Media Failure? How Seven Days Reporter Paul Heintz Got It Wrong About VPIRG and Solar
March 19, 2012
From Paul Burns, VPIRG Executive Director.
At VPIRG, we never mind a little constructive criticism. We respect the fact that Vermonters have different opinions about the many policy matters in which we’re engaged. And we don’t claim to have the market cornered on good ideas to address the problems we’re trying to solve.
But when a journalist writes a story about us or a project we’re working on, we do expect at least minimum standards of competence and fairness to be met. A recent article in Seven Days newspaper by Paul Heintz [“SunCommon Conflict? How VPIRG's Solar Spinoff Company Went From Org to Inc.” March 14], failed to meet this standard and we wanted to correct some of the errors in his reporting here.
I had a chance to communicate with Heintz a number of times by phone and email as he was putting his story together. It was obvious from the start that he had a theory he was going to advance, and he wasn’t going to let facts stand in his way.
His story essentially makes two allegations: 1) VPIRG pressed for pro-solar policies at the State House only because some members of our staff and board had an interest in a new business promoting solar energy, and 2) VPIRG did not oppose the proposed merger of GMP and CVPS because at one time it seemed possible that the new solar business – separate from VPIRG – would one day partner with GMP to promote solar.
Both allegations are utterly false, but rather than investigate the actual merit of the allegations, Heintz chose to manufacture his own story, complete with misleading statements and incorrect data.
For instance, Heintz claims that I told him that our solar program raised $275,000 for VPIRG. That is untrue. In fact, I explained to him that the correct gross income figure was lower than $275,000, and that the net was close to a wash given the significant expense of running the program. I offered to review the data that he claimed to have in order to clarify the discrepancy, but he didn’t bother to take me up on that. Instead he went with his own number and falsely claimed that it came from me.
Heintz also falsely claimed that I confirmed a statement he made about the new solar company planning to pay VPIRG $100,000. That is flat-out wrong. Heintz was apparently looking at a draft appraisal of assets that represented a snapshot in time last fall. I made clear to him that VPIRG is not owed anything like $100,000 from the new solar company. But again, he not only went with his fantasy version of the truth, but he lied when he said it came from me.
Heintz relates the story of how VPIRG pressed for “tweaks” to state energy policy so that solar panels would be more affordable to consumers, including residents of Burlington who are currently at a financial disadvantage compared to neighboring communities when it comes to financing solar projects. Yes, we did that. And we’re proud of it. It’s our goal to make solar easier and more affordable for Vermonters!
In hindsight, perhaps I should have delivered that testimony on VPIRG’s behalf myself in order to remove even the whiff of conflict. But that’s not what happened. Our long-time energy program director delivered that testimony – after disclosing the fact that he was getting into the business of solar energy – and this gave Heintz all the evidence of conspiracy that he needed.
The fact that the position VPIRG advocated was absolutely consistent with our longstanding energy policy was immaterial to Heintz. I want to be clear on this point: there is not one shred of evidence to suggest that VPIRG’s pro-solar policy is the result of any organizational conflict of interest, real or imagined. We’ve been promoting clean solar energy in Vermont for decades.
Concerning the proposed merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service, Heintz framed the matter this way: “VPIRG had to decide if it was going to take a stand against the merger.”
This framing betrayed his bias. Heintz makes the assumption – for no apparent reason – that the only reasonable position for an environmental and consumer group to take would be to oppose the merger. But why?
On the face of it, the offer made by Green Mountain Power and its Canadian parent was far superior from an environmental and consumer perspective to the competing offer made (and initially accepted by CVPS) by another Canadian energy giant. It also raised significant concerns for us and many others about the concentration of power in the hands of one utility, and we noted all of that in VPIRG’s official filing with the Public Service Board.
Later, VPIRG supported a legislative proposal to study the feasibility of a public ownership interest in VELCO. That legislation was strongly opposed by GMP among others. I sent a copy of VPIRG’s letter to Heintz. Did he include this in his story? No. I suppose that would have been awkward since his goal was apparently to try to prove that we were cozy with GMP.
Inclusion of that information would also have undercut the criticism offered by Senator Vince Illuzzi, since the bill that VPIRG supported was sponsored by Illuzzi, as well as Senators Tim Ashe and Peter Galbraith.
I guess Heintz felt his story was so much more compelling when he wasn’t burdened by sharing the truth.
One last example of this reporter’s overt bias: when Heintz asked me who in our office wrote the brief we filed with the PSB regarding the GMP/CVPS merger, I explained that our energy advocate Ben Walsh worked with me to develop the position. Internally we had decided because of a potential conflict involving GMP, James Moore, who was at that time our energy program director, was excluded from the process.
A fair reporter might have given us credit for trying to do the right thing. We weren’t perfect; Moore had attended a meeting on the topic before we established our bright line in the office, but it was a good faith effort nonetheless.
Rather than recognize the effort to do the right thing however, Heintz came up with the clever line about an energy ally of ours “remember[ing] it differently,” when he recalled who attended the meeting in our office. Well, our ally didn’t remember anything differently. He was simply asked a different question by a reporter who lacked the professionalism or integrity to report honestly.
In the end, Heintz could offer no proof whatsoever that a perceived – or in this case potential – conflict caused us to alter our policy position one bit. That’s because there is no such evidence. Indeed the evidence says exactly the opposite. But when the facts in his hands were inconvenient, Heintz either made up his own or committed the act of omission in his article.
Seven Days is a very good newspaper with a strong reputation. Its readers deserved far better than what they got in this story.