SEJ Board Member Witherspoon's Letter to Texas Observer Editor and Publisher, and Editor's Response
December 18, 2012
Dave Mann, Editor
Piper Stege Nelson, Publisher
The Texas Observer
307 W 7th Street
Austin, Texas 78701
Mr. Mann and Ms. Nelson:
I’ve had a lot of respect for the quality of journalism and the dedication of reporters at The Texas Observer since my days as an editorial board member of the late Dallas Times Herald. So I was both surprised and angered at the shoddy, unprofessional attack on the Society of Environmental Journalists by Melissa del Bosque.
I’ll leave the rebuttal to the bulk of her misinformation to SEJ President Don Hopey, and confine this letter to her attack on the day-long nuclear tour, led by Loretta Williams and myself. If she had had a real interest in delving into a perceived “issue” surrounding this tour she would have contacted me since:
• I am a member of the Board of Directors of SEJ.
• I invited the editors of the Texas Observer to send a reporter to the Thursday nuclear tour, which I organized.
• She was at the conference only because I personally invited her to participate on a panel I organized on Saturday morning on the impact of diversity in the newsroom and in the communities facing environmental issues. She was to discuss her upcoming cover story titled “Kochworld.”
• I authorized paying her $312.40 airfare, waiving her $195 registration fee, and providing her a pass for Friday’s dinner, preview of Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” and discussion with the film’s writer.
Ms. del Bosque’s characterization of the nuclear tour is just plain false.
The purpose of the 15-20 day trips we have at our annual conferences is to give journalists an in-depth view at a particular topic they may cover. One of the more difficult trips to arrange is to nuclear facilities, which are private sites under federal security regulations. We cannot barge into their facilities. But they don’t dictate how the tour is conducted.
The tour was to Waste Control Specialists, in Texas, and Urenco, the fuel enrichment plant, literally next door but in New Mexico. The siting of WCS was – and remains – contentious. Urenco, in contrast, was a welcome addition to the NM community. The two provided book ends to the nuclear power issue. Filling in the center, I invited Len Wert, Deputy Director of Region 2, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to meet with us at Urenco and discuss the oversight role. His agency has authority over the entire fuel cycle, all new reactor development and construction, and all the Southern operating reactors. Mr. Wert was prepared to answer questions about oversight issues and the agency’s controversial response to the disaster in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.
The hosts at SEJ tour sites get an opportunity to present their operation within a time frame set by the organizers. They have to expect, however, many detailed, informed questions by journalists from around the country. While only SEJ members can ask questions on the site, critics are invited to join us and give their own presentation on the bus en route, and participate in a general discussion on the return trip.
That was the case here, where Loretta Williams and I invited Karen Hadden, a citizen activist, and the attorneys for the Sierra Club who, at the time, were in court challenging the WCS operation. Names and other personal information had to be turned into each site a week in advance for security clearance. WCS informed me they would not allow Hadden on site. Due to their personal interactions with her, they deemed her disruptive and no longer allowed her on their premises. They did not object to critics in general.
Again, this is private property with federal security restrictions. I informed Hadden she couldn’t go and told her why. I gave her the option to skip the trip entirely, or arrange a chase car and she could have the first hour of the two-hour trip to give a solo presentation. The Sierra Club, with their legal briefs, would have the second hour.
Ms. Hadden opted to travel halfway, and had her own set of handouts. At the start of the trip – not when she was getting out – I informed the group of the chronology of my discussions with WCS and that Ms. Hadden would be leaving in an hour. She didn’t strike us as unstable or dangerous, and the issues she raised were thoroughly explored during our tour.
The impression that Ms. Del Bosque presents, that this was a one-sided, dog-and-pony show where tough questions weren’t asked, is a lie. These aren’t general assignment reporters who meekly hold up microphones and ask to be told what’s important. These are reporters who cover environmental issues in depth for a living who are used to diving past the public relations fluff and into the scientific details surrounding an issue. There were no restrictions on the questions of the company president.
This trip was no exception. In addition to the information provided by WCS opponents, we were accompanied by Dr. Ron Chesser, Director of the Center for Environmental Radiation Studies at Texas Tech. Dr. Chesser is a world-renowned specialist in radiation leaks into the environment. He flew into Lubbock to join us after two months in Iraq and Chernobyl. His insights as we walked to the bottom of the nuclear waste pit were highly informative.
SEJ is a community of journalists working together to improve the quality of writing on complex scientific, economic, and social implications of the environmental issues we cover. These tours, featuring representatives of all sides of an issue, enhance the knowledge base of the participating reporters. Ms. del Bosque could have enhanced her value to The Texas Observer if she had taken the time at the SEJ conference to learn, rather than seeking ways to take cheap, unfounded, unprofessional shots.
Society of Environmental Journalists
RESPONSE FROM TEXAS OBSERVER EDITOR DAVE MANN:
Thank you for your response. I will have our web editor post your letter—and the letter from Don Hopey—in the comments section on Melissa's post today. We also will run it in our print edition, though that will have to wait till next issue because the deadline for the January issue has already passed.
I also want to thank you for bringing Melissa to the conference. She had nothing but good things to say about the panel, which I gather produced an excellent discussion.
I agree that, in retrospect, we should have contacted you prior to publishing this post—both because you helped lead the tour of the WCS site and because you had invited Melissa to the conference. That was a mistake, and I apologize for not contacting you.
i do think this was a legitimate issue for us to cover. Melissa did speak with SEJ's executive director twice about it, and we quoted her extensively in the post. So we did present SEJ's position, though, again, not contacting you was a mistake.
I can certainly understand your anger at seeing this blog post, especially because you invited and paid for Melissa to go to the conference.
Please call me if you would like to talk about this in more detail. My cell phone number is (512) 470-3446.