OPINION by RICHARD SCHMIDT
What happens when a community’s newspaper abdicates its responsibility to watchdog local government and seek the truth? You get the messy arrogant cliquish partisan exclusionary faction-serving politics we have in San Luis Obispo instead of government that works in the interests of all.
Recently the Tribune had a long article headlined, in its online presentation, “SLO and Morro Bay now receive cleaner energy, and it’s cheaper, officials say.”
Under a photo below the headline was the caption “Monterey Bay Community Power is now provided [sic] electricity to San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay from green sources . . .” One surmises that means “is now providing” green electricity.
Then the story began: “A new way of receiving cleaner power . . . has arrived in San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay, and it will significantly reduce carbon emissions . . .”
Not only that, the story asserted, MBCP customers “will pay $3 to $10 less per month.”
Mayor Heidi “Harmon added that the change for SLO will remove 20,000 metric tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.”
Sprinkled throughout the Tribune article are terms like “cleaner,” “renewable,” “carbon-free,” “clean energy,” “green” and “energy resilience and reliability” to describe the power we’ll get from MBCP.
The article is sourced 100 percent from a single ideological source, the conjoined triplets SLO, Morro Bay and MBCP and SLO’s familial siblings, the SLO Chamber of Commerce and the SLO Climate Coalition, a private club and adjunct of the SLO Progressives that’s been granted permission – unknown to the public — to drive city climate policy.
One never gets a hint MBCP’s arrival is swathed in controversy, nor does the article include any fact checking on the extraordinary environmental claims being made by its single political source.
* * * *
And therein lies the article’s factualness problem and the Tribune’s credibility problem.
All of the claims about the coming of green power, our access to cleaner power or carbon-free power, MBCP’s reducing carbon emissions on our behalf – all those claims are false.
• Nobody is delivering or receiving cleaner energy.
• Nobody is removing 20K tons of carbon emissions. The precise number of emission tons prevented by our MBCP participation is zero. By uncritically repeating political mendaciousness as fact, the Tribune is lying to us.
The only claim that isn’t manifestly unfactual is the claim of savings, though even that is exaggerated since this year to get the $3 per month discount dangled as the low end of discounts you’d have close to $200 per month bills. I sure don’t. Do you? Further, MBCP admits these savings are only a “goal,” not a promise or certainty.
The root of the Tribune’s lie is that MBCP will deliver no power to us. How could they when they have no power lines to do so?
So, whatever MBCP is selling us, it’s not a different type of power that will arrive at our homes.
We, and our PG&E-served neighbors, will receive identical power. That power will not be carbon-free. About 40 percent, perhaps more, will be carboniferous, with most coming from natural gas, but some coming from coal. That’s because this is what’s in our power lines, the so-called “California mix.”
The Tribune either doesn’t understand what MBCP does, or doesn’t care to make that as clear as the political propaganda it spews. MBCP is nothing more than a power broker, which means they buy power on the market and resell it. We are who they’re reselling it to, but reselling doesn’t mean they deliver anything to us. It’s merely a paper transaction.
What they’ve done in our name is buy “clean” power on the power market. Their power portfolio has a lower percentage of renewables than PG&E’s portfolio, something you’d never guess from the political hype about “green MBCP, bad PG&E.” Two-thirds of MBCP’s portfolio is old Pacific Northwest hydro, some dating to New Deal days. Their renewables are also existing, not new, renewables.
It’s important to understand the global warming significance of old hydro and preexisting renewables. If a power provider is to reduce global carbon emissions, it must create new carbon-free power to replace existing carboniferous power. Simply putting a new ownership name on old carbon-free power, as MBCP has done, accomplishes nothing towards reducing global warming. It’s greenwash to claim otherwise.
Thus Mayor Harmon’s story that arrival of MBCP “will remove 20,000 metric tons of carbon” from our air is utter nonsense.
* * * *
The Tribune’s article was based on a publicity stunt akin to a ribbon cutting. Journalists call such stunts “pseudo-events” because they are stunts staged to induce fake news. Good print journalists ignore pseudo-events. New Times ignored this one. The Tribune went in full bore, delivering to its readers stunt propaganda indistinguishable from a paid public relations operative’s verbal mischief.
Unfortunately, this is typical of what the Tribune has become. It now eschews watchdogging.
Instead it sides with city hall’s establishment to block exposing inconvenient truths.
I got this thrown in my face several years back. The SLO city council blatantly violated the Brown Act in a manner that harmed my neighborhood. So 20-some of us submitted a Brown Act “fix-it” letter to the council, calling them out on their obviously carefully-scripted non-
inadvertent violation and demanding they undo their improper action.
Twenty-some upstanding citizens accusing the city of violating the law and demanding redress is by any definition news. Furthermore, the Brown Act is mother’s milk to the news media, with its prohibition of secretive and other improper dealings that might obstruct news reporting. If ever there’s a misdeed mandating media follow-up, it’s a well-substantiated alleged violation of the Brown Act.
I sent a copy of our fix-it letter to the Tribune. In response there was no reporting, but instead an email from the city hall reporter declaring there was no Brown Act violation because the city attorney, who had been party to the Brown Act violation, had told him there was no violation.
Sorry, Tribune, but that’s not how responsible journalism works. Your job isn’t to decide a legal matter or to take sides, it’s to report what’s happening. “News” isn’t what city hall tells a reporter it is. You’re supposed to be a watchdog, not the city’s lapdog.
* * * *
The Tribune’s mendacious MBCP “news” story should never have happened with best practices journalism.
Rule #1 of reporting is never accept anything at face value. Question everything.
The reason for this isn’t to be an obnoxious reporter. It’s to make sure you understand, and to uncover facts. Questioning even the simplest thing may make clear the reporter’s assumptions and understandings about a story need modification. It might also open up a new story the reporter didn’t recognize was there.
In the MBCP story, there are things so obviously in need of questioning it’s shocking they survived writing and editing unexamined. For example, Mayor Harmon claims MBCP will remove 20,000 tons of greenhouse gases. Even the dimmest observer knows Harmon doesn’t
know the difference between 2K tons, 20K tons or 200K tons of carbon.
Somebody told her to say that. So, the question becomes where did that number come from, and how was it arrived at? I suspect it would turn out to be unsubstantiated as fact, in which case an honest story
might report: “Mayor Harmon said MBCP will prevent emitting 20,000 tons of carbon, a number she said came from MBCP, but upon questioning by a reporter MBCP admitted such carbon savings are unsubstantiated and may actually be zero.”
Your job, Tribune, is to inform your readers, not make the mayor happy by repeating as fact everything she says. She has Facebook for the latter.
A second thing even the dimmest observer might ask is does MBCP have its own power lines, and, if not, how exactly do its customers get power different from that received by PG&E customers next door? This would quickly dispose of the entire myth MBCP is supplying us with anything special.
Such questioning of all the major claims about MBCP’s “arrival” would unveil the house of cards our politicos are falsely claiming will save the earth. That’s a very different story from the one the Tribune spun.
The function of a community newspaper is to look out for the community’s members, particularly as government affects them.
Unfortunately the Tribune has reversed that function and become city hall’s press agent, even when doing so causes it to misinform its readers.
Our newspaper has become an unabashed stenographer for city propaganda not the sort of newspaper any of us need. And that, for an
old newspaper lover like myself, is very sad to see.