Three Stories the Local Media Need to Cover Better

I call it "reporter's remorse," the notion that there were important stories we know we screwed up, missed or pursued with insufficient energy or smarts. Every one of us has that secret list. Three recent stories brought reporter's remorse to mind: short

Jun 24, 2009 at 2:06 pm

I call it “reporter’s remorse.”

It embraces important stories we know we screwed up, missed or pursued with insufficient energy or smarts. Every one of us has that secret list.

Of course, there is a cure for reporter’s remorse offered by a serpent in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It’s the bushel of excuses: I didn’t have time; my editor wasn’t interested; the publisher sits on that board; it was too complicated for our readers; no one goes over budgets line by line; no one sent me a press release.

Three recent stories brought reporter’s remorse to mind: shortfalls in Cincinnati municipal employees’ pensions, the wild disparity between reality and University of Cincinnati economic consultants’ tax revenue projections and the possibility that Duke Energy will build a nuclear power station in Ohio.

Take the first. How many City Hall reporters have failed to appreciate and drive home the failure of successive Cincinnati City Councils to fund pensions? How many editorial writers failed to protest this nonpartisan practice of shifting sticker shock to subsequent councils and generations of taxpayers?

Or the flawed city tax income forecast that Cincinnati paid UC economists to make? Reality changed so much that even city officials rejected the economists’ optimism, but have any reporters, editorial writers, columnists or broadcasters questioned the Brightest Guys in the Room? Or asked whether bad advice is still good when events overtake its premises and reasoning?

And just as the Undead rise from their crypt, the nuclear power story began in an Enquirer Page 1 story, announcing the likelihood that Duke Energy will build a nuke in Piketon. Brief to a fault, the original Enquirer story ignored our costly local experience with nuclear ambitions and promises: CG&E’s botched attempt to build Zimmer Nuclear Power Station in Clermont County.

Granted, CG&E bumblers probably are dead or gone, but the mess deserved more than a passing reference to “financial and regulatory issues” in The Enquirer’s longer second-day story.

Financial issues? A $2 billion screwup is an “issue?” When does it become a “challenge” or, God help us, a management failure?

Regulatory issues? When does the failure of the clueless Nuclear Regulatory Commission become more than an “issue?”

It wouldn’t have taken much digging to provide readers with context for nuclear power here. The Enquirer library is filled with years of stories of what caused those “financial and regulatory issues.” I wrote them.

I inherited the story when I became The Enquirer’s part-time environment reporter in the 1970s. I was the part-time religion reporter, so it became the “creator and creation” beat.

My remorse? I took too long to appreciate how a defensive CG&E management was over its head and that the fiasco began at the top rather than as a collection of seemingly isolated missteps.

• CG&E treated whistleblowers and critics as anti-nuke enemies rather than an early warning system of troubles. There were lots of contrary voices, but it wasn’t hostility to nuclear power that led a quality assurance engineer at Zimmer to question whether shipments of steel were nuclear grade steel as vendors claimed. Nor were they anti-nuclear activists who argued persuasively that NRC-mandated emergency plans were so stupid as to be laughable.

• Competent at building and running coal-fired plants, CG&E was clueless about nuclear. With the possible exception of General Electric, which provided the reactor, CG&E did not choose its builders wisely and/or failed to keep an eye on them.

This history suggests how today’s reporters can watch for systemic problems if Duke goes ahead with a nuke in southeastern Ohio. If The Enquirer lapses into uncritical boosterism, maybe Dayton or Columbus papers will do the job.

Reporters will have to study financial and operating records at Duke’s three existing nukes and its plans for storage of deadly wastes and eventual decommissioning at Piketon, as well as the niceties of environmental impact statements, nuclear licensing, construction issues, etc.

And here’s a place to start: Duke is buying a nuclear system it’s never used before. That means the architect/engineers and a lot of other key players in this project might be doing something for the first time.

That’s what became known as the “dance of the virgins” at Zimmer, the maiden project for CG&E and others.

