Why I left The Times

Jack Coleman: Trying to cover the Cape Wind controversy

Providence Journal on Tuesday, April 12, 2005

NEVER LET IT BE SAID that The Cape Cod Times is stingy. Unlike many newspapers its size, the 50,000-circulation Times has sent reporters to chase stories in South Africa, Belgium, Brazil and other distant locales.

Cape Cod's only daily is viewed as a cash cow in the Ottaway chain, a subsidiary of Dow Jones. Yet The Times turns downright miserly in covering the biggest local issue in decades -- one that commands more attention in its pages than any other: Cape Wind, the offshore wind-energy project proposed for Nantucket Sound.

If approved, Cape Wind's 130 turbines would form the country's first offshore wind farm -- as well as the largest local construction project since the Cape Cod Canal, of 1910-14.

While wind towers have yet to appear in American waters, they've sprouted in the waters of Denmark, Germany, Britain and Ireland. Given The Times's deep pockets and abiding interest in the Nantucket Sound proposal, you'd think the paper would send a reporter to Europe to find out what the locals there think of offshore wind energy.

Yet The Times's editor in chief, Cliff Schechtman, won't send his reporters anywhere that they might find people who overcame their initial opposition to windmills off their coasts.

Schechtman declined to comment for this column.

It is not as if other media outlets share Schechtman's reluctance. Two local weeklies, The Cape Codder and The Barnstable Patriot, have had reporters visit wind farms in Europe. And when the Cape-based Clean Power Now group makes its second trip to Denmark, next month, a freelance writer from the online news site capecodtoday.com and an editorial writer from The Boston Globe will join them.

A former Cape Cod Times environmental reporter, John Leaning, sought in vain for Schechtman to send him overseas to provide more depth to the paper's reporting on Cape Wind. "They sent me to Paris to cover an art-show opening by a Cape artist," he said, "but they refused to send me to cover offshore wind farms in Europe."

Leaning said that the wind-farm issue was "a contributing factor" in his decision to leave the paper in December, after 35 years in journalism.

For a possible explanation of the travel ban by the otherwise adventurous Cape Cod Times, look no further than the paper's strident editorials against Cape Wind. They often employ the same pejorative language tossed about by die-hard Cape Wind foes, such as the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. For example, the paper and the organization seem incapable of describing the project without alleging that it would "industrialize" Nantucket Sound. These are windmills we're talking about, not smokestacks.

The tendency of The Times and the Alliance to speak as if joined at the hip led to an embarrassing gaffe in September 2003, when a paragraph in an editorial read nearly verbatim like one in a press kit sent out 10 days earlier by the Alliance.

"It has seemed to us," said Cape Wind Communications Director Mark Rodgers, "that the relentless negative editorializing of The Cape Cod Times against Cape Wind has created a difficult climate for news reporters to do their jobs."

In March 2004, The Times ran a series on a poll that it had commissioned. One of the stories, which I helped write, said that 55 percent of local residents opposed the Cape Wind project, while 45 percent supported it. But the story lacked an essential element: the undecided.

After learning, days later, that the undecided had accounted for 20 percent of the poll, I suggested to the editors that we revisit the story. I was told: You should have had that figure to begin with, as instructed.

You're right, I said, and I'm the one responsible for this. But now that we know what the figure is, we have an obligation to set the record straight with a story. A correction won't cut it.

Speaking as one, the editors disagreed.

The Boston Globe's media critic, Mark Jurkowitz, heard about the poll and weighed in with a story unflattering to The Times. Most egregious in the Times editors' eyes, I had spoken on the record with Jurkowitz. "It's not the way I'd prefer to go," I had said to him, "but it's not my call."

(A bit of advice to aspiring journalists: The media love whistleblowers, but not if they're pointing out shabby conduct in their corner of the media.)

The other shoe didn't drop until August, although I knew that it eventually would. I was told that another reporter would cover the Republican National Convention, and that I could no longer write a political blog for the paper.

On that particular day, I was working on a story about thousands of dubious signatures on a petition circulated by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.

It was also the day I decided to find more honest work. I gave my notice three weeks later.

Jack Coleman, a Bourne native, is a former Cape Cod Times political reporter and bureau chief who writes about Cape Wind at http://www.windfarmblog.com and wrote a series of articles about the Danish experience with wind farm for this newspaper.

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