22 Dec 2008

Journalistic Failure

A few weeks ago, I attended the anti-greenwashing summit in San Francisco, but I did not attend the corporate water footprinting summit that the former was protesting.

Thus, I was interested to read the San Francisco Bay Guardian's story on the two events. Although it's sad that the article is biased against the corporations (I am willing to accept partisan opinion in the Age of Faux), I think it unforgivable that the reporter has such a terrible grasp of economics.

For example:
  • She thinks that a law requiring public reporting of bottled water withdrawals is important. (It's not.)
  • She quotes Maude Barlow on economics, e.g., "[water] demand is never affected by inflation, recession, rates or changing tastes." That's SO WRONG.
  • Her survey of 35 people (!) "reveals" that 31 think water is a human right. She (and many others) fails to distinguish between water for drinking and water for lawns, fields, etc. (Forget the 35 people -- I wonder how the question was posed!)
  • This is the worst paragraph:
    The problem has its roots in the inherent conflict between conservation and profit. Saving water is relatively cheap, but there's no money to be made by eliminating waste. Developing expensive new water sources, though, is a potential private gold mine.
    There are two mistakes. First, the best conservationist is a monopolist. (Monopoly profits result when quantity is withheld from the market and prices rise, e.g., OPEC.) Second, the connection between conservation and new water is obvious -- if new water costs a lot (e.g., desalination), then it PAYS to conserve -- or use less.
  • Later on, someone from Food and Water Watch (Barlow's cheerleader organization) says [in reference to Poseidon Corp's Carlsbad Desal plant] that "There's a lack of regulation with a private company controlling the water." That's LOL funny! First, private water companies in California have their prices controlled by the CPUC. Second, Poseidon has a contract with its customers, and contracts cannot be arbitrarily changed. Third, Poseidon has no power. If it REALLY turned off the taps, the local government could seize the facility.
  • The author has issues with history. She says "historic water rights... have been granted to a small lobby of powerful growers who sell their surplus rights for profit" when she should have said "historic water rights were granted to growers who now make big profits from selling their surplus rights."
I could say more about her misleading characterization of economists ("That even among a small cast of purported experts there's little consensus on several fundamental issues" -- except that there was one issue -- the price of desal -- and these experts are real, not purported); poor characterization of Bechtel ("It wouldn't be the first time Bechtel bailed on an international water contract" -- except when Bechtel is forced out of it); or her inability to see failure in public water administration ("though decent water service in Cochabamba is still elusive, the water war has become the poster child for successful grassroots activism" -- but not results).

I'll leave you with this gem:
"There are [bottled water] companies I call water hunters," explained Maude Barlow. "They destroy water to make their products and profit. Unfortunately, some of the companies that are leading this conference are bottled water companies. I don't know how you can become 'water neutral' if your life's work is draining aquifers."
Seriously, I hope that they put this article in the textbooks -- so students can learn how bad hack journalism can get.

[Is "hack" too harsh? Maybe "bad" or "naive" or "lazy"? For one thing, don't cite blogs (cite original sources; I need articles to cite!). Second, stop quoting Barlow on economics -- about which she knows nothing.]

Wait -- there is ONE good point in the article: Citizen oversight of the water supplier (SFPUC) can result in good outcomes for citizens. Good point.

Bottom Line: This article will either preach to the choir, mislead the uninformed or anger those who know something. It's a waste of space that does not make the SFBG look good.


  1. A few weeks ago I asked Maude Barlow what she thought of water block pricing (i.e. marginal cost pricing). She said she is a big supporter of block pricing schemes, and gave Kyoto as an example of one city that has implemented it.
    She gave three caveats:

    1) Only in the developed world
    2) We don't buy water, but "water services"
    3) Everybody gets some water for free.

    #1 and #3 seem reasonable.
    #2 seems like sugar-coating.

    She basically said that people should pay for water use. Maybe you two are kindred spirits after all.

