All Gassed Up: CBS Radio hands over the mic to natural-gas boosters

"The industry likes to say they operate in good faith. But the absence [of dissenting voices] suggests they aren't."

| August 21, 2013

On Aug. 15, at least, KDKA 1020 AM was not the place to turn for news about the environmental debate over natural-gas drilling, or about claims that some drillers use accounting tricks to reduce royalty payments to property-owners.

But if you wanted to know the name Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella uses in his daughter's Indian Princesses tribe, though ... you didn't want to touch that dial.

CBS Radio, which owns KDKA and three other local stations, celebrated Aug. 15 as a "Marcellus Shale Festival" — a chance "to celebrate all that Marcellus Shale brings to our region." The festival featured an on-air parade of drilling boosters at KDKA, as well as off-air programming at the North Side's Stage AE.

Morning host Marty Griffin, for example, touted the broadcast as a celebration of "hope and opportunity." His guests included Pitzarella, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald — who has aggressively pursued drilling opportunities on county land — and Phelim McAleer, maker of pro-drilling film FrackNation. Environmentalists, by contrast, were ridiculed in absentia: Griffin mocked Doug Shields, a vocal drilling opponent, by suggesting the former city councilor was "pounding on a bathroom door somewhere, looking for work."

Stage AE, meanwhile, hosted the local premiere of McAleer's movie, and a concert by country-music performer Phil Vassar. A "town hall," hosted by KDKA talk-show host Mike Pintek, featured four politicians, all of whom backed drilling. Pitzarella also participated in the panel discussion, titled "Marcellus Shale — A True Public-Private Partnership: Maximizing the Resource."

Taking questions from the audience, Pintek did ask a couple skeptical questions, including "Are we taxing this industry enough?" (Answer: Yes.) But with no dissenters on hand, such concerns were quickly dropped.

And when environmentalists did appear, they say, they were ushered out.

While the festival was billed as "free to the public," Stage AE is private property, and Lucas Lyons says security told him to leave when he tried to convince attendees that drilling was dangerous. ("People started calling me ‘Obama,'" Lyons says — and because the president supports drilling, "I was really confused.")

Another environmentalist, Kathryn Hilton, tried circulating anti-drilling literature. "I was fairly certain there weren't going to be any alternate views available," she says. And indeed, she says she was told to distribute the material outside.

"The industry likes to say they operate in good faith," Hilton says, "but the absence [of dissenting voices] suggests they aren't."

The Festival events and broadcasts were sponsored by drilling interests, including an upcoming industry convention and Norton Rose Fulbright, a law firm with a drilling practice. Companies like Range are frequent CBS Radio advertisers; sports-talk station 93.7 The Fan even offers a sponsored "Fracking is Fun" fact-of-the-day feature.

Hosting promotional events with on-air tie-ins is a common radio practice. (Full disclosure: That holds true for the two radio stations owned by the family that owns City Paper, which compete with CBS' local properties.) But such events typically feature concerts or family activities, rather than promoting controversial industries. CBS Radio senior vice president Michael Young says CBS does "not normally" conduct such promotions, though the station has held smaller-scale "expos" on drilling before.

"We promoted it as a Marcellus Shale Festival, and the town-hall meeting was about how private companies and the public sector were working together," says Young.

Gas drilling "represents a big deal for commerce in the area," Young adds. It also means commerce for his stations: "To be honest, there is a business interest in it."

Still, Young says, "In our editorial coverage, I think you get a diverse sense of opinions, and of objective news coverage." When asked about claims that environmentalists' opinions were unwelcome at the Festival, Young said he couldn't comment. But "if there's a big story" related to drilling, "our folks will be out there and be objective."

But why should audiences believe that? When a broadcaster boosts an industry on and off the air, is it fair to expect listeners to distinguish a station's news-gathering from its promotions?

"I don't think there's a simple answer" to that, Young says. Sometimes the dividing line is "very obvious," he says. "Other times, I think seeing it is a little harder."

Comments (10)

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Kicking people out with dissenting opinions does not an honest discussion make.

This was no festival. This was a poorly constructed PR event by local drillers and their new minions, the media. I thought the media was to be unbiased, but then again, I thought wrong in this case. Shame on the media that participated.

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Posted by Debbie Ziegler Lambert on 08/21/2013 at 9:39 AM

There are no trustworthy broadcast news sources in this town any longer. From here on out I'll be getting my news from the militant religious folks on public access, at least they have integrity.

In all seriousness though, we need to begin to punish these organizations who pretend to be journalists but who are ignoring their duty to inform the public. If the editorial department at KDKA was truly independent from the advertising department they would have been up in arms about this and would be digging in and reporting the true dangers of fracking to their listeners, viewers, and readers but they're derelict in their duty and therefore can no longer be trusted.

I've informed them that I won't be giving them the time of day or trusting them to report on local bake sales let alone a topic as important as the wholesale destruction of our air, water, and soil and I encourage you, if you care about our region, if you care about our future, if you don't think money is a good substitute for being able to breath do the same. Let KDKA know that they're no longer trusted.

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Posted by Don Orkoskey on 08/21/2013 at 9:54 AM

"Morning host Marty Griffin, for example, touted the broadcast as a celebration of "hope and opportunity.”

Yes indeed, we HOPE we don’t get sick, lose our water and get gagged by Range Resources before we have the OPPORTUNITY to sell our homes before they become unlivable and worthless.

