The Arctic Persuasion

Sometimes, it almost feels as if media bias is a thing of the past. The public has gotten sophisticated about news, and won't tolerate the blatant boosterism that used to pass for journalism. Every story is sniffed at by watchdogs trained to pick up the faintest hint of slant.

Then a big story with high political stakes, such as the current argument over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, comes along, and the bad old days come roaring back, on both sides of the political fence.

In recent weeks, with Congress considering legislation that would allow oil exploration in one part of the ANWR, there's been a glut of stories about the place. I read three this week, in The Boston Globe, National Review, and Newsweek. All had the same premise: let's send someone up there to find out what the refuge is really like. But it turns out that what the ANWR is really like depends on what the journalist writing the story, and the outlet publishing it, are really like.

The sprawl of majestic wilderness we encounter in The Boston Globe and Newsweek is nothing like the wretched ANWR we meet in National Review. What's interesting is how we wind up with these divergent portraits. Each piece acknowledges the other side. But read closely and you'll notice there are crucial pivot points, places where the writer subtly pulls the piece in one direction. It's those gentle tugs that make all the difference.

The Boston Globe ran its August 7 story by Mark Wilson and Beth Daley under a big gorgeous photo of the Brooks Mountain Range, which slices through the ANWR. "A world in the crosshairs," says the headline, hintingly.

After several introductory paragraphs full of stirring wildlife imagery, the story devotes 144 words to two central arguments of the pro-exploration crowd: 1) wildlife has coexisted with the 1977 trans-Alaska pipeline, demonstrating that nature adapts; and 2) of the 19 million acres in the refuge, "oil operations would sit on only a few thousand acres at most." "But," begins the next paragraph—and here's the pivot—"as summer unfolds in the far North, no one knows exactly where the oil will be found and 1002 Area [the part of the refuge where drilling might occur] is full of ecological hot spots, from bear dens to caribou calving areas across the entire area. Environmentalists say the risk of oil exploration is too great for one of the last truly wild places in the United States." The rest of the piece, about 570 words, is completely given over to supporting this view.

Newsweek's story has the same thrust, but a different approach. It opens with a taciturn Alaskan pilot, "a former rodeo rider and crop duster," who flies the magazine's reporter to his destination. "Nobody would mistake Dirk Nickisch for a tree-hugger," writes Jeffrey Bartholet. "But as he takes off and flies over the northern mountains of Alaska—into one of the last unspoiled wilderness areas of America—he explains (if you ask him) why he doesn't want multinational oil companies to explore and drill for oil in any part of the refuge."

The piece closes with a quote from an environmental activist who accompanied the reporter and also opposes drilling. In between, pro-oil arguments are presented, but never with the same gusto. Sometimes they are raised just to be knocked down, as in this pivot: "Geologists argue that with new technologies, including 3-D seismic mapping and horizontal drilling over long distances, they can exploit ecologically sensitive areas with minimal disruption. Conservationists dispute that, but many also argue that the petroleum geologists miss a larger point: that global warming from the burning of fossil fuel presents an even greater potential danger to arctic ecosystems. Polar bears may or may not be affected by seismic thumping, but they surely will suffer from the rapid melting of their habitat."

National Review's Alaska cover story is an almost perfect inversion of the other two. Datelined "Deadhorse, Alaska," it opens with a dreadful portrait of this unfortunately named place. Later, we learn Deadhorse isn't even in the refuge—it's several mountain ranges away. But with a name like that, who cares, right?

"ANWR is 19.6 million acres, about the size of North Carolina," writes Jonah Goldberg. "And it's beautiful. Well, most of it is. But more about that in a moment." This "more" turns out to be a nauseating evocation of the desolate, bug-plagued nothingness that is, in Goldberg's view, the refuge; and a mockery of the idea that it should be protected. The Globe and Newsweek devote long paragraphs to the beauty of it all, while brushing off any evidence that modern drilling methods don't necessarily disrupt nature. Goldberg does precisely the opposite, dismissing all claims of beauty ("purple prose" by journalists who "put on their 'nature-lover' hats" when in Alaska), while offering long descriptions of how low-impact drilling works.

At one point, Goldberg asserts, without attribution, that the indigenous Alaskans who oppose drilling are actually "furious because they don't have any oil of their own," and are just "playing the noble savage for guilty liberals." Then, the pivot: "But the fact is, none of that matters. The only thing that matters to the Robert Redfords of the world is the idea—yes, the idea—that this place is 'pristine.' ... The fact is, environmentalists simply savor the idea that there is something untouched by grubby humanity out there."

It struck me as an idea worth savoring, just like the idea that you can drill without destroying. I suppose you could ask a journalist to fly up to Alaska and explore both ideas at once, with equal drive and fairness. But that would be asking too much.