On Sunday, August 12, 2012, I wrote a brief commentary about how the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) had managed to produce a week long series about the changing landscape of energy production in America without a single mention of the ‘N’ word – nuclear.
Daniel, an Atomic Insights regular, was interested enough in finding out more about PBS’s journalistic choices that he contacted the PBS ombudsman through the feedback form on the company’s website – http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/feedback.html. Daniel commented about his action when he took it. He made another comment when the PBS ombudsman responded, asking for more details, and then stated that he would keep us informed if he received any additional information from PBS.
Just before noon on Monday, Daniel provided the following enlightening bit of information about how PBS chose the discussion topics for its series on homegrown energy in the United States.
So I got an answer from Ray Suarez of PBS:
We did not “avoid” nuclear energy at all. There just isn’t much action in that arena. Since the disaster at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, the previously active nuclear debate, new plans for plants, policy statements about the future of nuclear in the US energy mix…all cooled down considerably.
So, we covered what is new about the energy conversation in this country, the place of natural gas. New discoveries, new wells, new requests to drill…there’s a lot that’s new in that sector, matching somewhat better the NewsHour’s definition of news. That’s what we call “half-decent journalism practices” around here. I am sure when the nuclear industry is once again part of the national debate, we will cover it.
If I did not already have a good understanding about how advertising and corporate support work to frame the way that commercial media covers “the national debate” about energy, that response would have surprised me. Instead, it just disappointed me.
PBS’s attitude about America’s discussion about energy choices is similar to the way that political campaign stories get selected. Only candidates that have the backing of an established party or those who are able to attract huge sums of money get any significant air time. Ideas, proposed policies and facts do not matter; coverage decisions are based on the amount of money the candidate is willing and able to spend on advertising.
Unlike the natural gas industry, which is just a branch of the multinational oil industry, the nuclear industry does not do much advertising. It is not an industry that is swimming in cash because world tensions have increased the market price of one its two major products to a level far above the cost of production. Instead, it is an industry that is investing huge sums of money into the difficult challenge of restoring its productive capabilities after many years without new projects.
Southern Company, SCANA and the Tennessee Valley Authority have not purchased much air time to remind people that they are building new nuclear plants in the United States. Shaw Group and Westinghouse have not spent much of their corporate capital discussing how much learning they are doing while performing an activity that has not been done in nearly 40 years in the United States – starting the process of building new nuclear power plants.
Because there is not much money available for advertising in start-up efforts, the growing excitement about the potential for smaller, factory producible nuclear reactors within the power industry is invisible to people who get their story ideas from watching commercial television. My day job employer does not do very much advertising, but our president and public relations people have been working hard to keep the energy industry press informed about significant milestones we have been achieving on the path of inventing a whole new way to package and deliver a nuclear power plant. (Note: Atomic Insights is strictly my own effort. I speak for myself, not for my employer.)
It would seem logical for PBS, an organization that prides itself on developing deeper than average stories, would have taken the time to look past the ads and the industry placed sound bites about the newness of the natural gas revolution to see that there is a broader conversation taking place. In the midst of yet another heat wave and drought, events made more likely by increases in atmospheric CO2, you would think that PBS would have found the time to mention that there is an American developed energy technology that is as free from emissions as wind and solar, but with the proven ability to produce power that is more reliable than the power from burning coal or natural gas.
Instead, PBS producers inserted their antinuclear bias into their coverage by doing something that is worse than criticism – they stated through silence that nuclear energy is irrelevant. Even when challenged, a PBS journalist affirmed that choice and declared that nuclear energy was not even part of the conversation that he wanted to have with his viewers.
His excuse was that the events at Fukushima, where no one was even hurt by radiation or by exposure to the small quantity of radioactive materials that were released, silenced all discussion about new nuclear power and took the topic off of the table for the time being. I suspect he hopes that no one noticed that one of the major ad buyers during the Fukushima frenzy was the natural gas industry, which did not purchase that air time because it was motivated to help the media accurately inform the public about our real energy choices.
I encourage everyone to follow Daniel’s lead. Take the time to contact PBS and remind them that nuclear energy is too important to our future to ignore, no matter what the natural gas marketers say. Once again, here is the link to the network’s ombudsman page – http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/feedback.html.
Here is a PBS story that aired on NewsHour during the same week as its pean to natural gas that might help some of you remember just how important this issue is.
Watch NASA Study Links Extreme Summer Heat to Climate Change on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.