Cape Cod Times blasts offshore wind farms
For there is a health along this golden shore,
Climbing the dunes and hearing sea birds cry,
Braving the winds and stormy ocean’s roar
Under an endless blue or cloudy sky;
Then, freed at last, on soaring, flashing wings
in perfect tune the human spirit soars.
This paean to the Cape Cod seascape, from Dennis poet Elizabeth Wysor, affixed atop the Cape Cod Times editorial page more than a year ago, would seem like the epigraph for an innocuous commentary on the region’s natural beauty. But it was far more than that. It was a poetic shot across the bow, a sign that the most powerful media outlet on the Cape thought that Nantucket Sound’s Horseshoe Shoal is no place for the nation’s first offshore wind farm.
In what has become a pitched battle over Cape Wind Associates’ proposal to generate power through the construction of 130 large wind turbines in a spot about seven miles from Hyannis, no single factor may be as significant as the Times‘s fierce opposition to the project. It is a view hammered home relentlessly on a take-no-prisoners editorial page determined to strangle the wind farm idea in its cradle.
In fact, the daily paper’s role has become almost as hot a topic of debate as the project itself, with one key question emerging: Is the Times engaged in vigilant coverage and civic-minded commentary? Or has it launched a dubious journalistic jihad?
Those at the top of the Times masthead say they’ve got nothing to apologize for, in their reports or their editorials. “I’m proud of our coverage and I’m comfortable with our editorial opinions,” says editor Cliff Schechtman. “We’re trying really hard to be fair and balanced, and it’s not always easy.” Publisher Peter Meyer also rejects the notion the Times is engaged in “an angry crusade” against Cape Wind. “We’ve taken a strong editorial position on this,” says Meyer. “[But] as strongly as we feel about the wind farm from an editorial position, we feel more strongly about…our editorial integrity.”
calls the coverage “hostile.”
The wind farm debate is a veritable perfect storm of public policy battles. For starters, it represents what Glenn Ritt, editor of the weekly Cape Codder, calls “as important an issue as the Cape has encountered in a generation.” Opponents decry the project as ill-conceived and slapped together, threatening permanent environmental and visual degradation. Supporters sing the praises of a benign installation on the distant horizon generating clean power that would help wean the US off foreign oil. In the context of current events, the proposal has even become intertwined with the war on terror.
Then throw in the fascinating array of passions and forces aligned on both sides. Cape Wind rolls out sympathizers ranging from the Conservation Law Foundation and Greenpeace to Physicians for Social Responsibility founder Dr. Helen Caldicott and longtime Boston television meteorologist Bruce Schwoegler. Allies of the chief opposition group–the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound–range from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce and the Humane Society of the United States to state Attorney General Thomas Reilly and part-time Martha’s Vineyard resident Walter Cronkite, who went so far as to make an ad for the Alliance.
Finally, mix in the might of the Cape Cod Times–the 800-pound gorilla of local media–and the stewardship of Schechtman, who is widely described as a tough-minded editor intent on producing a more muscular paper. “For good or for ill, it’s the newspaper of record down there,” says Steve Young, broadcast director of National Public Radio’s Cape and Islands outlet, WCAI.
No one knows how this drama will play out and whether Cape Wind–which says it has already spent about $8 million to develop the project–will launch a groundbreaking renewable-energy plant or find itself on the losing end of an expensive experiment. Whatever the outcome, the Cape Cod Times has used the occasion to assert itself as the pre-eminent player in local politics and policy on the Cape, unafraid to use all the editorial force it can muster.
When asked who’s behind the Times‘s staunch opposition to the wind farm plan, officials at Cape Wind Associates don’t hesitate. “I would attribute that, by and large, to Cliff Schechtman,” says Rodgers, the company spokesman.
defending a “pristine area.”
Fans and detractors alike describe Schechtman in similar terms–a sometimes abrasive, confrontational, hard-driving man who understands his outsider status and has no intention of playing the part of avuncular country editor at a small-town daily. “Communities want aggressive newspapers,” says Schechtman. “When I got here, I think we were a little too soft and cuddly. We don’t want to hurt anyone, [but] I think an outspoken, vocal paper is good for the community.”
