News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

In the social stratosphere, questions are just as important as the answers

I lived in Pennsylvania at the dawn of the fracking boom, which ravaged the State in so many ways. I became interested in fracking because of personal experience with groundwater contamination back in my home state of Maryland – malfeasance that caused most of my family to be sick or to die of cancer. I learned about cancer clusters by being a member of one.

I anxiously watched what was happening in Pennsylvania, as gas-drilling leases were dangled before landowners and farmers as a way to sustain their properties when the local economy had fizzled. I noticed as landowners who’d leased reported obvious well contamination – hazardous materials that you could see and those that you couldn’t see. Pennsylvania’s waterways were suddenly contaminated with nasty things that were meant to stay deep in the ground and by chemicals used in the fracking process, which the industry wasn’t required to disclose to the public.

I chronicled how the gas companies made grandiose vows to communities about a commercial boom that would happen if only municipalities would welcome in their trucks and drills and legions of personnel, only to frack the town and then pack up and move along to the next dupes. I shook with rage as communities were terrorized by armed mercenaries for hire who’d shut down public roads and seal off private lands to prevent citizens from getting a closer look at drilling sites and well pads. I knowingly nodded when landowners who’d leased their properties began reporting that the gas companies were shirking them, using small-print loopholes so they didn’t have to pay landowners what they were rightfully owed.

Fracking wasn’t getting a lot of press coverage then, unless you counted some of the local small-town papers in the northern and western parts of the State, which seemingly were so enamored by the promise of commerce they missed the opportunity to protect their communities. Josh Fox’s Gasland helped ensure “fracking” became part of the public’s vernacular, in Pennsylvania and around the world.

Tom Corbett was Pennsylvania’s governor at the time, and to say he was pro-fracking would be understatement. He wasn’t just in the industry’s pockets, he banked his entire first term and a potential future term on the fracking economy.

I wasn’t on any kind of energy beat then, but I worked Corbett’s office as if I was, placing calls to the Governor’s office nearly daily, which he dodged. I attended every anti-fracking rally and protest I could – reporting on and photographing them. And I took to social media with what I found and the questions I had, including to Tom Corbett’s Facebook page, where I would plead with the Governor to address topics he clearly didn’t want to talk about.

I never name-called. I was never anything other than polite, but I did ask tough questions that I believed were critical to the public’s health and safety. I carved out at least a few minutes of my day to “touch base” with the Governor there.

I took a lot of heat from the gas-company reps who showed up there, too, and from laypeople who still believed that fracking would help Pennsylvania rise from its industrially ravaged ruins, like a fiscal phoenix. I received an onslaught of public and private threats, including on my life.

And one day, the Governor blocked me. Soon thereafter, he lost his bid for re-election. Pennsylvania installed a Democrat to the Office, who was still rather pro-fracking, but managed to straddle the middle by suggesting he’d tax the crap out of the gas companies while still allowing them to wreck the land and sicken the population.

I learned an important journalistic lesson during my time on Tom Corbett’s Facebook page: That sometimes it’s not the answer to our questions that matter; rather, that we have the tenacity to ask the questions.

Today, I often take to Twitter to question politicians and public officials, including the President of the United States, who has chosen Twitter as his bully pulpit. I model my questions there like I would if I were sitting in a Press briefing, or if I had the ear of the politician. With limited characters, I try my best to give context to the questions I ask, so they don’t come off as petty, biased or snarky, which is a common pitfall with truncated communications of this kind.

I do my best to be polite, but my questions are purposeful and pointed, and often formed because I’ve observed the politician being misleading, misinformed, or just unabashedly lying to the American people.

As you may expect, the barrage of clap-backs I get there are sometimes upsetting. Even though I haven’t attempted to be a verified “somebody” on Twitter, I – like so many other journalists, especially women journalists – get lots of attention in the form of harassment, getting doxxed, and threatened. I wish people weren’t so quick to condemn others just asking questions, but that’s the political, polarized nature of our world today. Even the most innocuous topics seem to inspire people to take to their corners and come out swinging.

Sometimes, it gets me down. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t take its toll on one’s psyche, but when it does, I remind myself: If someone took the time to comment, even with a visceral, nasty response, at least they’ve read the question. At least they now know there is a question, a dilemma, something to substantively debate.

At least that seed has been planted.

I’ve had fellow journalists question this approach. Some have reached out to me privately and asked, “Why do you bother? It’s not as if so-and-so is going to respond to your question on Twitter.”

I’ve explained that I have no delusions that when I tweet @ the President, for example, that he’ll respond or even notice – though if a comment trends, I suspect a lot of these politicians do take note. I explain that it was more important to put the question out there, to the benefit of the public. Twitter and other social media platforms tend to be echo chambers. Algorithms and personal settings make it far too easy for us to narrow the information that comes our way – usually, information that’s palatable to us, that supports our own established beliefs, rather than challenging them. A simple question posted to a politician’s feed breaks through that echo chamber.

Of course, tweeting at people – politicians or otherwise – doesn’t supplant traditional means of journalism. You still need to work your sources; you still need to dodge layers of blockers – press secretaries, comms pros, and PR folks – to get to them and to get them on record. None of that has changed.

Some days, Twitter feels as if it’s nothing but bots, pols, and journos swirling the drain together. But if the politicians and public officials are going to be there; if the bots and political operatives are going to be there, blasting misinformation and disinformation, we need to be there as well.

Checks and balances in the digital age. It’s our duty.

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