  2. If I can point out a root cause here: media moved out of the mainstream. A more mainstream journalist would (I would hope) have sought to understand the balancing arguments, and forced them down the throats of a readership that might not want to hear them. Instead, we are left in this new media ecosystem with a set of separate journalisms that cater to the pre-existing biases of their audiences, and no place for a common discussion where each side is forced to listen to and take seriously the arguments of those with whom they might disagree.

    Of course, Dr. Economist, you might agree that a business model based on forcing something on customers that they do not want is doomed to failure. Hence my newfound interest in welding.

  3. Maude Barlow is opinionated "expert" with a following, and the Guardian writer only did half of his/her job as a journalist. You have touched on something brought on by "everyone" suddenly becoming a reporter with blogs, bylines, low power FM, biased publications, talk shows, and networks--the new micro media. Real reporters with degrees in Broadcast/Journalism watch this phenomena with horror. Balance, showing both or multiple views of an issue is the key to real journalism. These "reporters" who attended this conference and came out with a partisan opinions probably went in with same. Good reporters are skeptical and question everything, digging up details to fill out the complete picture. They know PR people are framing things to persuade an audience. A good reporter pisses off both sides when the story airs or is printed. An prime example of balanced reporting is NPR, and the extremes on both sides--Pacifica on the left and Fox on the right display the "preach to the choir" style that you have labeled "Journalistic Failure". Lefties think NPR is too "right wing" calling it "National Pentagon Radio", and Righties have tried in vain to get NPR off the air using taxpayer money to investigate the network but finding it definitively fair and unbiased. Both sides are pissed off, and that shows NPR is doing a brilliant job of reporting!

  4. @ All -- these are great comments!

    @ Josh -- glad to hear that. Now I will wait to hear her say that in public -- and redirect the debate from private-bashing to problem solving.

    @ John -- You are right about the SFBG biz model (so the reporter will keep her job -- and many win an indie media award), but I think it's sad.

    @ FMF -- Great comment. As you may note, I am trying to piss off everyone by keeping it real :)

  5. David, you succeed with aplomb! I promise not to kill the messenger! Happy Holidays and Joyous Solstice from the now buried in snow Four Mound Prairie in Eastern WA!

  6. I agree that community oversight of public utilities is a great utopian idea. My hackles went up when you cited my "friends" at SFPUC. My experience there (based both on my Lake Merced and Hetch Hetchy odysseys) is that SFPUC staff goes to great lengths to stifle the Citizens Advisory Committee. That may have changed since Harrington replaced Leal, but many of the SFPUC's problems are so historically ingrained that I wonder.

    Do you have any background (or recall this old Chronicle expose) on why SFPUC is now having to spend $4.6 billion in upgrades? To quote your 10/31 post, "spend too much (gold plating), and/or underinvest in maintenance (often with the approval or under pressure from their political overseers)."

    Mayor Feinstein still holds the record for diverting Hetch Hetchy revenues elsewhere rather than maintenance and needed upgrades.

  7. Hey Dave, you jumped into my discipline a little here. We're actually in the midst of seeing a huge vacuum open up for trained investigative reporting. The internet is crashing newspaper profits around the country (with the exception of big guns like NYT and Washington Post that can sell their website ads for enough $$) and staff journalists are a nearly extinct breed in favor of freelancers as a result - who are less likely to have the resources to go after a tough story. As support for trained reporters and finances go down, who's going to fill the gap of the "fourth branch of government"? It will probably be watchdog NGOs that, yes, approach their research with an agenda.

    The good news is that I believe small, local papers have been much steadier, so maybe investigative journalism for your backyard issues still stands a chance.

    Not a pro on this topic, but that's my understanding of it.

  8. Great Read. A lot of interesting stuff.

    Fred Smilek
    Email- Fred_Smilek@yahoo.com
    Webpage- http://sites.google.com/site/fredjsmilek/

    Fred Smilek is the acting president of the Society to Save Endangered Species. It was founded two years ago by Fred Smilek along with his two best friends Charles and Jonathan.


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