His arrival, observers say, seems to have coincided with a conscious effort to transform the Times, with its editorial staff of about 75, into a larger journalistic presence–one that earns prizes, kudos, and attention. Its signature achievement was a prize-winning 1997 series on toxic waste problems at the Massachusetts Military Reservation (see “Raking Muck on the Cape,” CW, Spring 1999). Months in the making, the five-day series was a herculean effort for a paper of modest resources. In order to open up space for the stories, the paper had to shrink its news hole for months afterward.
Since then, Times staffers have been sent to chase stories in such faraway locales as Belgium and Alaska. The business editor recently traveled to Brazil to learn why so many immigrants from that country are settling on the Cape. “It is a paper where they encourage you to think big, to be aggressive,” says political reporter Jack Coleman.
Tilting at wind farms
Aggressive has certainly been the word for the Times‘s treatment of the wind farm story, with news reports and editorials sometimes working in tandem. On February 28, for instance, the Times published a story reporting on a letter Attorney General Reilly sent to Gov. Mitt Romney asking him to take a more active role in halting the project. The next day, even though Romney had not yet seen the letter, the Times ran an article reiterating the governor’s previously stated position that he is “opposed to wind farms off Cape Cod.” Also that day, the Times editorialized on the matter, insisting that “Romney must work closely with Reilly, become more familiar with the details of the project and support his call for a moratorium.” In boxing, that would be a three-punch combination.
If there is consensus on anything, it’s that the Times‘s editorials–they often begin with the phrase, “this is another in a series of occasional editorials on offshore wind farms”–have been insistent and more than occasional. Times editorials have railed against the “proposed mega wind farm”; called for the state’s congressional delegation to “protect” Nantucket Sound; endorsed Reilly’s request that federal officials stymie the wind farm until a better review process is in place; warned that “21st Century squatters on Nantucket Sound” are creating a “Wild West of wind farms”; and told environmental groups not to be fooled by the Cape Wind “smokescreen.” In making their case, the editorials have not been above sarcasm.
“Why don’t we just surround the Cape with windmills?” declared one editorial. “Perhaps the Barnstable County Commissioners should join the 21st-Century gold rush and stake their claim on all waters within two miles of Cape Cod beaches.”
In waging their war of words, the Times has even fought a battle over imagery that is by itself worth the price of admission. Whereas Cape Wind likes to call its project “an offshore wind park,” words with a soft, benign feel, the Times calls it “a huge industrial power plant,” conjuring up images of smokestacks and transformers. The paper also created a logo to accompany the wind farm editorials: a narrow silhouette of the Cape surrounded by menacing-looking wind turbines.
For the Times, the wind farm issue seems even to have become a political litmus test. Last fall, the newspaper didn’t even invite incumbent state Rep. Matthew Patrick, a Falmouth Democrat who is pro-wind farm, for an editorial board interview before endorsing his Republican opponent, wind farm foe and Barnstable resident Larry Wheatley. (The Democratic-controlled House voted to seat Patrick in March, ignoring an order by a Barnstable Superior Court judge to hold a new election because ballot irregularities may have tainted Patrick’s 17-vote win.) Schechtman admits there was criticism of the endorsement in the newsroom. But even after the election, aTimes editorial sternly warned Patrick that he “is going to encounter rough waters if he stubbornly resists legitimate concerns about the CapeWind project.”
In a post-campaign op-ed column that appeared in the Times, Patrick shot back. “Offshore wind farms have existed for years in Northern European waters and the experience has been quite the opposite of what [the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound] would have you believe,” Patrick wrote. “But most people don’t know that because their major source of information, theCape Cod Times, does not want any facts to confuse the issue…. We all need the newspaper of record to be objective and open. That has not been the case to date.”
Privately, some observers say they have been taken aback by the ferocity of the Times‘s opposition. Certainly, Cape Wind officials never figured on such an unfriendly reception. “Every paper’s entitled to their editorial position,” says spokesman Rodgers. But, he adds, “they write about it so often and they are so far out on one end.” Gordon, the company’s chief executive, calls the paper’s editorializing a “relentless drumbeat.”
