So when it comes to media perception in the U.S. today, which sin is worse: Fake news, slanted news, unreported news or badly inaccurate news never corrected?
The latter two questions seem especially pertinent in Alaska where the media might be a national leader in the sin of omission. There are a whole bunch of weighty issues Alaskans don’t want to talk about, or only want to talk about in the politically correct or the most superficial of ways, and the mainstream media seem all too happy to oblige.
It has now been more than a full news cycle since craigmedred.news reported on a ground-breaking, new, government-funded study that concluded no evidence can be found to show the Exxon Valdez oil spill harmed herring and pink or sockeye salmon in Alaska while some evidence actually indicates the spill benefited Chinook salmon.
Only one media source – MustReadAlaska.com, a right-leaning internet start-up – has shown the courage to pick up on the story, and then only to contact craigmedred.news to ask permission to reprint part of what was reported.
This is not the first time this has happened. The mainstream media ignored an assault on a female musher during the iconic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2016 and tried to run and hide when it was revealed a musher facing assault charges for attacking his female companion that same year was allowed to race.
The Iditarod is considered an event about which only positive associations should be made, but the latter story was impossible to ignore with domestic violence a hot-button issue in U.S. sports. There was eventually enough attention given the subject that the Iditarod decided to ban the musher, who later agreed to enter a violence treatment program and by most indications now appears to be a better man for it.
Much like the Iditarod, the Exxon Valdez oil spill is wrapped in a coat of political correctness: Exxon was evil. Exxon smeared the Sound. And because of this Exxon should be damned to eternal hell because the Sound will never be the same.
“The state’s willingness to do business with Exxon (is) like having your parents rent the basement to the guy who date raped you on prom night” as a local newspaper columnist put it on the 25th anniversary of the spill.
The claim the Sound will never be the same clearly qualifies as “fake news” for the simple reason that in being true it is patently untrue. The Sound of 1989, the year of the spill, will never again be the Sound of 1989, because ’89 is history.
Ecosystems are not static. They are constantly changing. The study finding Exxon not guilty (which is significantly different from innocent) of damaging herring, and sockeye and pink salmon in the Sound also found serious and significant environmental changes there since ’89.
One was an increase in freshwater pouring into the Sound. The freshwater influenced the Sound’s food chain. Because of heavy inflows of freshwater, marine phytoplankton numbers fell. Young herring faced a food shortage. Many of them died as a result. And the herring population shrunk.
Another change was the hundreds of millions of pink salmon fry dumped into the Sound by hatcheries. The fry competed with sockeye salmon smolt for food, and returning adults not only competed with young sockeye for food they ate some of them. As a result, pink salmon displaced some sockeye salmon in the Sound.
If you’re one of those who believe a salmon is a salmon, that’s no big deal. If you’re one of those, as some Alaskans are, who looks down his or her nose at pinks, this is a problem.
Whichever it is, whatever you think of either the problems of hatcheries or freshwater, they caused changes to the Sound that are not Exxon’s fault, but Exxon has been getting blamed for decades.
Google “Cordova herring oil,” and see what you get:
Fair is fair
All of those stories are now basically “fake news” given they are all built on the premise that Sound fisheries – the most important economic engine in the area – were wrecked by the spill.
This happens in journalism. The world changes daily. Science advances. New things are learned. Old beliefs, like the one about the world being flat, die.
And the media fixes the record or not. When the not happens, then what? Is there any real difference between making up false accusations and allowing false accusations to stand because you once thought them valid?
I have asked a few other journalists about what is going on here. Generally, they have offered two arguments in defense of the silence, and I have a third. Mine goes first:
1.) No media release. Unless a government entity issues one of those, nothing happens. In too many ways, the media has become an army of the federal, state and local bureaucracies.
And now the others:
2.) Journalists can’t bring themselves to alter the oil-spill-killed-fisheries narrative because journalists played such a big role in writing it. That position is understandable. Wrong, but understandable.
3.) The study can’t be trusted. It must have been bought and paid for by Exxon. This view is incomprehensible, the key reason being that there is no evidence – not a hint – to support such a claim.
But the lack of evidence doesn’t matter to some. They have engaged what has become a classic (at least in these sad times) journalistic defense. It can be spelled out this way: I don’t want to believe the study, so it must be biased by its funding sources.
