Dr. Robert Smith is the Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Commentary: As you know, I always try to link my commentaries to a theme and try to do so from a neutral or public affairs perspective that lies at the heart of the mission of my College. That theme today relates to our nationally renowned and much heralded graduate public affairs reporting program. But, it may take me a minute to get there!
On top of an ongoing COVID Pandemic, a still confusing response, a mixed up political world, and a new standard of truisms, and a terrible winter storm that we are only now emerging from. What more can happen?
Indeed the Midwest and South seem most impacted and as of this commentary I think it’s clear that Texas seems to have borne the brunt of this winter weather. Snow, where it has never snowed before, and freezing temperatures that set records, and breakdowns of all sorts of infrastructure resulted. I feel so bad for Texans and others affected by the severe weather. Only now does recovery seem in sight.
From a public affairs perspective and seen through the lens of the many disciplines in the College be that environmental studies (climate Issues), public administration (public services and finances), public health (sanitary and water systems), or political science (policy and political response), there is one area of study that has jumped out to me. That is our Public Affairs Reporting Program. This program trains students as reporters and helps them focus on coverage of important public and political issues and keeps readers/viewers/listeners informed on public events and actions.
Why is my focus on public affairs reporting when the weather has wreaked havoc on the State of Texas in so many other areas covered by the College? How does the public affairs reporting program emerge as an important theme in view of the areas of need represented in our other programs areas? Well…what happened in Texas over the past week in terms of journalistic integrity and reporting must be placed on center stage for all to see. Many segments of the media (and in particular) many government officials in Texas twisted the truth and reality and responsibility to further confuse Texans and the rest of the nation.
I’ll provide a short recap and then get to my point or concern I think we all need to reflect on. Freezing weather came to Texas. It was record setting and devastating. It paralyzed transportation and services and threatened people’s lives. In the final analysis Texas was not prepared.
In particular public utilities were not prepared. The reality was gas pipelines froze, coal fired plants shut down and nuclear power was also affected, and wind turbines were stymied in the cold air. All of these realities were a perfect storm. No one can blame anyone for the weather, but why wasn’t Texas better prepared? Heck, Illinois and the Midwest and Northeast handle this type of weather on a regular basis.
We get a clue if we look at two factors that perhaps led to this situation of utility failures and blackouts:
a) Texas goes their own way in providing electric service to citizens. They do not belong to the so-called national grid (allowing sharing and redirecting of power from one area of the nation to another when in need); and
b) in previous winter events, Texas was warned about the need to upgrade all their utility distribution systems against harsh weather. That was back in the 1990’s or so. Because of the cost and imposition on power, gas and other providers, they did not winterize.
Both of these policy and political decisions in retrospect failed. Elected and appointed officials at the time and since hold some responsibility for the catastrophic events of the 2021 storm.
Those are the facts, easily gleaned from reporting past and present, government reports, environmental assessments and other outlets. That is the truth of the history of the regulatory and political decision making made by Texas government leaders. Although wrong and short-sighted, there is no escaping from those decisions. Yet, the State’s political leadership has tried!
That is my point in this Minute piece. I will steer away from whatever political contexts you may want to add to this story, I’d like to stay focused on the truth. As you have heard, Texas officials and many media outlets (e.g., Fox) have blamed the “Green New Deal,” the overreliance of wind power or solar (although it’s only 20 % of power in Texas), and other Federal government “policies.”
They have attempted to shift blame and responsibility by stretching the truth and worse.
Ok, I won’t get carried away. But the point I am stressing is that facts matter and truth matters. Presenting the facts and reporting those facts is crucial. You/we need information to make decisions about business expansion, environmental decisions, health care and regulatory actions.
As important, is to hold our public officials and those that report on them accountable to the truth. The so-called reporting on the real cause of this power crisis was disturbing. The inane reporting that somehow Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is to blame (because of polices not even enacted yet) is misleading at best.
The reason for this winter calamity in Texas was the unexpected weather and regulatory decisions that favored gas and power providers and pushed cold-weather insulating recommendations under the table. Many will say those regulatory decisions resulted in overall energy savings for regular consumers over the decade, but it now leaves those same citizens ‘holding the bag” when catastrophic weather hits. Where are the savings and wisdom of those decisions when now some customers face $15,000 monthly utility bills?
And by the way, who will likely bail out Texans in the short term? Yes, you and me and the American taxpayer.
My point is not so much about the crisis itself, but it’s the reporting of the crisis. How can Fox News and other news outlets deflect from the simple reality of bad weather and short sighted regulatory policies? Accurate and unbiased reporting is needed now more than ever to inform future policy decisions and guide governmental actions.
On the political front, everyone is concerned about optics and “winning” (no matter what) and the truth takes second stage.
Don’t misconstrue this as an endorsement of CNN or NBC or other outlets. What I am presenting is an argument for citizens to seek out the truth.
It starts by getting news from different sources. A story in the Washington Post will likely be different in the Wall Street Journal. What you watch on FOX will be very different from what you see on CNN. Finding the truth shouldn’t be that hard for American citizens, but sadly it is.
Seeking multiple sources and web sites and views is necessary today to reveal the truth about political events and governmental decisions. And perhaps most important, it’s not about anyone trying to “change your mind,” it’s about “hearing every side” and then deciding for yourself.
In essence, the truth is out there…we just have to work hard to find it…for the sake of democracy and this nation…we must. I would highlight our PAR program and its students as one important way to do that.
Oh and so too is your local NPR station.