(Disclaimer: Do not assume anything about my opinions on this subject based on anything you read below. I won’t be sharing my opinion on whether this is good or bad with anyone outside my immediate circle of friends and coworkers. If you attempt to read between the lines, you will almost certainly come to the wrong conclusions. This is merely an anecdote, it has nothing to do with my personal opinion, so leave it at that.)
BEWARE: Unending tangent to follow.
Yesterday I continued coverage of a topic with very mixed opinions locally. that is, the Sandpiper Oil Pipeline.
Our paper has been interested in this topic because it passes through our area. so when we heard about the proposed pipeline it was naturally newsworthy. Of course, with some of the biggest news topics comes some of the most frustrating difficulties. This time the problems were everywhere.
The first problem was getting interviews with relevant subjects with local connections. The very first thing that happened on our radar was a meeting on the Happy Dancing Turtle campus where Marty Cobenais spoke to the gathered crowd. This posed some difficulties.
Cobenais was the only individual with any level of authority which we could connect to the pipeline meeting, and to the area since he was leading the meeting here. There were other names I was given, but it was determined they were not local enough, and beside the fact, their pipeline stories were purely anecdotal, which isn’t necessarily bad, it can be viewed as suspect in a newspaper.
Cobenais is a smart individual, but we ran into a few issues when I submitted my story for the first time. My editor rightly pointed out that his quotes and numbers needed verification. Cobenais’ expertise came from voluntary membership in the Sierra club and a few other similar groups (mostly self made experts), as well as more anecdotal evidence. He didn’t have the authority for me to quote him in the newspaper without having other sources to back him up. The first step was to try to track down his sources… which wasn’t as easy as you might think. I came up empty except for sources that would receive the same scrutiny as Cobenais, which is to say, they were using the same source, which I didn’t have. I attempted to contact Cobenais, but didn’t get a reply.
On the off chance they would directly confirm or deny the details from Cobenais, I then called a representative from Enbridge. As can be predicted, on some of the questions I asked I ‘sort of’ got answers in that they were very circular. This is standard practice for any company in such a position. They did directly refute some of Cobenais’ information. However, as for me, I had a story that was already written, but needed to be scrapped and built again, but I couldn’t find the parts.
So, having few sources of information I would bet my job on. I had to take a different angle. The Sandpiper Project has a site with lots of information, which I had quoted to me when I called and asked for verification on Cobenais’ info. They also have maps, which proved very helpful.
When I went to Pine River-Backus High School they had a strange, but great cooperation with Pequot Lakes for a few years. My senior year I had one semester where first thing in the morning I got on a van and rode to Pequot Lakes for one class, rode back to PRB for my next class, had lunch, took another class and then for my final class I rode back to PL. My first class of the day was graphic design, which I have benefitted from ever since.
I downloaded the Sandpiper maps and scanned in pages from a platt book. Toying with transparencies I overlaid the Sandpiper maps with the Platt maps. I used the township lines, roadways, and rivers to make sure that these maps were aligned closely. On these maps there were places where two of these markers would intersect, and using multiple points, a person is capable of matching the scale of the maps very closely.
Notice the horizontal line, that is the pipeline and all around it are the names of the individuals along the route.
Using the end result, I was able to contact a handful of people living along the proposed route and get their opinions. I would link you to that article, but we have gone through so many changes on our site, I can’t find it. Anyhow, These property owners were basically in favor of the pipeline crossing their properties. They had already been spoken to by Enbridge, but they said there were no offers on the table yet.
I wrote my article with select quotes from Cobenais and select quotes from Enbridge officials, but I quoted the landowners extensively.
Later, there was a public meeting at the Pine River-Backus school with representatives from Enbridge and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The event was focused on discussing the route of the project. There was one individual there, a retired engineer, who presented a very detailed alternate route. That was pretty cool. Cobenais was present and made a few statements as well.
