By Arthur Alpert
Years ago back East, I taught journalism as an adjunct professor at colleges and a university. If I were to do it again, say at UNM, I’d insist my students read the Albuquerque Journal. To pick up tips from some excellent reporters and columnists, yes, but mostly to learn from the editors how to trash the news trade.
The Journal, a hierarchy like almost all journalistic institutions, is fairly authoritarian, former employees tell me. The top calls the shots and enforces the rules. That’s unlike the late, lamented Tribune, they say, where lots of ideas percolated upward from staff.
I try to remember that when I stumble upon a news article as useful for my educational purposes here as Michael Coleman’s “Political Notebook” Wednesday, July 13, on the front page of the “ Metro & NM” section.
(My purpose has evolved over the years; I see it now as exploring the chasm between professional journalism and whatever it is the Journal does.)
I remind myself, too, that Coleman’s work generally is professional and that I’ve absolutely no idea how the editors assign, supervise and edit his Washington beat efforts.
So the working assumption is that he’s not responsible for what I find objectionable. In other words, I presume the professional competence of all the working stiffs, including Coleman.
With that preface, let’s look at the Notebook. It was headlined in the print edition:
Here’s the lead:
“Sen. Tom Udall joined other Democrats on the Senate floor Monday and Tuesday to denounce a ‘web of denial’ they said is being spun by fossil industry front groups who use money and misleading information to muddy the debate on climate change.”
Here’s the very next paragraph:
“But critics of the senators’ strategy – including the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington and the Rio Grande Foundation in Albuquerque – said it smacked of political intimidation.”
Let’s stop for an observation I’ve made which you may want to keep in mind as you read the Journal. When the editors don’t agree with the force of a story’s first graph, they make sure it’s immediately questioned or contradicted. Conversely, when they like the premise, they relegate any dissent to the bottom of the story. Or leave it out. And never, never use it in a pull quote.
But here’s a more serious problem. The account contained no reporting on those organizations to cast light on Udall’s “web of denial” charge.
It’s wouldn’t be hard to evaluate Udall’s assertions. As Coleman reports further down, the Senator complained of public opinion campaigns funded by groups like the Western Fuels Association and the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, campaigns that “aren’t rooted in truth or science.”
Pretty specific. Now we have three organizations to check out and educate readers about, plus the Kochs. But there is no checking out.
We do get a rebuttal from Paul Gessing of the Rio Grande Foundation, who fires back that Udall and his allies are attacking “their opponents’ free speech rights.”
Giving Gessing his say is fine, but if the journalistic process stops there, we poor readers are left with a difference of opinion and no information to help us think about it.
This, ladies and gents, is the classic journalistic dodge known as, “He said, she said,” a story that sets up a sharp conflict and walks away. Move right along, folks, no truth-seeking here!
But I hear somebody saying, “Hold a cotton-pickin’ minute, Alpert. Reporters don’t have all the time in the world to live up to your high standards.
Let me disabuse you, first, of the notion I have high journalistic standards for the Journal. They’re minimal. All I’ve ever asked is that Journal editors make news decisions, not political decisions.
To no avail.
And sorry, you’re wrong about time as well. Coleman, like all beat reporters, knows lots more than he tells us. He knows the Rio Grande Foundation belongs to the Koch brothers’ political network and he can find the history and funding details to show it in a New York minute.
By the way, I find the choice of Gessing to argue with Senator Udall mind-boggling. The Kochs fund the RGF to disseminate their views on political economy. Call it a think tank if you wish, but then I’d like to sell you a bridge in Brooklyn or, if you prefer, building lots flowing with water in Santolina.
RGF is a front.
And it took me all of 10 minutes to Google the other organizations. The Competitive Enterprise Institute “is an advocacy group…with long ties to tobacco disinformation campaigns and more recently to climate change denial.”
That’s from the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch, which also lists some of CEI’s benefactors, among them, the Kochs. Big surprise.
