For The Media, Blackout Was All About Blame

For The Media, Blackout Was All About Blame
While the nature of the energy industry has changed since 1965 we are no more dependent on reliable electricity than upon reliably accurate news reporting.

By Paul F. Stifflemire, Jr.

"Shortly before 5:15 in the evening, somewhere along the great triple-conductor line that runs from Niagara Falls to New York City in three wrist- thick strands of iron-core aluminum, a surge of electrical energy went berserk. Whether a switching device had failed to operate, whether somewhere in the vast Northeast power grid a giant generator had suddenly gone out of phase, whether a computer experienced a nervous breakdown no one would be able to determine exactly for some time afterward. But at that moment the electric pulse all up and down the great 345-kilovolt line surged, wobbled and flickered; and, like a pinched aorta, it caused an entire civilization to flicker with it.  Thousands of New Yorkers were trapped on subway trains, and automobile traffic ground to a halt as traffic signals failed.  People walked home or camped out.  New Yorkers were cited for their grace in the face of hardship.  Each utility company disclaimed responsibility and suggested others equipment or personnel were to blame.  It was remarked that the industry has created an interconnected system so complex that engineers can no longer understand it.
---From an article by Theodore H. White in LIFE magazine and news stories concerning the great blackout of 1965.

While the nature of the energy industry has changed since 1965 we are no more dependent on reliable electricity than upon reliably accurate news reporting. Media coverage of the blackout of 2003 indeed demonstrated a significant and glaring weakness; not in the nations power grid, so much as in the nations news industry.  The lights are back on; but the public remains in the dark regarding what happened, how serious it was, the likelihood of a recurrence and what, if anything, should be done about it.  Examining the weaknesses in the media coverage of the blackout of 2003 leaves us pondering whether those charged with informing the public are impartial and objective enough to be trustworthy. 

 The investigation is ongoing, and it is too soon to draw conclusions on the cause or causes of the outage.--Testimony of Michehl R. Gent, President and CEO of North American Electric Reliability Council before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce September 3, 2003

When in doubt, spin

As the great blackout of 2003 began the news was as straightforward as it was in the last great outage of 1965.  As many as 50 million people served by an interconnected power grid were denied electricity when the grid malfunctioned on August 14. Nothing else was certain; anything else was pure speculation.  But the early hours of the blackout saw a media determined to find the cause. Lightning strikes, computer hackers, fallen tree limbs, a Con Edison power plant fire, fire at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant, downed transmission lines and terrorism all were offered as possible causes for the blackout. When no explanation materialized, the media became fixated on blame, and would come to provide a forum for every expert with an agenda to advance.

Industry deregulation was quickly introduced as a factor increasing the likelihood of large scale grid failure, demonstrating a media bias that would be fed by opponents of free markets. While the nearly identical electrical grid failure in 1965 was merely an incident, deregulation transformed the blackout of 2003 into a crisis. At 7:51PM on August 14, four hours after the start of the failure, the US Newswire carried a press release issued by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights noting that Most of the states impacted by Thursday's massive blackout are states that have enacted electricity deregulation schemes in recent years.  The next day print and broadcast stories began raising the issue of deregulations role; from August 15 to August 21 an average of 39 daily news reports linked deregulation and the blackout. Despite the fact that five of the last six major US power failures occurred prior to any deregulation of the electrical grid, and with no evidence it played a role, deregulation would come to be instrumental in the blackout. The experts offering the blame deregulation argument all turn out to be advocates from anti industry organizations including Public Citizen, Consumers Union, The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, Consumer Federation of America, and  US Public Interest Research Group and staunch deregulation opponents. Disregarded were inconvenient statements by representatives from responsible state and federal regulatory authorities that determining the cause for the blackout would take weeks of meticulous investigation.