Even if that were true, you’d have thought that some members of the Alaska media perceived as strongly anti-oil might have picked up on the story just to try to counter that perception. You would have been wrong. It’s just not nice to question the EV narrative.
On Facebook, I’ve already confessed to sitting on the study for weeks myself because I didn’t want to be the one who broke the news. I hoped maybe someone else – someone actually getting paid real money to do journalism – would take the point.
Reporting that Exxon didn’t destroy the fisheries is a good way to become unpopular with a whole segment of Alaska. But let’s ignore that and consider for a moment that accusation the study is somehow biased because of Exxon influence.
The study was funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council. The Council is a group of high-level state and federal bureaucrats. It’s funding came from penalties the government imposed on Exxon after the spill. It’s future is tied to continuing to show long-term damage to the environment related to Exxon oil.
All of its financial motives are to find the opposite of what this study found.
The lead author on the study was Eric Ward, a researcher at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He has a doctorate from the University of Washington. He did his undergraduate work at the University of California-San Diego and Montana State University. UC-San Diego is a hotbed of environmental activists. Montana State is more conservative. Crowdpac, which rates these sorts of things, pegs Montana as the 203rd most liberal college out of 446 U.S. colleges.; UC-Davis is 139, the University of Washington is 151.
Joining Ward on the study were:
- Milo Adkison from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, another product of Montana State and UW, he now lives in a blue outpost in a sea of Interior Alaska red. UAF ranks 118th on Crowdpac’s list of liberal universities.
- Jessica Couture,a doctoral candidate at UC-Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara was one of the schools that helped create the field of “environmental sciences.”
- Sherri Dressel, the statewide herring biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who earned both her masters and her doctorate at UAF.
- Mike Litzow from the Farallon Institute in California. Farallon is a non-profit research entity which describes itself as “dedicated to the understanding and preservation of healthy marine ecosystems.”
- Steve Moffitt, the now retired Prince William Sound fisheries research biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He spent much of his career to trying to tie Exxon oil to the herring crash. Only eight years ago, he told Think Progress that “toxins left from the spill might have stressed fish and weakened their immune systems. This makes the populations vulnerable to disease and other factors that could diminish fish stocks.”
- Tammy Hoem Neher, now a U.S. Forest Service fisheries biologist in Arizona, working at the time of the study for NOAA’s Gulf Watch Alaska program dedicated to a continued hunt for “information about the lingering EVOS oil and the recovery of species and resources injured by the spill,”
- John Trochta, a University of Washington graduate student studying the life histories of herring.
- And Rich Brenner, a herring and salmon research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who grew up in the greater Anchorage area; commercial fished in the Sound, Cook Inlet, and elsewhere around the state; worked on the Exxon oil spill delivering boom; and earned under-graduate and graduate degrees from UAF before getting his doctorate from UC-Berkeley.
If anything, Exxon was judged by a jury stacked against it, and yet that jury concluded this:
“We found no evidence supporting a negative EVOS impact on herring, sockeye salmon, or pink salmon productivity, and weak evidence of a slightly positive EVOS signal (in the press-recovery model) on Copper River Chinook salmon productivity.”
It’s a shocking conclusion after decades of suggestions Exxon destroyed fisheries in the Sound. That the media can ignore such a study is even more amazing.
If nothing else, you’d think at least one reporter would be curious as to how an oil spill could have a positive influence on Alaska’s troubled king salmon.
No can explain the latter, although as one biologist not involved with the study said today, “we tend to forget oil is a natural substance.”
Chemically, crude contains the chemicals that go into fertilizer. Maybe all that ugly, horrible oil spilled in the Sound turned into fertilizer. And the spill was ugly and horrible. I was there on the ground a fair bit and still have a personal flotation device (PFD) that reeks of North Slope crude.
The spill was a disaster. It doesn’t become any less of a disaster because the fish, which live under the water we live above, were not decimated. That is a good thing.
You’d think someone in the Alaskan mainstream media would be celebrating the revelation that Exxon didn’t destroy the fisheries of the Sound after all. It is in a way a feel good story, but it seems a whole lot of folks just want to ignore it.