VTDigger is biased against wind energy

Or so it would seem. Recent articles have been clearly slanted in presentation and sourcing. I’ve been hoping this would get better, but a story posted late Wednesday was the straw that broke my back.

It’s entitled “Searsburg Residents Gird for Wind Project Blasting,” which makes it sound like widespread panic over the potential devastation of a peaceful town. The particulars below; first, let’s outline the general pattern at work in Digger’s coverage.

It starts with the David-and-Goliath framing: aggrieved locals versus a big faceless developer. The locals are represented by a single complainer or, in the case of a continuing story, the same handful of folks. The vast majority of local residents who either favor a development or don’t much care are absent.

Never or rarely mentioned is the fact that a wind farm is a literal windfall for a town’s treasury, greatly reducing residents’ tax burdens and underwriting new programs and amenities. (With all our concern about Growing the Economy and Reducing the Tax Burden, you’d think that would be a compelling argument.)

An then there’s the extreme imbalance of outsiders. The same couple of anti-wind advocacy groups are routinely cited, while the numerous environmental groups that support wind energy are rarely if ever represented. A call always goes out to Energize Vermont or Vermonters for a Clean Environment; why not VPIRG or Vermont Conservation Voters or Wind Works Vermont or the Sierra Club or VNRC or The Nature Conservancy?

Finally, there’s space allotment. Within a story, opponents are given far more space than its supporters. Their arguments are quoted at length; supporters are allowed a token response.

That’s the pattern. Now for some examples in detail.

Oct. 19: “Searsburg Residents Gird for Wind Project Blasting.” The “residents” are represented by a single Searsburg man — the only town resident quoted in the piece.

It does quote a New Hampshire man who owns property in Searsburg, and it gives plenty of space to Vermont’s leading anti-wind activist, Annette Smith. On the other side is a spokesman for the developer, who makes two brief cameo appearances.

The story opens with the single worried man bemoaning the potential for loud noises and flying rocks.

It isn’t until the fifth paragraph that we learn “there are no residences close to that site,” which is on National Forest land. Then, in the eleventh paragraph, we read that the contractor will take full precautions including “regular monitoring of ground vibrations and air pressure, and a seismograph will be used.”

It also notes that there are unlikely to be protests during construction, because the location is entirely on federal land and there will be an “exclusion zone.” Presumably to avoid hazards like, say, flying rocks.

Total space allotted: 19 paragraphs for the aggrieved, and only four for the project spokesman. Nothing from the state or from pro-wind advocacy groups.

This is a particularly egregious example, but it fits a pattern of VTDigger journalism that’s heavily skewed against wind farms.

October 18: “Public Service Board May Fine Georgia Windfarm for Iced Blades.” The piece by Mike Polhamus about a possible fine against Green Mountain Community Wind. Fifteen paragraphs are given over to complainant Melodie McLane, who has submitted multiple complaints over alleged noise violations. (As far as can be told, nobody else has complained.) Her evidence is in the form of statements like “Sound…seems to be louder than permissible.”

Ah, science.

Meanwhile, GMCW owner David Blittersdorf was allowed a measly two paragraphs to respond.

The potential violation occurred on only two days last winter — a fact not revealed until the tenth paragraph. Until then, a reader could get the impression that GMCW’s offenses are routine.

And, by the way, this is a preliminary finding, and Blittersdorf still contends there were no violations.

This is another flawed aspect of Digger’s wind reporting: any potential violation is given widespread coverage, which creates an impression of wind farms as constant transgressors. In fact, wind farms operate within permitted levels virtually all the time.

Polhamus is a decent journalist on a broad range of issues. But when it comes to wind, he’s a repeat offender.

October 11: “Family’s Wind Energy Application Draws Mixed Reviews.” This story gives some grudging respect to the developers, Travis and Ashley Belisle, who actually live on the Swanton property where the wind farm would be built. But it quickly swerves to opponents who believe the farm “will devalue their property and diminish their quality of life” based on anti-wind junk science about unproven health effects supposedly triggered by inaudible noise and “shadow flicker.”

