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Cape Wind and tabloid journalism

Let’s conduct a thought experiment: A developer has calculated that he can make some $139 million in profits by putting an industrial project smack in the middle of a site world-renowned for its natural beauty and as a Mecca for tourists. The project would be spread over 24 square miles of ocean, within view of expensive homes and tourist spots. Because of its obtrusiveness, the project would be blocked by zoning and maritime laws were it located on land or just a few miles closer to land. But this developer has chosen carefully: Located where it is, the project falls under federal jurisdiction, making it mostly immune from state or local regulation.

He’s lucky to be able to escape the scrutiny of local officials. According to a comprehensive survey, residents with homes near the project expect it to diminish their property values by more than a billion dollars. The same survey shows that business related to tourism would fall by as much as $200 million a year. Concerns abound that the project would pose threats to navigation, fishing and birds.

There’s more. Because the project would not otherwise be commercially viable, it would depend on subsidies for 48% of its revenue. The economic cost of the project would come to well over a billion dollars – half again as much the benefits it would confer. And that’s when we account for the reduction in fossil fuel consumption and the improvement in air quality that it would make possible.

Does this sound like a project about which someone might reasonably be expected to raise an objection? Not in the world of Wendy Williams and Robert Whitcomb. In their book, Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity and Power, all such arguments are to be casually dismissed. In their book, the project developer becomes a selfless, swashbuckling entrepreneur and his opponents “rich, arrogant and smug” plutocrats, notable for their elitism and smarmy commitment to environmentalism. Any fact that gets in the way of the authors’ fawning admiration of the developer is to be dismissed as “dubious” and the source just another lackey in the employ of the spoilsports who oppose the project. It’s good versus evil in the battle to save the earth from global warming.

The hero in this battle is, of course, Jim Gordon, who formed Cape Wind for the purpose of building 130 windmills in Nantucket Sound. The villain is the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, portrayed by the authors as a collection of pampered heiresses, delusional media personalities, multi-millionaires and strange political bedfellows who, in a shameful display of self-interest, are trying to keep the project from happening.

In the Williams/Whitcomb world of tabloid journalism, there is no room for thoughtful discussion, for weighing costs against benefits, for understanding that self-interest is at work on both sides of the issue or for any kind of honest discussion. Such thoughts would get in the way of the facile thinking and cynical blather that fills their book and that is now commonplace on TV, radio and the Internet. Do you find yourself bored now that Don Imus and Rosie O’Donnell are off the air? Does the Internet no longer meet your need for trash talk? Then read this book. You won’t learn anything substantive from it, but it’ll be great entertainment.

Disclaimer: I am a co-author of the “dubious” studies attacked by Williams and Newcomb. And a few years ago, I had an exchange with author Williams that told me all that I need to know about her journalistic standards. For me, the only mystery is how she got Whitcomb, an otherwise respectable journalist, to team up with her. I suppose that he’ll be crying all the way to the bank. I just hope that he makes enough money on the book to compensate for what this will do to his reputation among journalists who still think that their job is to provide a balanced and carefully researched account of the facts.

By David G. Tuerck

Executive Director, The Beacon Hill Institute, and Chairman and Professor of Economics, Suffolk University. The Institute’s studies on Cape Wind can be found here.

Cape Cod Today

30 May 2007