Wikipedia’s entry on CEI stresses that it’s libertarian, which does not mean conservative. (That libertarian and conservative are not synonymous is my point, not Wikipedia’s.)
If Sen. Udall termed the Western Fuels Association a front, the Wikipedia entry suggests he may be technically inaccurate. It’s a Colorado-based consortium of coal suppliers and coal-fired utilities that supplies coal and transportation services to consumer-owned electric utilities in the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and the Southwest.
But WFA certainly is a cog in the Koch network. According to SourceWatch, it has long been a corporate funder of the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a Koch brothers’ outfit whose operatives drop in on statehouses nationwide, wallets open and ready to help local legislators with their needs in return for their support of ALEC’s “model” legislation. These are bills that benefit, ah, well, let’s leave that for another post.
(For more on ALEC, visit the Center for Media and Democracy’s ALECexposed.org.)
So in just a few minutes we’ve linked CEI, Western Fuels and the Rio Grande Foundation. This may not substantiate Sen. Udall’s allegation of a “web of denial,’ but there’s definitely a web.
Which web includes the Albuquerque Journal.
To demonstrate that, let’s put aside for a moment the story we’ve been examining. True, it represents a missed opportunity to report the news usefully, but we should consider it in context, by which I mean how it fits into the Journal’s treatment of the fossil fuel industry and the Koch brothers over time.
If you employ the ABQJournalWatch.com search function, you’ll find a bunch of reports from my erstwhile colleagues and a couple of mine over the years that document the Journal’s tender, loving care of the fossil fuel business. Note especially the editors’ decisions to publish OpEd essays from industry front groups whose real authors or sponsorship they hide from readers.
(The transparency the Journal demands from others doesn’t apply to the Journal.)
Also, and not at all incidentally, the Journal almost never reports on those fossil fuel industry leaders who agree climate change threatens and are cooperating with scientists and environmental activists on actions to mitigate it. Nor does the daily follow the scientific and engineering progress. My bad for not writing about this earlier and at length, but you will find excellent coverage reading Climate Progress and, in particular, reporter Joe Romm, who’s strong on economics.
The context also must include the Journal’s loving kindness to the Rio Grande Foundation. The editors afford Mr. Gessing and other laissez-faire-ists lots more space than they do conservatives, though there was a rare sighting of Pete Domenici in the Sandia contract story Thursday, July 14, A1.
Finally, there’s no avoiding the Journal’s weirdly protective approach to the Kochs. It’s weird because the sensationally rich siblings have themselves been on a PR campaign, sitting for interviews on NPR, for gosh sakes, and explaining their good intentions to other news outlets. The Journal seems to think they’re in hiding.
As for the Kochs’ political activities, the Journal covers that story as often as it reports on how other affluent individuals and mega-corporations are expending millions to determine who wields ultimate political power in our, er, democracy.
That is to say, almost never.
And to this day, the editors persist in publishing OpEd essays from Koch-financed front groups without telling the readers who lurks in the shadows. Happens all the time. This doesn’t happen when the same editors print (rarely) OpEds from non-plutocrats.
It might be acceptable for the editors to publish those Koch-financed columns sans ID if the Journal published a broad spectrum of opinion. But of course it doesn’t.
OK, with that context in mind, let’s see where the “Political Notebook” discussed above fits into the Journal narrative. What do you think? In my view it’s a tiny strand in the Journal’s enormous web of journalism denial.
But to give the Devil his due, whatever the failings of that Notebook, the Albuquerque Journal did report that Udall called out climate change deniers and their tactics.
True, the editors ran the story inside, in Metro, but there’s no gainsaying that the fossil fuel-loving, RGF-promoting and Koch-protecting Albuquerque Journal paid some attention to the Senator’s assertions.
It would be going too far to call this good journalism, given the he-said, she-said-ness. But hey, this is the Albuquerque Journal, the “all-politically-determined-decisions, all-the-time “Albuquerque Journal. So it’s something.