Doesn’t seem to trouble the Belisles, who’d be living in the shadow of the turbines.

Many of the complainers bought their land from the Belisles. You don’t learn until deep into the story that the Belisles informed all their buyers ahead of time that they might build a wind farm or a rock quarry or a subdivision. And they’ve gone the extra mile by offering to buy back any property that any purchaser now wants to sell.

They are confident, in fact, that the wind farm won’t hurt property values and they won’t have any trouble reselling any land they buy back.

Opponents are given plenty of space to make evidence-free allegations against the Belisles and wind energy. The story also gives Annette Smith her usual platform, while failing to cite any pro-wind advocacy groups.

Overall, this article is more balanced than others, but it still gives too much weight to wind opponents.

September 15: “Protesters Greet Governor at Wind Project Ceremony.” This story is about the groundbreaking for the same wind farm cited in the above “Searsburg Braces For Disaster” story. It opened with the ceremony protected by a State Police “checkpoint” aimed at blocking protests.

There was mention of “vociferous protests and legal challenges” during a planning process that took “more than a dozen years.” Then came this prize-winning sentence:

The protests continued in force and in earnest Monday, with about three dozen people from around Vermont and from nearby Massachusetts holding signs, shouting, at times chanting or singing — especially as Shumlin’s SUV drove past toward the site.

Okay, let’s unpack that little gem.

I wasn’t aware that “about three dozen people” constituted a “force.” (The Rutland Herald story about this event estimated the “force” at two dozen.) And the fact that they came from all over tells me that there’s little to no local opposition. It’s all capped off by the casual slam on “Shumlin’s SUV” sailing through the “checkpoint.”

One of the “force” was none other than Annette Smith, dressed in a Batwoman costome — in honor of the bats that “could be affected by the project.” The actual evidence, of course, proves that turbine blades kill a teeny-tiny, inconsequential number of bats and birds. But hey, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good costume.

The story gives several paragraphs over to Smith’s rote arguments, and then moves on to another protester: state Rep. Marianna Gamache of Swanton, one of the ringleaders of the effort to block the Belisles’ project.

Opponents got 21 paragraphs in the story. Coverage of the ceremony itself: six paragraphs devoted to Shumlin’s remarks. And the project contractor got a measly two paragraphs to rebut the opponents’ lengthy arguments.

June 22, “Windham Officials Clash With Developer Over Turbine Talks.”  One in a long series of stories covering the proposed Stiles Brook wind farm in Windham and Grafton. This one centers on a letter written by two members of the (three-person) Windham Selectboard, thoroughly slamming the proposal and urging the developer to withdraw.

The letter is full of overblown anti-wind rhetoric that basically depicts the plan as ushering in the Apocalypse: widespread destruction, flooding, wildlife decimation, and a broad range of physical and mental illnesses.

Writer Mike Faher quotes the letter at great length, while giving much less space to the developer’s response.

Unmentioned anywhere is the fact that the wind farm would be visible — at substantial distance — from the home of Selectboard Chair Frank Seawright. Yes, he’s got a vested interest because he doesn’t want to be able to see turbines from his backyard.

On the other hand, there are no local voices who favor the project because it would lower their tax burdens and they don’t buy the anti-wind hype.

Perhaps this is because supporters may be cowed into silence. In Grafton, recall that the then-Selectboard chair resigned after receiving a threatening letter. He was replaced by, shocker, an opponent of Stiles Brook. And there have been numerous instances, never reported in the media, of supporters being shouted down or prevented from speaking at public meetings.

Aprli 6: “Wind Studies Met With Skepticism in Grafton.” This story concerned a presentation by Stiles Brook developer Iberdrola, relaying the results of extensive studies of potential impact on the environment, human health, and property value. It found little to no reason for concern.

Which did nothing to convince the hard-core opponents, who accused Iberdrola of cooking the books and ignoring their unfounded “scientific” claims. Their concerns are fully aired, plus there are four paragraphs of Annette Smith and one for former Senator Peter Galbraith, a vocal opponent of wind who lives about ten miles away from the project.