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Posted by Doug Shields on 08/21/2013 at 10:34 AM

By the way, if you would like to host a screening Gasland Part II at your home, church, union hall, hit me up on my Facebook page. I will be happy to bring the film and host a Q & A afterward.

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Posted by Doug Shields on 08/21/2013 at 10:39 AM

They didnt usher me out.. They called the cops and an officer told me I had to leave the sidewalk in front of the stage AE.. Apparently the sidewalks are not public property? The cop also said they didnt want any negative press for the event, that is why I had to leave.. A call to the ACLU went unanswered, and someone from Peduto's office said I could be arrested for loitering... Apparently my first amendment rights stop at Marcellus Shale festivals? It's true I was weirdly being called Obama many times, but, more interestingly, I was also called a "terrorist" by a man from Cabot oil for engaging people in discussion on their way out.. unreal...

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Posted by Larry Lemondrop on 08/21/2013 at 12:29 PM

It is unrealistic for anyone to think that those of us who are against this toxic industry are against jobs and money. What we are is worried about the lack of transparency in the deals being made about OUR property by industry with deep pockets and politicians willing to take what they offer.
There are many problems and negative impacts being felt everywhere this industry is operating. People are sick, without water and it's not being reported or addressed by industry or our government to be fixed. There is a lack of responsibility by both to correct the negative impacts which proves that they could care less about the people being harmed. This is an issue that affects all of us. When only one side of anything is given, people are smart enough to know there is something wrong. We will continue to inform people of the negative impacts this toxic industry is having on our health, property and democratic process with or without the media.

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Posted by Briget Shields on 08/21/2013 at 12:32 PM

Why are the people against this toxic industry always called environmentalists? There are many people who are against this industry that are just regular people. We are all affected by this industrial process and for some to say there are balanced reports on what is happening is ridiculous. There are spills, contamination and property loss on a daily basis where ever this industry is operating. It is not being reported here and will never be as long as this industry has the money to keep the reports as silent as possible.
In Washington county there are people who have been living without safe water for 4 years now. In Butler county we now have over 50 families in the Woodlands without water for the 3rd year. Where is the media, industry or our government for that matter? How is it possible that we have families without safe potable water in this day and age no matter who is to blame? It should be addressed and fixed. When problems such as this are left unaddressed and people are abandoned there is little hope or trust for the industry or government. If you want to hear how Mat P lies, listen to This American Life podcast "Game Changer" from June 2011. Not much has changed since then. This is how they operate and always will. Money can't buy you good health and a safe environment when the toxic way they do business isn't made to correct the mistakes. This industry has only one thing to accomplish. Money for them, and spare some change for politicians and share holders. That's a fact!

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Posted by JakeJ on 08/21/2013 at 1:00 PM

There are MANY documented cases of people on the anti-drilling side of the argument who have treated pro-drilling folks in a very poor fashion. Harassing them at town hall meetings, barring them from their own events, or making up fake names on the internet and belittling them, as our esteemed state rep/anti-drilling activist from the 46th district so publicly displayed. I've seen sweet old grandmothers reduced to tears by the jeers of chanting anti-drillers. So please, save the tears.

For example, here's Vera Scroggins, one the most outspoken anti-drillers, looking for an "honest discussion" with a member of the media (documentarian) who has been critical and questioning of the accuracy of anti-drilling rhetoric.

I see a quite a few names here in the comment section that have no business crying that the media is not covering issues sympathetic to their cause. They must not be reading the same things I read. Doug Shields is the media's go-to anti-drilling politician in Western PA. The gas industry can't drop a wrench without it being reported in every newspaper from here to Kazakhstan. They love the "little guy vs. big bad gas company" narrative. It's compelling. It's interesting. It sells.

But it has VERY little to do with honest debate. The protestors that carry signs that say "Fracking is going to ruin all water and kill all living things" have no interest in an honest discussion. They are in it to win it. They want drilling banned, and anyone or anything that stands between them is the enemy. Even those who used to be allies. Enviro orgs that worked with gas companies (*gasp*) to come up with a better set of practices were immediately vilified. PennFuture tries to pass off pictures of a flooded drilling rig in PAKISTAN as Pennsylvania (they claim it was an accident, but if they can mistake the rocky mountains of Pakistan for the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, that kind of makes you wonder how much they get out of the city in the first place). The EPA was greeted as heroes when they came to Dimock...right up until the moment they released their findings saying the water was ok... then they were part of a gas company conspiracy. Its getting old. If gas drilling is so horrible, there should be plenty of evidence to make your case. Drop the hyperbole.

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Posted by Mike Knapp on 08/21/2013 at 5:23 PM

Oh Mike, give me a Fracked break already. Honest debate? Really? Why then does every industry rep cancel at the last minute? I have lost track of the empty chairs we've kept on the stages from Mercyhurst college to Chico CA. They're afraid of trying to answer the tough questions from the real people who have been harmed. I hope you realize how ridiculous your post is.

Posted by Briget Shields on 08/22/2013 at 12:53 AM

I can't speak for anyone other than myself. I've sat on many panels open to public questions:…

Also have testified under oath at hearings where environmentalists had an open forum to ask whatever they like. We even provided the chemical engineers who hold the patents on the fracing chemicals for one of the largest fracing companies in the world to testify, under oath, about their a room full of 100+ anti-drilling advocates.…

We've drilled wells in the front yard of my house, the president of our company, his parents, and our VP of Operations.

We're a local company. We practice what we preach and we're not hiding from anyone. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail if you are sincerely interested in honest, respectful, public discourse.

Posted by Mike Knapp on 08/22/2013 at 5:49 PM
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