If It Bleeds, It Leads

by Martin Harris

If you think back to 1897, when The New York Times placed its new slogan –“All the News that’s Fit to Print” – on its front page, you might label that declaration as a reaction against the sensationalist, muck-raking (back then, the NYT proclaimed its disdain for political bias in both reporting and editorializing) and “yellow-journalism” practices of the day. But a half-century or so later, Canadian journalist-academic Marshall McLuhan would teach his students that “if it bleeds it leads.” He taught them other one-liners as well –the global village, the medium is the message, and so on—but not the one he’s sometimes credited with: everyone gets 15 minutes of fame. That one came from “artist” Andy Warhol, whose soup-can-label-re-print “art” is now worth (?) millions to people who desire to be seen and admired for their understanding of its supposedly deeper significance and their own ability-to-pay. Both the “bleed” comment and the “15-minutes” comment don’t address how much, and in what detail, Fourth Estate professionals should write next, when the bleeding stops or the time is up; the answer, however, has shown up repeatedly, demonstrated by example: in the environmental crisis category, no matter how widely-covered the original scare (think Alar for apples or strontium for fish), the eventual retraction gets at best a few inches on an inside page or a few seconds on the evening news.

Case in point: over recent years, when domestic gas exploration (all private-sector-based, on lands where Federal hostility-to-drilling was avoided and no EPA permits were needed) became newly focused on vast shale deposits across the country, the enviro anti’s, fearful that energy costs might actually fall with new supplies coming on line (they have and they did) raised the argument that hydraulic fracturing of shale 10,000 feet below ground surface would pollute drinking water 100 feet below ground surface. “Fracking” became the identifier for all that wasn’t green and pure, like wind where windmill blades kills birds, but that’s OK; or bio-fuel, which gets a zero-carbon-release score because the EPA rules say that such “new” carbon would eventually escape to the atmosphere anyway as wood or corn-stalks rot, unlike “old” carbon in coal or oil, which therefore has to be scored punitively. Humble Scribe query: ubi est logica?

As fracking became the archetype of anti-green evil for enviro’s, one legal case became the prototype for defeating and permanently ending the possibility of any new underground fuel source which might, by its mere existence, challenge their cherished Peak Oil doctrine, the once-widely-believed notion that the planet would soon run out of oil and gas. That case was the one in Dimock, PA, where, as in the Alar scare of 1989 (when previously-unrecognized ag expert Meryl Streep briefly left her Hollywood sound stage to offer the findings of her highly-technical personal research on apple-culture to Congress) self-appointed gas-drilling wizards left their TV and movie sets to warn the world about drinking-water pollution inevitably resulting from fracking. Alert State Guv’s like Vermont’s own Peter Shumlin, who promptly convinced his own Legislature to ban in-State fracking, were quick to respond. Sure of the eventual scientific finding, nuts-and-twigs folks nationwide eagerly awaited the EPA ruling on Dimock. Here it is.

“In a statement Wednesday, the EPA said it conducted sampling of drinking-water wells that served 64 homes and didn’t find any contaminants that would require further action by the Agency.” It could be found in print in a 4-inch news piece on page A5 of the 26 July 12 Wall Street Journal, a space allocation and locational choice which illustrates that, if the bleeding stops (or if the fracking is clean) it isn’t too newsworthy. We keenly await an AP wire-service piece, a few seconds of electronic-media time, or a Grey Lady “all-the-news” mention.

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The purpose of this account isn’t to change the trajectory of contemporary Fourth Estate journalistic practice: there’s no HS attempt here to change the “if it bleeds…” rule. It is to flatter Vermont’s Guv Shumlin by comparing him to economist John Maynard Keynes, who famously said that “When the facts change, I change my mind,” and to suggest that, just like that earlier proponent of Social Democrat (left-of-center) politics and economics which now include the stimulus (deficit) spending by government to boost (taxable, of course) economic activity, under the label of Keynesian economic policy, the Guv might use the EPA Dimock findings as the occasion to ask his Golden Domers to re-open the State to gas-exploration including fracking on the grounds that the facts have indeed just changed. Remarkably so.

After all, there have been just such mind-changers in Progressive-Democratic politics in past years of American history. Consider, for example, Presidents Woodrow Wilson in his pre-WWI pledges and Franklin Roosevelt in his pre-WWII pledges to keep the US out of European wars. Subsequent history dictated otherwise, and they successfully changed their minds. Admittedly, some State-level mind changes haven’t been quite so: consider, for example, the Vermont sales-tax position-reversal by Deane Davis, firmly anti while campaigning for the Guv-chair, firmly pro after winning it. No-tax DE, MT, and NH excluded, VT became the final State, in 1969, to adopt a sales tax, which at the time was widely promised by both the shrinking R contingent and the growing L contingent then under the Golden Dome never to grow past a 3% level. Just like the original design of the Federal income tax in 1913, when the promised-forever top rate of 7% originally affected only incomes above $11 million in today’s dollars: how have both of those mind-changes worked out?

Now that the facts on fracking have changed (given the underlying politics, if EPA’s technicians could have found drinking-water pollution, they would have, and it would have been page 1 news everywhere) and fracking has been proven safe in the symbolic test case which was supposed to end it permanently, would the VT Guv actually change his mind and ask for Golden Dome fracking-approval? HS guess: no. Not because the facts on fracking haven’t changed; they have. But the facts on Vermont politics haven’t changed. The left-of-center majority which has posted 60-40 victories in such clear-cut tests as the Ruth Dwyer gubernatorial candidacy is still firmly in electoral control, and the Guv fully understands his own political-survival calculus. He must keep these anti-fracking-no-matter-what-new-facts-emerge folks happy with his ideologically-loyal performance on their behalf.