About That New York Times "Downside Of The Boom" Story

UPDATE: The New York Times disputes a portion of what I wrote in this post. See below.

The New York Times has a very, very ugly profile of the North Dakota government’s handling of the state’s Bakken oil boom up this weekend. The paper is also promising a second article which they pitch as “An examination of an unusual land deal and questions about the North Dakota government’s relationship with the booming oil industry.”

Not disclosed in the article is the fact that the Times’ reporters met multiple times with former Democrat Lt. Governor candidate Ellen Chaffee (she ran on the gubernatorial ticket with Ryan Taylor in 2012). This fact has been confirmed to me by a spokesperson for the  Times (see below), but you’d think they’d have wanted to disclose the fact that their reporting was guided by someone with such obvious partisan interests.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”I don’t think anyone really expects a balanced report from the New York Times about fossil fuel energy development in a Republican-dominated state. The paper’s default editorial position is that oil companies are evil, and Republicans are corrupt plutocrats.”[/mks_pullquote]

It also doesn’t help that Governor Jack Dalrymple apparently didn’t have to time to give the Times reporters an interview. His office provides a written response to the article, but there are no direct responses from Dalrymple in the article. The governor has an accessibility problem that is widely acknowledged in North Dakota media circles – I can say that the governor and his staff turn down my interview requests more often than not – but Dalrymple failing to go on the record with one of the largest newspapers in the country about the defining issue of his administration is a mistake.

Of course the Times isn’t going to write anything positive about oil development in North Dakota. But refusing to engage them in that coverage leaves a vacuum that can be filled with more innuendo and negativity.

Regardless, I don’t think anyone really expects a balanced report from the New York Times about fossil fuel energy development in a Republican-dominated state. The paper’s default editorial position is that oil companies are evil, and Republicans are corrupt plutocrats. Times reports have to see North Dakota not as a source for a nuanced story about booming energy development and positives/negatives it represents but rather as a bullseye.

Really, though, these “dark side of the boom” stories have been written so often about North Dakota in the past that they’ve become rote. The Times rehashes narratives those following North Dakota’s boom times are very familiar with. Oil spills. Salt water spills. Supposedly lax regulatory oversight.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”It’s like the difference between arrests and actual incidence of crime in another area of public policy. Sometimes people measure the success or failure of policy addressing crime based on arrests data. But is the goal arresting people, or stopping crime?”[/mks_pullquote]

I think what really inspires these stories is a conflict of philosophies. There’s no question in my mind that North Dakota’s approach to industry must seem alien to those who view the government’s proper regulatory role (with regard to the fossil fuel energy industry, anyway) as hostility. But North Dakota is a different place.

This state has always been dependent, but unlike other industry-heavy states in places like the so-called “rust belt,” North Dakotans have traditionally owned their own industry. Rather than citizens laboring for factory owners, North Dakota’s history is made up of farmers and ranchers laboring for themselves. These are people who are generally skeptical of the government telling them how to go about their business.

From those deep agricultural roots has grown a preference for a collaborative sort of approach to regulation. While some activists might recoil in horror that North Dakota regulators might go easy on fines for an energy company that responds quickly to cleaning up a spill (e.g. the Tesoro pipeline spill in Tioga), I think North Dakotans see it as common sense. The goal, after all, clean up and prevent future problems.

It’s like the difference between arrests and actual incidence of crime in another area of public policy. Sometimes people measure the success or failure of policy addressing crime based on arrests data. But is the goal arresting people, or stopping crime?

North Dakota’s oil regulators focus more on results than “arrests.”

To be sure, the results haven’t always been satisfactory. I think everyone in the state would admit that there are things we could do better, but a reluctant sort of regulatory environment is what North Dakotans have voted for over and over again.

Again, what the Times reports is nothing new. It’s been the subject of much political debate in the state, and the side of that debate which loses consistently are the people who want to embrace an adversarial sort of environmental regulation.

The national reporters media outlets like the Times airdrops into our state periodically to write these stories may not like it, but this is the course North Dakota has charted for itself. And despite the hyperbole thrown around by activists and partisan interests, I think most in the state (widely considered to be one of the most content and competently-governed in the nation) are pretty happy with how things are going.

UPDATE: The Times sends along the request for a correction below. They state that their reporter was not guided by former Democrat Lt. Governor candidate Ellen Chaffee (who, again, has obviously partisan interests for painting a negative picture of the state’s regulatory positions) but simply met with her in Bismarck outside of the oil patch.

That sounds a bit like a distinction without a difference, but I’ve modified my post to note this clarification. I had originally written that Chaffee escorted the Times reporters. Now I’ve clarified by stating she simply met with them. Here’s the full email I received from Times spokes person Danielle Rhoades-Ha:

Hi Rob,

Your post on The Downside of the Boom in today’s New York Times contains a factual error. The New York Times reporter met with Ellen Chaffee, who is one of the subjects in the forthcoming story in this series, in Bismarck and Fargo in the course of reporting. (I’ll send a link to part two when published.) Ms. Chaffee did not escort our reporter anywhere, nor did they meet in the Bakken oil patch, which is the focus of this story. The Times report was nine months in the making, based on rigorous reporting, data and dozens of interviews.

While we obviously disagree with your opinion on perceived bias in our news report, we fully support your right to express your opinion. However, facts are another matter and we ask for a correction to your story.

In the future before publishing any claims about The New York Times or its staff, contact me for confirmation or comment.

Danielle

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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