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February 2, 2010

Objects in Mirror: Gotcha

Politicizing Community Wind to Sell Newspapers

by Philip Conkling

Benjamin Franklin once said, "Never argue with a man who buys his ink by the barrel."

I assume that the Maine Sunday Telegram buys ink by the barrel, but I've got a serious bone to pick with them over their January 24th front-page coverage of the Fox Islands wind-power project. "Wind Turbines Turn Into Headache for Vinalhaven", written by Tux Turkel, one of the paper's veteran reporters,  so distorted the community's reaction to the noise issue that I have to wonder what the paper's real agenda is.

The reporter interviewed five neighbors of the wind project who are very upset about the noise from the turbines. He also quoted George Baker, the CEO of Fox Islands Wind, who put the complicated project together while on leave from the Harvard Business School. Baker, who also serves as the vice-president of the Island Institute's Maine Community Wind program at the Island Institute, is currently advising the electric power companies on Monhegan and Swan's Island about their potential to develop much smaller projects to serve their communities.

I have included a link to the story at the end of this piece so you can form your own opinion of the reporter's handling of his story. But what you won't know from reading the article is that George Baker is misquoted - an error that completely changes the central message of the story. 

In the article, Baker is quoted as questioning how small communities should balance the concerns of one out of ten people in the community who are experiencing noise issues with the significant economic benefits that the remainder of the islanders are receiving. The terribly disturbing misquote is that Baker actually referred to one out of every ten people within a mile of the turbines (these words were omitted from the quote) who are experiencing noise issues - not one out of ten in the community. Big difference.

Baker's is an important and legitimate question to ask - and one the community is beginning to wrestle with. After speaking one-on-one to almost all of the neighbors within a mile of the project, Baker believes that there are approximately ten people who own five properties that are very upset by the noise of the turbines.  Another small handful of people - on perhaps another half dozen properties-- are upset about the noise, but are willing to let the testing process play out and have chosen not to join the small vocal minority demanding the immediate action of turning the turbines down, no matter what the financial impact on everyone else in the community.

Obviously, if the Fox Islands (Vinalhaven and North Haven) have 2,000 ratepayers and 200 of them - 10 percent - as implied in the Maine Sunday Telegram story had a problem with the project, this would be extremely significant. If one out of every ten of the year-round ratepayers within a mile of the turbines -- have an issue with noise from the turbines, the approach for the electric co-op leaders take to address the issue will be very different. Are they dealing with 4 or 5 or even ten or a dozen neighbors -or 200 ratepayers who are demanding an immediate response.

The reporter knew these facts because I gave them to him, as I believe George Baker did as well. We urged him to speak with other people in the community - including those within a mile of the turbines who are not upset with the turbine sounds -- but he chose to ignore other opinions that might have provided balance to his reporting. It is critically important both to recognize that noise annoyance thresholds are very different for different individuals, and thus that any single noise standard is not going to be a solution for all those involved in this important community decision.

So, okay; everyone gets misquoted in the press and comments are frequently taken out of context. But really. Most journalists are nothing if not cynical about those who may be riding high in the public's view. Whether the reporter was playing "Gotcha" and ignored community members to get a more black-and-white story, we'll never know. But what we do know is that the story was picked up by the Associated Press, went viral on the Internet among anti-wind activists, and on January 26th was even picked up by Rush Limbaugh to make the cheap political point that environmentalists have once again sold us a bill of goods in wind-power. Then the Portland Press Herald ran an editorial suggesting that Maine needs more reliable and predictable standards for locating turbines. Believe me, this story went everywhere, which may have been a huge success for the Maine Sunday Telegram. But it's been very damaging to those community leaders who hope to take control of their energy futures, hurtful to the roughly 1,980 island ratepayers who are proud of the Fox Islands Wind project, and ultimately a bad day for newspaper reporting when such an important issue is unfairly politicized. 

Link to Maine Sunday Telegram story: http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/story.php?id=311094&ac=PHnws

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