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Media Were ‘Missing in Action’ in Coverage of Kinder Morgan’s Pipeline Ultimatum

Award-winning investigative reporter Paul McKay accuses his profession of “malpractice” in a post published yesterday on National Observer, after watching the “missing-in-action media coverage” of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and Houston-based Kinder Morgan’s April 8 ultimatum [1] to the governments of Canada, Alberta, and British Columbia.

McKay contrasts the proud investigative journalism tradition that brought down the Standard Oil monopoly at the turn of the last century and the Nixon presidency in the 1970s with a form of business reporting that has been “notorious for failing to detect bubbles before they burst with calamitous consequences.” And he casts coverage of Kinder Morgan over the last 19 days as a prime example.

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“Business journalists should know better, and be able to detect telltale signs,” he writes.

“However, they are not immune to the inducements of orthodoxy. Everyone loves a bubble (until they don’t), and those journalists who go out with pokers to test their surface strength are not held in high esteem by newsroom bosses, some readers and viewers, investors, companies pitching their products, or politicians who have hitched their wagon to making that bubble get bigger. It is easier to write see-no-evil testimonials, which all the inside players relish and court. Such coverage begets more coverage.”

Which leads directly to the coverage of Canada’s bitumen bubble [3] in the days after the Kinder Morgan announcement. McKay says he had no trouble with wall-to-wall coverage of the “collective wail of lamentations” that followed from fossils and their lobbyists, pipeliners, politicians, and major banks. “This is natural and fitting, and so is media coverage of their collective fury and resolve to avert that ultimatum,” he writes. “It is a big story. It needs to be covered.”

But “it is not the media’s job to assume that opinions without evidence are equal in worth to opinions which are fact-based. Or to assume that the scale and decibel level coming from oilsands advocates is proof of their cause. A noise meter is not evidence. Or to assume that the voices of opposition should be discounted as, at best, merely emotional and at worst, severely irrational.”

McKay cites his own recent three-part [4] investigative [5] series [3] for The Energy Mix as “an evidence-based argument that there is no credible business case to support an expansion of oil sand exports or the proposed Trans Mountain and Keystone XL pipelines. That Alberta’s bitumen bubble is about to burst, due to multiple global forces far beyond its control.”

Any business journalist can “read these reports, assess the evidence presented, and make up their own mind,” he writes. But “those who decline because they are already certain such a bitumen bubble does not exist, or believe that merely asking such a question amounts to heresy, or puts the ‘national interest’ on trial,” show they are unwilling to “dare, dig in, and do their job.”

Based on his investigative series, McKay distills four questions that have yet to be asked in most of the reporting on Kinder Morgan: whether there’s proof that Asian refiners have signed on to buy “vast volumes of Alberta raw bitumen for decades to come”, whether they’ll commit to a much higher price than U.S. refiners will pay for that product, whether Alberta can compete against other global grades of oil for quality, price, and marine shipping access, and which large, international fossils “have recently placed big bets buying new, undeveloped oil sand properties” to backstop Alberta’s expansion plans.

The failure of Canadian media to examine those untested assumptions “is not just a sin of omission, of failing to ask tough questions,” he writes. “It is a sin of commission when business journalists or media personalities lob only softball questions to oilsands advocates. They print or broadcast assumptions masking as facts, and confuse what many Albertans would like to happen with what is likely to happen because of inconvenient facts.”

But “we do Canadian citizens, readers, and viewers no favours by evading uncomfortable evidence, ignoring basic failures of logic, or not exposing glaring contradictions and concealed conflicts of interest,” he adds. “Otherwise, we are enablers—not an instrument of democratic and social accountability.”

Read Paul McKay’s investigative series on the bitumen bubble here [4], here [5], and here [3].