury, who prepared a “worse case” scenario of what could happen, has been quoted at least eight times by The World-Herald, twice in section-front stories and once with a picture of Stansbury.

Another Expert Spotlighted Once, Then Ignored

Also overlooked in the continuing news coverage is the opinion of another expert, Howard Hawks, founder and chairman of Omaha-based independent energy company Tenaska.

Hawks’ record includes development, construction and operation of the Northern Border Pipeline, an 823-mile $1.8 billion pipeline that transports natural gas from Canada.

The World-Herald gave top play to a piece written by Hawks for the paper’s “More Commentary” page.  But I don’t recall seeing another reference to Hawks’ expert opinion (the Keystone XL Pipeline “can be among the safest in operation today”), as compared to at least eight references to the opinion of anti-pipeline Professor John Stansbury.

In a story to which The World-Herald gave front-page play, The New York Times flatly misrepresented the potential results of the use of the power of eminent domain in TransCanada’s effort to buy a route across the proposed pipeline route.

The lead paragraph referred to threats “to confiscate private land” and the story said a landowner challenged TransCanada’s position that it can legally “seize” land.  There was also a reference to “the confiscation of private property by taking it just to serve a larger public purpose.”

Eminent Domain Can Be Essential Tool

The facts are that in invoking the power of eminent domain in case it is necessary to let a pipeline project proceed, the developer is neither seizing the land nor confiscating it.

The power of eminent domain in the case of a pipeline involves only acquiring the right to cross the land with a pipeline, compensating the owner for that crossing.  If eminent domain could not be used in such cases, it should be obvious even to The New York Times that a single landowner could block the construction of any pipeline anywhere in the United States.

Why so much of my attention to the pipeline issue?  Because it has dominated the Nebraska news for several months now and has become a national issue and because I don’t think the reporting generally has been fair and balanced.

A Quick Look At Downside Of TV News

Next, a quick and critical and certainly not comprehensive look at television news coverage:

The half hour of a typical evening local news telecast typically quickly skips over a handful of news items but always finds time for the “happy talk” among the telecast news readers and weatherman or weatherwoman and time for self-promoting ads telling viewers what a splendid job the station is doing for them.

Then there is the bias of network news.  If you want a liberal tilt, turn to CNN, with liberal American commentator Anderson Cooper for one hour, alternating with imported British liberal Piers Morgan every hour.  Or turn to MSNBC.

If your preference is for right-wing conservatism, sometimes pretty far right, there’s always Fox News.

In comparison to CNN on the left and Fox on the right, the traditional national networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—look comparatively balanced.  I say “comparatively,” because the tilt on those three networks, as I see it, has traditionally been to the left.

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Past Husker Stars Come To My Rescue

Enough about media performance—for now.   To end on a lighter note:

Jackie Wrieth, my assistant, and I have a new base of operations with, consequently, a new telephone number (402-939-3830) and e-mail address (jackie.wrieth@haroldandersen.com).  (My column continues to be available at www.haroldandersen.com, with the latest version on line every Thursday morning.)

After the required 402 opening, I found the first part of the new telephone number— 939—easy to remember.  But I had trouble with the final four digits—3830—after 15 years of using other numbers.

My solution:  I remembered that Sam Francis, the All-American Cornhusker fullback in 1936, had jersey number 38.  And that Mike Rozier, All-American running back and Heisman Trophy winner in 1983, had jersey number 30.

So the new telephone number is now easily remembered:  939, 38 for Sam Francis and 30 for Mike Rozier.

When a fellow lives with a wife with a steel-trap memory like Marian’s—one example:  she easily recalls the birthday of a goodly number of friends simply from memory, nothing written down—the fellow has to use all the tricks he can find to keep from falling too far behind, memory-wise.

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