Unrepresented, as usual: the large contingent of pro-wind advocacy groups. Or any outsiders other than Smith and Galbraith.

I could go on, but the point is proven. VTDigger has a serious balance problem with its wind-energy coverage. It creates the impression of widespread opposition by highlighting the same handful of activists plus the occasional local. No space is given to pro-wind groups, which make up the bulk of the environmental advocacy community. Nor is there mention of the overwhelming scientific evidence they could bring to the discussion. Questions are raised, but the easily available answers are omitted.

VTDigger is a fine organization, utterly irreplaceable in our diminished media landscape. Which makes it all the more important that they get things right. On wind, VTDigger is failing.

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11 thoughts on “VTDigger is biased against wind energy

  1. Adam Maxwell

    Seems like maybe they are catering (or perhaps the right word is cratering) to their climate-science denying commentariat. Seriously, reading through VT Digger comments is like a grand tour of how our media and education system fails in producing informed critical thinkers.

    Reply
  2. Stephen Green

    If someone only read the VTDigger and the comment section about wind energy VT they would think that a cabal of international developers have declared on the Green Mountains and are using Wind Turbine noise to brainwash Vermonters into installing Peter Shumin as dictator for life. Fortunately, the silent majority support wind power and do not spend their time dressing up as superheroes desperately trying to pitch neighbor against neighbor. Maybe that $50,000 to Lyndon College would be better used studying the toxic nonsense coming from Annette Smith’s mouth

    Reply
  3. David Blittersdorf

    John Walters. We have never met or talked about wind energy. Thank you very much for writing about the truth about wind in VT and the media, especially VTDigger. More crazy media reporting in the NEK abound with my home wind turbines in Lowell and my two turbine wind farm and the single turbine on a farm in Holland.

    Reply
  4. johngreenberg

    John:

    As a regular reader of VT Digger, I generally agree with your analysis, as far as it goes. I would note that it extends to large-scale solar as well as to wind projects by the way, and to carbon taxes as well.

    Most of your analysis is about balance: wind critics are given more credibility and space than supporters, leading to your conclusion that one side gets better treatment than the other.

    Still, such an analysis, like much of modern journalism, ignores a simple truth: namely, that many claims made (to some extent by both sides) are simply (and provably) false. When wind opponents claim, as one did today in a letter to the Reformer, that “wind energy does not decrease emissions from other energy sources,” they’re either uninformed or lying. This isn’t my OPINION; it’s an easily documented fact and, indeed, I spend a fair amount of time, providing the facts and links to the documentation for them.

    Once upon a time, what I do was considered part of the journalistic mission, and it certainly bolstered the claim for journalistic “objectivity.” This is not a small point. By displacing the journalist’s role in ascertaining the facts, contemporary journalism has effectively left a vacuum which has been filled by cranks of all sorts. The journalistic response of occasionally referring to “fact-checkers” doesn’t really improve matters much, because the basic narrative continues to be one which suggests – as your analysis does – that “objectivity” can be obtained by balancing competing views. This leads to a shallow epistemological relativity which seems to be at the base of much of today’s political debate: in a world where there are no longer any facts, everyone has the right to her opinion. Truth is best ascertained by weighing the competing opinions.

    This approach ignores the greatest intellectual achievement of the last 500 years: namely, the use of the scientific method to assess empirical reality, rather than resorting to authority of any kind.

    In the Medieval period, it was not uncommon to see authorities pitted against one another just as in today’s wind debates: there are several texts pitting Christian against Muslim authorities (and sometimes Jewish as well). That, in itself, was a step forward from rote acceptance of the same few authorities (Aristotle, the church, etc.).

    It was a considerable leap forward when, instead, some intellectuals decided that rather than seeking out the best authorities, they would actually look at the phenomena themselves (those which are empirical, of course).