Most of the editorials have been written by editorial-page editor Bill Mills, but “I’ve put in a few [para]graphs,” Schechtman allows. “We think the issue is that important. The problem is the issue is also that complicated. The public needs a lot of depth to understand the issue.”
For the editor, as well as publisher Meyer, the issue seems to come down to aesthetics. Schechtman sees the Cape’s natural beauty at risk. “We are opposing something we think will industrialize another pristine area,” he says, adding his distaste for “the notion that a private corporation can profit from a pristine public resource.”
Meyer, who lives in Osterville, rhapsodizes about shoreline views. “Little did I know that someone would be putting structures in the ocean behind me,” he says.
Looking at the wind farm issue this way, the Times honchos see eye to eye with the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. Providence Journal editorial-page editor Robert Whitcomb, a staunch advocate of the wind farm proposal, characterizes these opponents as “a bunch of rich people taking care of their views.” The alliance also has the support of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, as well as local chambers representing Falmouth, Hyannis, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Yarmouth, members of which depend heavily on the tourist trade. Thus Rodgers sees business reasons for theTimes‘s hostility. “That’s their advertisers,” he says.
Whatever the Times‘s motivations, not all local media outlets covering the controversy share its just-say-no stance. “I feel very strongly that the entire issue has to be framed within the context of a national energy policy,” says Glenn Ritt, of the Cape Codder. “We remain unconvinced one way or another about the actual siting issue.” The biweekly Cape Cod Voice has adopted a skeptical but moderate position, holding that the wind farm isn’t a great idea but land-based alternatives should be considered.
Then there are publications that actively support the concept. “As the first in the nation to allow wind turbines in our shallow offshore waters, Cape Cod can lead the fight against terror” by reducing our dependence on Middle East oil, editorialized Walter Brooks, a veteran journalist who is editor and publisher of the Best Read Guide and Cape Cod Today, an online newspaper. In an interview, Brooks says that his mind is “boggled” that a paper with the Times‘s solid record on the environment would be so opposed to developing a new, renewable energy source.
And off the Cape, the editorial pages of The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and Providence Journal have all weighed in, to varying degrees, behind the wind farm idea, arguing it would provide a desperately needed source of clean energy. “It’s extremely bad environmental policy to block it,” says the Journal‘s Whitcomb.
Playing it straight?
No one disputes the Times‘s right to its editorial opinion, even if that opinion is expressed in ways that seem excessive, at times. The more serious question is, has the paper’s editorial stance colored its news coverage?
There are some grounds for asking. In April 2002, a Times story about a meeting at Barnstable Town Hall reported that supporters of Cape Wind’s bid to build a data tower in Nantucket Sound, the first step in developing the wind farm, “were clearly in the minority,” a point made several times. Cape Wind officials insisted that the crowd was split evenly, if not leaning in their favor, something they believed transcripts of the meeting proved.
Last November, the Times reported on conflicting polls released by Cape Wind and the Alliance. Not surprisingly, the Cape Wind poll showed 55 percent of Cape residents in support of the project while the Alliance claimed 58 percent were opposed. The one objective expert quoted in the story characterized the Cape Wind poll as “straightforward,” but charged that the Alliance poll “kind of loaded the deck” to influence the results. Still, the story ran under the headline DUELING WIND FARM POLLS ENCOURAGE SKEPTICISM, suggesting neither poll was to be trusted.
And just before Election Day, the Times reported that Rep. Patrick had collected campaign contributions from Cape Wind executives, and gave prominence to challenger Wheatley’s charges that such donations were “inappropriate.” In that same article, Wheatley acknowledged accepting contributions from members of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound but said he would not take money from officers of that organization. Only after the election was it reported in the Times that Wheatley had in fact received funds from members of the Alliance’s board of directors.
These and other news stories inspired one public critic–environment writer and former Times staffer Wendy Williams–to pen an editorial for Cape Cod Today blasting “the consistent inaccuracies routinely appearing in [theTimes‘s] rabid coverage of the proposed wind farm.”
