Keeping Reporters and the Public in the Dark

McCarthy, Elizabeth
June 2004
Nieman Reports;Summer2004, Vol. 58 Issue 2, p22
The article discusses how secret dealmaking creates big challenges for journalists trying to cover the risks and benefits of energy decisions. When California's deregulated energy market crashed and could not be put back together again, there were widespread fears that the lights would go out in homes, schools, hospitals and businesses. There were rolling information blackouts that continue. Since the deregulation fiasco, the public has been left in the dark about energy issues. Facts are being hidden at both the state and federal levels on matters that affect human and environmental health and people's pocketbooks. In 1996, the complex bill responsible for the debacle was rammed through the legislature with few lawmakers taking the time to understand its potential ramifications. When the energy market cracked in early 2001, wholesale prices soared so high that the state's investor-owned utilities, which serve millions of customers, could not pay their energy bills. The key concern was the crisis's impact on the fifth largest economy in the world. That vast majority of Californians, including many lawmakers and regulators, were indeed left powerless. They had no information challenge deals worked out in secret that would affect them for years to come. That includes arrangements with the private utilities and several agreements between the California Department of Water Resources and those who generate energy. There are several examples of closed-door government decisions. The most notorious is U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney's pro-industry secret energy task force that developed the administration's energy policy. Less well-known are secrecy issues involving several liquefied natural gas plants now being proposed on the shores of California and in other U.S. areas and Mexico. INSET: The Language and Culture of the Energy Beat.


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