Guest post: The failure of an anti-fracking fantasy
posted at 5:49 pm on April 3, 2013 by Ed Morrissey
My good friends Phelim McAleer and his wife Ann McIlhenny are documentary filmmakers whose last project, Frack Nation, tackled the media myths, misconceptions, and misplaced activism surrounding the practice of hydraulic fracturing in the extraction of natural gas. Phelim wrote a guest post regarding a recent development in a legal case that had been sealed, one that anti-fracking activists cited as proof of the harm fracking does. When a court ordered the case unsealed, though, the files told a much different story — one that the media suddenly lost interest in telling.
What happened to the media?
It’s a case of “be careful for what you wish for” for anti-fracking activists and the journalists who support–sorry, I mean “chronicle”–their cause.
For these journalists and activists there has been no better story about the evils of fracking than the Hallowich family in Washington County Pennsylvania. Mrs Hallowich told news outlets from across the world how her family’s health was destroyed by fracking activity near their home. She claimed her family and in particular her children were suffering devastating healy impacts caused by fracking and said her children could some day have cancer as a result.
This narrative was only strengthened when it emerged that the Hallowiches had settled a legal battle with an oil and gas company and received a financial settlement. And if any further proof was needed the settlement was covered by a non-disclosure clause–which the journalists and anti-fracking activists took as evidence of wrongdoing and then the cover up of the wrongdoing
But let’s not forget that journalists, when they want to be, can be enterprising. So they worked out that the agreement covered minors–who of course have to be protected from corporations and, in the eyes of the law, sometimes even their parents. So they petitioned a court to release the details of the agreement because the court and not the parents were allowed to decide what was right for the children.
The court decided that there was no reason why the lawsuit covering the children should be kept secret and ordered all the documents should be released.
Cue: much excitement from journalists; they had managed to destroy the veil of secrecy around a fracking lawsuit. Letters were being written to the Pulitzer committee. “Thank you” speeches were being composed.
Then the hundreds of pages of documents were released.
Cue: pretty much complete silence. There were no detailed exposes; there were no sensational headlines or serialized articles. And there was a very big reason for the silence.
To the dismay of anti-fracking activists and, I suspect, their journalistic supporters, the document dump confirmed that the Hallowiches had lied to them. The documents confirmed that even as they were claiming to media that fracking was damaging their children’s health, the Hallowiches were sitting on scientific and medical evidence that their children were healthy and not affected by fracking.
And far from a family suddenly overwhelmed by a growing gas industry, it’s clear from the court documents that the Hallowiches bought into the gas boom. They bought land and built a house in the middle of an active gas field. And how do we know they knew about the gas boom? Well because they were–and still are–receiving royalty checks from a gas company.
In short the documents revealed that they received a substantial settlement even though they admitted, under oath, that neither they nor their children had suffered any medical ill-effects from fracking.
But apart from a few small local newspapers none of the “respectable,” no doubt heavily qualified journalism school graduates, have rushed to correct the record. They were happy, in graphic detail, to cover the allegations, but in what seems to be a complete inversion of journalism, they go silent when the science comes in.
This seems to be a pattern in modern journalism. A good allegation makes for a great story. One feature of all these examples of “journalism by allegation” is the apparent lack of curiosity by the journalists.
In my documentary, FrackNation, we interviewed the Sautner family in Dimock, PA. They had given dozens of interviews and in all of them claimed their water contained three types of uranium–“two of them weapons grade.” Not one journalist ever asked for the science behind these claims. It was a story that was too good to check.
The publicity surrounding Dimock, PA is one of the main reasons that fracking is now banned in New York–even though test after test by the PA state scientists and the EPA have revealed that there is no contamination in the water. But these results–overturning a key allegation of anti-fracking activists–have received very little media coverage.
It is the same with the Hallowiches. When the evidence proved their allegations wrong, the media just refused to publish the science and moved on to the next exciting allegation. And in the meantime families who know no better are frightened of fracking, worrying if their family’s health will suffer. Journalists owe it to these families to follow the story of the Hallowiches to the very end and publish the science that shows their water is clean and their family is healthy.
So far they have failed to do so, and they wonder why no one is reading newspapers anymore.
The opinion expressed is that of the author.