FirstEnergy becomes a culprit

One extremely biased exchange occurred on CNN NewsNight August 19 between Aaron Brown and BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast; just two news men trying to get to the bottom of the blackout.  In an amazing display, Palast used the terms: power pirates crew, the model for the movie China Syndrome, and a kind of monstrosity, to describe FirstEnergy, a utility holding company headquartered in Akron, Ohio identified early on by the media as a prime candidate for blackout blame and the poster child for the evils of deregulation. Asked why an investigative reporter for the BBC [would] have any knowledge about FirstEnergy,  Palast told Brown that, before I wasan investigative reporter, I was an investigator [who] dug into FirstEnergy and the rest of this power pirates crew for the governor of Ohio.  If that didnt raise a red flag concerning Palasts lack of objectivity, the most cursory review of his history of published rants would have revealed his pathological bias against the private sector. Brown was not content merely to accord expert credibility to Palast, but had to bash FirstEnergy himself:  You paint a picture, Brown said, of a company that isand I dont think anyone disputes thisis up to its eyeballs in debt because of all these acquisitions, is under pressure to reduce debt, and so has cut corners, cut corners, and cut corners.

Comments like those of Charles Gibson on ABCs World News Tonight August 18 demonstrate the obvious contradiction: As for the cause of the blackout, investigators say it will be weeks before they know for sure.but the principal focus is on the actions of one Ohio power company that seems to be where the blackout started. The media couldnt wait weeks for a factual explanation of the underlying cause of the blackout. FirstEnergy appealed to an instinctive media bias against deregulation and big business and provided an easy target.  According to the Associated Press: It has been a bad month for FirstEnergy. The Ohio-based owner of power lines that might have triggered the largest blackout in U.S. history was found guilty of pollution in early August, warned about its staggering $12.5 billion debt and forced to slash earnings estimates.Efforts to nail down the source of the blackout have shifted to Ohio and FirstEnergy Corp., the nation's fourth-largest investor-owned utility and No. 159 on the Fortune 500 list.... The company benefited enormously from industry deregulation, which was blamed in part for failures to overhaul the power grid and modernize the lines.

A lexis-nexis search for the term blackout yielded 250 articles between August 15 and August 25 linking blackout and FirstEnergy. There were far fewer mentions of other utilities involved--11 for Niagara-Mohawk, and 72 for Con Edison, including a story relating that Con Edison would not honor any blackout claims because the blackout started in Ohio. AP writer Joel Stashenko suggested the blackout gave critics an opportunity to question deregulation of New Yorks utility industry and went on to prove his own point:  Deregulation was designed to get utilities out of energy generation and into the power delivery business. Consumers were to have benefited by being able to shop around for the cheapest poweras long distance telephone consumers do.However, neither choice nor significantly lower prices have yet developed for most consumers in New York, where electricity remains among the most expensive in the nation. His colleague Jeff Donn, writing August 15, added: The blackout already has spawned talk of overhauling the national electrical grid.and raised new questions about whether deregulation of the power industry might have played a part in Thursday's disruptions. From Rosalind Jordan of NBC News on August 16: After the blackout of 1965 utilities agreed to voluntary guidelines designed to keep the power grid running smoothly and avoid massive outages. But when deregulation introduced more financial competition to the market, adhering to the voluntary guidelines and restrictions sometimes threatened profits, so utilities became more likely to ignore them.

Where theres deregulation, theres Republicans

 A lack of facts did not prevent the media from concluding that introducing market discipline to the generation and supply of electricity made the blackout more likely and corrective action less likely.  As Cynthia Cotts of The Village Voice put it in: It's Deregulation, Stupid: What the GOP Wont Say About the Blackout: Although many Republicans deny it, some journalists have already decided that deregulation is the root cause of the blackout. It's convenient for Bush to say now that the interstate power grid "needs to be modernized," but where is the evidence that that will happen in a free market dominated by private energy companies? CNN got right to the point on the American Morning of August 19. Soledad OBrien began Fallout from Blackout with: After the blackout comes the fallout. The effort to find out who or what was to blame for the largest ever power failure is in full swing.... Let's begin first with the lights being back on -- back on in New York City, back on in Cleveland, back on in Detroit and elsewhere. Now the finger-pointing starts. There was no question where shed point the finger: Politically speaking, Victor, who do you think is going to shoulder the blame here? The Bush administration? Do you think the finger-pointing will go back to the Clinton administration, or maybe back even further than that? A seemingly fair and balanced question; but, answering the question who gets the blame was Victor Kamber, a paid political consultant to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). Given the opening, Kamber took it: Well, there's probably a lot of blame all over for both parties. I won't start off being totally partisan. I'll get there in a second. But I think that obviously this crisis has been brewing for years. It's the second blackout in recent times that I can remember in the Northeast. I think the difference is you've had administration in power for three years that runs both houses of Congress, the president, and it's on his watch, and we've had no comprehensive infrastructure plan from this White House.So I think the blame has to be at door of the White House and the Republican administration.