The Times admits some mistakes have been made along the way, but not many. Schechtman says, “I think they [Cape Wind] were right” about the head count at Barnstable Town Hall, but that the transcript proving their point arrived long after the story appeared. “I regret the whole incident.” As to the overly even-handed title on the poll story, he says “that was the product of a very specific conversation I had with the copy desk” about maintaining neutrality in headlines. Schechtman dismisses the issues raised in the political fundraising story as “inside baseball.”
But for his part, reporter Jack Coleman, who wrote both the Patrick story and the post-election column on Wheatley, is apologetic. He says he reported the facts on both campaigns’ finances as soon as he knew them, but he regrets that the Patrick article appeared before the balloting while Wheatley’s contributions weren’t detailed until later.
“I think my October 28 story about donations from Cape Wind and the Alliance going to Patrick and Wheatley was unfair not just to Patrick, but to Cape Wind as well,” he says. Coleman is quick to deny that the paper follows any preset agenda in its reporting, however. “I have never been pressured to write a certain way or not to write a certain way,” he states.
Indeed, some observers vouch for the basic fairness of the wind farm news coverage. “They really have spent a lot of ink on [the editorial position]” says WCAI’s Young. “At the same time, though, their reporting is very solid.” Seth Rolbein, editor and publisher of the Cape Cod Voice, says theTimes‘s “regular reporting on the issue has been generally good.” Larry Rosenberg, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers–the federal oversight agency that is preparing a draft environmental impact statement on the project–says, “I do not see the editorial position of theCape Cod Times affecting the reporting.”
Even between the main combatants in the wind farm dispute, who have good reason to have dramatically different views of the Cape Cod Times, there is broad agreement that the news coverage has not been an extension of the editorial page.
“There’s no question that on the editorial page, they’ve made their voice heard…. I give them credit for recognizing the magnitude of the project and what’s at stake,” says Isaac Rosen, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. “I have not seen any bleed-over from the editorial position of the Cape Cod Times to the news pages. I think they’ve been unbelievably balanced.”
Cape Wind is more grudging in its approval, but it credits two main reporters on the story, Coleman and John Leaning, for their professionalism. “I think early on you could see a lot of skepticism in the reporting,” asserts company president Gordon. “But now, with all the public hearings and meetings we’ve had on the project, I see the reporting evolving into honest and thorough coverage.”
And as relentless as the paper’s editorial page has been in tearing down the project, it has opened its “My View” opinion columns to a large number of wind farm backers, including Patrick, Gordon, Rodgers, and Cape Wind vice president of regulatory affairs Dennis Duffy. Francis Broadhurst, a former chairman of the Barnstable Board of Selectmen and a regular Times columnist, has written a number of pieces extolling the project and attacking its detractors.
The salty Broadhurst says, “I’m not too goddamned pleased” with his paper’s editorial stance. But he does say that, except for removing a reference to one of the project’s biggest foes “because they were afraid of a lawsuit,”Times editors have not tinkered with his dissenting copy.
And while the Times may bruit its anti-wind farm views far and wide, it may not have entirely convinced its own staff. “There’s quite a split on theTimes itself, quite a few reporters who support the wind farm,” says Broadhurst. Schechtman himself acknowledges “some healthy debate” in the newsroom. Coleman, for instance, thinks the “paper should at least wait until environmental reviews are done” before making an editorial call on the project. Thus, the intensity of the Times‘s editorial assault may have been as surprising for some inside the building as it was for readers, let alone Cape Wind.
The Cape Cod Times anti-wind farm crusade is a classic example of an activist newspaper choosing to become a player–if not the key player–in a pressing public dispute. The wisdom of that choice can be debated. There’s no question that the Times has been tough on Cape Wind’s cherished wind farms, and that, on the opinion page, at least, it is well within the newspaper’s rights to do so. Whether the tone and tenor of the editorial attack has overwhelmed the paper’s other roles–providing balanced news coverage and a forum for vigorous public debate–is in the eye of the beholder. Right now, the beholder who counts is Times editor Cliff Schechtman. And Coleman, for one, defends the man behind the paper’s news and editorial voice.“Some people I think find him too driven,” he says. “But they might not be in the right business then.”
Mark Jurkowitz is the media writer for The Boston Globe.