For the past several days, I have been getting flashbacks to a high school semantics project where we were assigned to watch TV for at least 2 hours per night for a week. Some students jumped for joy at having a great excuse for doing something that they would do anyway, but this assignment came with a serious goal. Our teacher, Mrs. Pace, required us to write a paper analyzing the commercials and the ways that they were designed to sell a product, change our minds, or encourage certain actions desired by whoever was writing the checks to pay for the production and airing of the spot. In many cases, the techniques used were quite apparent; in others, they were subtle but potentially more effective.
If that assignment had been given today, Mrs. Pace would have most likely told us not to focus on just the commercials. In analyzing the way that minds are molded by media, she would have asked us to watch for product placements, host endorsements, guest selections, and topic debate moderation techniques.
I am undergoing a self-assigned analog of my high school semantics assignment now, but it is focused on a single channel. Unlike the mid 1970s, when there were three major networks and most areas of the country received just 3-4 broadcast television stations today’s media world is far more diverse. The number of media outlets is far greater, and includes specialized choices on the web like CleanSkies News, whose tag line is “The energy and environment network”.
This relatively new network has an impressive site, employs professional, talented journalists and covers a segment of our economy and political foundations that is so important that society begins seizing up within minutes of a significant supply interruption. As Susan McInnis, anchor and managing editor, describes in her introduction to the network and the web site features, Clean Skies News “operates as an independent, unbiased, balanced source of news and information”. Here is the organization’s mission statement:
“Clean Skies News is committed to presenting the highest-quality, unbiased news coverage and informed analysis of events and trends at the intersection of energy and the environment. Our journalists focus on providing accurate information, defining emerging trends, and assessing important political developments concerning America’s environmental and energy future. Our goal is to be an honest broker of news and information about one of the most important stories of our time.”
Since I began watching this web-only TV station as a self-assigned project in semantics, I cannot simply record and report the words being used. Instead, I am compelled to share the information that I find about the people who are writing the checks and about the actions that they desire from their audience. In the case of Clean Skies News, it is pretty easy to find out that the sponsor is a relatively new organization (founded in 2007) called American Clean Skies Foundation (ACSF).
Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest natural gas producers in the continental United States, serves as the Chairman of ACSF. Here is a portion of his letter describing the organization’s purpose and recent actions. (Due to the use of Flash on ACSF’s web site, I cannot figure out how to provide a direct link to their “About Us” page):
“In June 2007, the American Clean Skies Foundation (ACSF) was created to inform and educate stakeholders and the public about natural gas, renewable energy and energy efficiency. The mission of ACSF is to foster the communication, collaboration, and understanding of contributions made by domestic natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency toward a cleaner environment, energy security and less dependence on imported fuels.
Over the past two years, our team has traveled nationwide, speaking to diverse audiences, participating in workshops and conferences to share the good news about natural gas, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Through its national public awareness campaign, ACSF reminded the American public that natural gas is clean, abundant, affordable and American. As the energy landscape develops within a greener economy, ACSF will continue to provide informative energy articles, studies, presentations and news about the energy industry.
With the launch of the Clean Skies Network on Earth Day 2008, ACSF began providing an independent, internet-based network of live news, interviews and original programming on energy and the environment.”
Without finely tuned critical thinking skills and constant vigilance, it would be very easy for an energy geek to become a regular viewer of a channel focused on energy and environment news and gradually begin to accept certain premises from the programming. For example, watch the Clean Skies News interview with the American Gas Association’s Roger Cooper that I have embedded above. Taken in isolation, it is a pretty standard news interview with a guest who has a point of view. Ms. McInnis does a good journalistic job in letting the guest state his views and positions without imposing her own views.
My own take away from the interview is a bit different. Please do not misunderstand me, I am not anti-gas and often recommend it as a better choice for some energy applications than the alternative that is in use. However, it is a bit over the top to suggest that it is a “nearly perfect fuel” as Roger Cooper does at the end of the interview. A probing journalist might try following up on that, asking why he believes that natural gas, once considered a dangerous waste product of oil extraction and still subject to dramatic price fluctuations, is “nearly perfect”.
One might also think hard about subtle messages and careful word selection. For example, Roger, like many natural gas advocates, calls natural gas “the lowest carbon fossil fuel”, which is literally true. However, it would not be true if Roger called natural gas “the lowest carbon fuel.” One word can make a big difference; carefully chosen words are one sales technique that can often slant a presentation. If this was more than an opportunity for an important sponsor to present his product, a journalist might have asked a few tougher questions. (By the way – I use carefully chosen words frequently myself, both on Atomic Insights and while working on assignments for my day job. I am not trying to be holier than thou here, just trying to help you think a bit.)
One of the risks that I see with a channel like Clean Skies News is that it may become a destination site for Hill staffers who are composing energy and environment related legislation. Having met quite a number of those earnest, smart, over-worked young people during my lengthy tour in Washington (I have been working here since July 2001), I can imagine how some of them would jump at the opportunity to watch a video news source focused on their assigned issue
. That is especially true if they happen to be political scientists, economists, or lawyers who do not have much technical background. Unless we work to provide the interpretation tools needed, they might get the idea that nuclear power is too expensive to matter much, that coal can only be burned in electric power stations, or that wind and solar are the future that will be reached on a bridge constructed of natural gas wells and pipelines.
I admire what the gas industry is doing with Clean Skies News. It is an effective way to leverage what they are already doing to promote their product, spread a few doubts about their competitors, and establish rules favorable to continued market share growth. It is too bad that most of the enterprises in the established nuclear industry are too diversified as energy suppliers or equipment vendors to sponsor something similar to share information about the value of American atomic resources and how they can provide affordable, abundant, emission-free energy for as long as people want it.