A media created crisis

Thirty eight years ago the great blackout of 1965 was covered as straight news.  In 2003, with the U.S. embarked upon the early stages of an experiment with partially deregulated utilities a nearly identical blackout was a crisis. On MSNBCs Countdown News Show of August 15, Keith Olbermann used the word three times in his introduction: This special COUNTDOWN underway with the how and why of the blackout that still lingers for millions throughout the Northeast and Canada. Your preview of our No. 4 story: The city where it's worst may not be getting the attention they deserve. And also still ahead of us tonight, the reaction of Homeland Security to the blackout. Big concerns in the opening minutes and hours of the crisis. How did it do? Ahead of us, here on COUNTDOWN, the Blackout of 2003 other than in New York City, some places even hit harder than New York. And the political fallout from the energy crisis; there isnt a blame crisis is there? Stand by.

The New York Times stated on August 16 in The Blackout: Political Strategies; Which Party Gets the Blame?: Democratic strategists said the crisis could enable their party to question whether President Bush was adequately safeguarding the nation's energy and economic security and to bring back to center stage his administration's ties to the energy industry. CNNs Susan Lisovicz, speaking August 16 on In The Money said: The costs to the economy for the power blackout are still being tabulated, but initial estimates show New York City may have been hardest hit. Preliminary numbers show the city lost up to $750 million in revenue. Additionally, as much as $40 million in lost tax revenue, as business activity shut down during the outage. And the outage cost the city an estimated $10 million in overtime for emergency workers. And that accounts for just the first 24 hours of the crisis. CNNs Lisa Sylvester said: Because of last week's massive outages, there's now new momentum in Congress to approve a final energy bill that could include drilling in the Alaska Refuge. Democrats want to deal with the current crisis independently. And Bill Hemmer, CNN correspondent on American Morning, September 2 added: A few other topics, Jonathan. Let's tick them off quickly. That blackout last month putting that energy crisis really front and center for a lot of people.

But the top of the hype award goes to Aaron Brown on CNN NewsNight, reporting live on the very evening the blackout occurred: Let me just show you briefly a part of New York, a part of New York that many of you are familiar with, but it will look quite different to you. This is Times Square tonight in the heart of Manhattan. On any normal night -- goodness, on any normal day -- there is more light and more electric usage in Times Square than almost anywhere else in the United States.

But not tonight. All of those giant TV screens, all of those news tickers on all of those broadcast facilities that docked Times Square are dark tonight. All of those restaurants that serve the large theater complexes that exist around Broadway and not just a bit off of Times Square dark tonight. Times Square, this great central gathering place in the center of Manhattan, is dark's a place where people do come out and mingle on the streets. They would rather, I assume, be sitting in a restaurant tonight than hanging out in Times Square, but that's where they are tonight. But there's no light there for them. There's no light at all. Jim Gilmore is the former governor of Virginia, and he joins us from Washington tonight. He's been thinking about and working on the homeland security aspect of this crisis.

I think crisis is a fair word, isn't it, governor?

For the news media the 2003 blackout was a vehicle to question deregulation, cause to pillory a utility company singled out as the likely culprit and reason to provide a forum for those hoping to pin blame on President Bush and Republicans for the most significant regional loss of electric power in 38 years. In the process a 30 hour blackout came to constitute a crisis of historic, if not epic, proportions.  Now Im being hyperbolic, but its catching.