I was contacted by representatives from Enbridge later. They asked to meet and talk about the pipeline, so, I agreed. We met at a coffee shop in Pine River. No story came out of it because they didn’t tell me anything new. Any questions I had, I could have gotten the same PR answers to from their website.
Next came the passing of a few different legal steps in the route proposal process, none of which happened locally, or none of which we were informed of. The next event was a meeting of a group called “Honor the Earth” in Backus. They were riding horse near the proposed route and leaving from my hometown. The group was being lead by Michael Dahl and former vice president candidate Winona LaDuke. Naturally, LaDuke was an authority I could interview.
Before the protest, the Honor the Earth group performed a pretty cool ritual. Isn’t culture neat?
I got the impression that LaDuke might not be fond of the press. During a long speech catching the crowd up on the issue, she made little jabs at the press. Lots of them. I wrote them off as just friendly jokes. I stood in line to interview LaDuke on the group’s horse ride. I waited patiently (because any good reporter knows you need to be patient when there is a line of reporters) and got my turn. Or I almost did. As I was asking my question she turned to a man standing to my right and complimented him on his hat. Then a surprisingly long conversation ensued about his hat.
When the conversation ended, she turned to me. I asked my first question. She started answering it… and a woman with a tape recorder hijacked my question.
Never hijack a crazy man’s interview!
They had a nice, long conversation and left me waiting to continue my interview. When they finished talking, LaDuke started walking away! I began to wonder if those earlier jokes weren’t friendly jabs!
I reminded her that I had questions. She informed me I had literally one minute. At the completion of this statement, every question I had saved up during her speech just flew out of my mind and into the atmosphere, never to be gathered again (this exact thing happened to me years before when I interviewed Al Franken on a visit to Bemidji). It’s hard to focus when you feel so frustrated, haha. Luckily, I had the important ones written down. The interview went okay.
The next Sandpiper event was a meeting of the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association. My colleague Chelsey covered it, so I have no anecdote, however, she received some great maps and documented information from the event showing shallow water tables, sensitive aquatic wildlife, huge freshwater sources all centered around the area the Sandpiper was proposed to pass. This was the type of information that was directly relevant to our area. This guy knew his audience!
Last night, Aug. 20, I went to another Honor the Earth event featuring a potluck and live music with the intent of drawing in the public and informing them. Of course, there was also a speech by LaDuke and Dahl. The event was a nice and friendly environment. I was greeted by LaDuke, and I guess our first meeting must have been an off day for her, because she was very welcoming then.
I have heard all the information from this most recent meeting before. That is one danger of being a news reporter. The audience can change at each event, so there is tons of repetition. It’s a necessary quality.
As a former argument and exposition teacher (I’ve never been good at making my own arguments, just critiquing others’), there were some things during this event that could have been better executed. Foremost, the speeches at this meeting weren’t exactly planned with the audience in mind. There was plenty of mention of Native American wild rice harvest rights, and that is an important part of the Sandpiper discussion especially from a legal standpoint. Not everyone in the area harvests wild rice, this speech was designed for a crowd who does. These speeches should have been focused on the things which are directly and constantly relevant to the audience present.
Not everyone within our readership harvests wild rice, but everyone in our readership drinks the local water. Everyone in our readership likes the local water life (that’s why we live here). Given the recent WAPOA meeting and the maps presented there, the information presented by LaDuke and her entourage had available to them lots of immediately local and important information they could have presented to the audience just in case there were some people present who were still on the fence (I don’t think there were, but that’s not the point).
There were a few points made which I would have recommended against, but they aren’t really important, what is important is the tangent that got me to write this blog post.
You see, the only reason I wanted to talk about this in a blog post was that in both events where LaDuke spoke, she mentioned that they couldn’t get a map of the proposed route early on. I don’t understand this, because I never had a problem finding maps. I couldn’t help but think, “Why didn’t you ask me? I had maps.” The above map being the one I am referring to of course. So, you could say I just felt the urge to brag.
I guess it is possible they were looking for maps before I showed up on the scene, or that they were looking for a different map yet. But yeah, I just wanted to brag.