I’m not anti-nuclear. My summer getaway cabin is between a uranium mine and a mill. My rolling pin/knife sharpener is a test core drilled in the search for uranium on or near our land.

I know that mining uranium kills miners just as coal mining kills miners. There is no such thing as clean coal. Pollutants from coal fires kill.

The nuclear industry says no one has been killed by radiation from a U.S. nuke, but the potential is horrendous. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be redundant safety systems and mandatory plans to protect the public if potentially lethal doses of radiation escape. No one knows where and how we’re going to store nuclear wastes for longer than civilization has existed.

Moreover, I’m skeptical of industry and government promises that technology will resolve all questions in good time or before something goes fatally wrong. I am skeptical of any management’s assertion that it’s smarter than everyone else and doesn’t have to listen when engineers, welders, inspectors and others raise what ultimately are safety questions.

Maybe Duke won’t repeat CG&E’s performance, but Duke shouldn’t say, “Trust us.” I prefer President Reagan’s “trust but verify.” That’s the job for local news media.

Otherwise, add another cause for reporters’ remorse.

Curmudgeon Notes

• Speaking of remorse, tweets and other reports from Iran might be more familiar if I’d accepted a classmate’s offer of a job at his family’s English-language Tehran Journal. Those were, of course, the days of the shah, long before the clerical revolution.

• If doing more with fewer people is the mantra, The Enquirer’s Krista Ramsey might be the model of success: editorial writer, editorial columnist and reporter. That apart, she writes with smarts and passion about education, and her recent Forum section is another in a Sunday series of probing, explanatory journalism.

• The Press Club of Cleveland named The Enquirer Best Daily Newspaper in Ohio with in a circulation of 100,000 or more during its annual Excellence in Journalism awards banquet. When a frequent critic of The Enquirer asked me “what happened,” this was my answer: Good papers in Dayton, Toledo, Akron and Cleveland also reduced staffs, and Enquirer Editor Tom Callinan’s efforts to protect his core hard news reporters paid off. I don’t know how other editors and publishers decided who would stay and who would go, but The Enquirer got it right.

That's unkind to friends and former colleagues there who retired or got the sack, but the paper has a higher proportion of local hard news/enterprise that matters more than ever. The Cleveland Press Club apparently agreed: individual Enquirer awards went to local staff. Think about it: Who cares whether The Enquirer has national/world news? I’d be happy with less if it meant more local news. In the same way, I bet that few of The Enquirer’s subscribers lack internet connections or care what The Enquirer says about national or world affairs 12 hours after we’ve read it online.

[CityBeat and other local media also won Cleveland Press Club awards; see details here.]

• If you haven’t read the Annals of Medicine column "The Cost Conundrum" in the June 1 New Yorker, you’re out of the loop. Surgeon/reporter Atul Gawande uses his scalpel to reveal why some communities have stunningly expensive medical care that’s no better and might be less effective than some others (including the Mayo Clinic). His overall conclusion is that care costs more when physicians treat their patients as an income stream, but where clinics like Mayo use salaried physicians and have a patient-first ethos outcomes improve and costs are contained.

My confident prediction: This article will become pivotal in national debates on whether to improve our nation’s medical insurance programs. It might rank with “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” an anonymous 1947 essay in Foreign Affairs that outlined what became the U.S. policy of containment of Communist expansion.

• Rupert Murdoch sold the neocon Weekly Standard to an even more conservative publisher. It’s one of my must-reads, not least because of its needling of mainstream news media and critiques of liberal verities and ideas.

• Murdoch, on whose news empire the sun never sets, also owns the Times of London. It recently carried a story under the headline, “Racist e-mails reveal ugly side of Republicanism.” Go online for the June 17 story.

It suggests how far the sunbelt GOP has strayed from the party of Lincoln and the more modern decent conservatism of New England elites and Midwestern farmers and shopkeepers. Some of it is old news, some new, but it’s ugly.

Reminds me of the days of George Wallace and his nasty fellow travelers in the Democratic “solid south.” Increasingly unwelcome among Democrats, those politicians and voters embraced Nixon’s Southern Strategy and recreated the GOP.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]