    Similarly, as long as a debate like this one remains a constant subject of discussion, it would make sense for some journalists to take the time to inform themselves of the vast literature on the subject which actually has looked NOT at what various authorities may have articulated, but rather at the actual facts of the matter. The internet provides us instant access to a remarkable fund of empirical expertise on just about any subject.

    I realize that this requires a commitment of time and energy that few reporters have any more.

    Still, here’s a simple suggestion. If you’re on a beat where a claim is repeated more than X times by one side or the other and which you know to be contentious, Google it. In just a few minutes of skimming and reading, you will be either be able to ascertain who’s right, or at least establish that the issue really is contentious. In the former case, share the facts and not the he said/she said with your readers. (If you want to share the he said/she said too, that’s fine, as long as the actual facts are given primacy).

    I’ll conclude by noting that what I’m arguing has implications that go WAY past the debate over renewable energy in Vermont. It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump getting anywhere at all in an era when journalists felt obliged to inform their readers (listeners) about actual facts.

    Reply
  5. Sherman Schman

    I really doubt that VTDigger is biased against wind power. Without a doubt the comment section of VTDigger has been hijacked by conservative posters. The same conservatives, some rather way out there, post over and over saying the same thing. These conservative voices not only dominate the comments about wind power, but also about any number of socio/political topics.

    Reply
  6. Thump McDougal

    Big Wind is not a conservative v. liberal issue. It is an environmental preservation versus development issue, a rural versus urban issue, ultimately a high-information versus low-information issue.

    The more people understand about Big Wind, the more they find to dislike. Unless they’re making money from it… like serial offender Blittersdorf (illegal blasting, unpermitted MET tower, ice violation, turbine in the wrong location, and on and on). Miniscule amounts of electricity; insignificant GHG reduction; enormous, permanent damage to the mountains.

    Big Wind is right up there with EB-5 in its corrupting effect on Vermont.

    Reply
    1. David Blittersdorf

      Thump McDougal is factually wrong on all accounts when attacking me. I am a renewable energy innovator, manufacturer and project builder.
      1.) FACT: All construction at Georgia Mt Community Wind (GMCW) was completed to our CPG except our contractor worked on a state holiday by mistake, Bennington Battle Day. No one knew! For that we (they) had to paid a fine of $10,000. Ironically, they were working on the Bennington Rt 7 by-pass that day for the State of Vermont but the state allows itself to have contractors work on holidays.
      2.) FACT: No permits were required for my MET tower in the Town of Irasburg because they have no zoning and it was used to measure the wind for my log cabin small wind turbines. Case still pending.
      3.) FACT: No violation of our winter operation protocol for safely operating in winter weather condition at GMCW. Minimal icing and we strongly disagree with the PSB and the case is continuing.
      4.) FACT: My two residential wind turbines in Irasburg are permitted with a CPG near my log cabin on part of my roughly 600 acres of land. Case pending and complainant is nearby camp owner from CT.
      FACT: Large wind turbines produce large amounts of electricity and correspondly offset carbon emissions. Large wind turbines have minor site impacts compared to their huge positive environmental benefits. Large wind turbines return 30-50 times more energy over their life-cycle than it takes to build and operate them over their lifetime.

      Reply
  7. billchristian2013

    VTDigger is more than biased. It is deeply and sadly in error about wind. There is no such thing as WTS. Fact. A small number of fanatics, with seed money from Koch Industries, is having a corrosive effect on our ability to do what has to be done. This opposition to seeing turbines in the distance, preferring to continue burning insane quantities of fossil fuel as we rapidly approach the point of irreparable damage to our one and only precious environment. Drives me crazy. How stupid are we? The first VTDigger article above actually quoted, with a straight face, a man who was “measuring the force of the blast”. Would he do that if they were widening the freeway for his SUV? I don’t THINK so. “Measuring the force of the blast”? Does he think it will loosen up the state and slide it into Massachusetts? That is stark raving looney, grasping at ANYTHING to raise doubt about wind in peoples’ minds. They are going to use EXPLOSIVES, just like them TERRORISTS do! What NEXT!

    Reply

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