Home > Uncategorized > An Open Letter to My Friends at NJ Spotlight

An Open Letter to My Friends at NJ Spotlight

A very unfortunate scene went down in Trenton today, and it was over-heard by several people, including members of the press, which compels me to write this.

I have praised NJ Spotlight here as “the only game in town when it comes to solid journalistic coverage of Trenton public policy issues, especially complex energy and environmental stories.

I often link to and discuss NJ Spotlight stories and I often comment on their stories as a reader.

I loveĀ NJ Spotlight’s motto: “Where issues matter” and strongly support their mission:

We are nonpartisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.

I view them as a much needed new model of alternative journalism, a State level policy oriented outlet along the lines of the public interest investigative journalism of ProPublica.

I have high regard for Tom Johnson, a veteran reporter whom I’ve known and sporadically worked with as a source for almost 20years.

(full disclosure: Tom doesn’t know it and probably would not even recall it, but his Star Ledger page 1 March 1994 story on then pending legislation to create a new household hazardous waste management program (A973 – Ogden) at DEP put me irrevocably on the path to career destruction at DEP.

Long story short: Powerful NJ based consumer product industry interests strongly opposed the bill. Of particular concern to them was their interpretation that DEP would be involved in marketing alternative non-toxic household products, which would compete with their products and reduce market share and profits. I was quoted in Tom’s story to the affect that DEP had no intentions of “becoming Madison Avenue” (I still recall the phrase). That quote directly contradicted new DEP Commissioner Bob Shinn, who was quoted as saying DEP would make it a priority to educate consumers about alternatives. Lesson Learned: It’s not good to contradict your new boss on page 1 in the Star Ledger.)

Anyway, I digress.

The reason I write is caused by an email I sent to a list serve yesterday. I now need to expand upon and clarify that email.

I was responding to a discussion post by my friend Scott Olson.

Scott was seeking dialogue on his concern about recent NJ Spotlight policy forums, which he viewed as biased and composed exclusively of industry, with no enviro or public interest representatives.

I agreed. Here is the exchange in full:

Scott: FYI – Much like water “roundtable” – no anti-fossil fuel advocates or environmentalist. A lot one-sided and biased towards energy industry. You think NJ Spotlight would have learned by now. Of course itĀ IS sponsored by Gas Industry…Hmmmm. Am I the only one seeing a problem here?

Wolfe: You’re right Scott.

Just before the start of Monday’s water panel, Tom Johnson grabbed me and asked me too submit a question. He started the conversation off defensively by saying he was aware of criticism of the composition of the panel w/no enviro’s.

So, I assumed it was a aberration – but I guess not.

In addition, NJ Spotlight provided a questionnaire for attendees to fill out – one of the questions was whether your would pay a fee to attend.

So, I smell money issues!

So I hope this corporate sponsorship crap and panel imbalance doesn’t spill over into their coverage of issues!

Apparently, this email exchange got back to Tom Johnson and perhaps others at NJ Spotlight. Oops!

So, Tom pulled me aside this morning during a Senate Environment Committee hearing to take exception to what I wrote. Tom said:

“What, do you have a problem with free enterprise? Why are you opposed to us making money”? What’s all that about imbalanced panels and questionaire about money?”

I tried to explain that I expected better of NJ Spotlight, that I was actually working to protect their integrity, and that I had left the question of impact of paid policy panel interests on news coverage an open question.

Plus, the Trenton special interests have plenty of private communication resources and platforms, the main stream media, and extensive inside access to policymakers to inject their concerns into the policy process – they don’t need NJ Spotlight to serve as their shill.

Anyway, I want NJ Spotlight to thrive and serve s an alernative public oriented voice.

It would be a serious loss if they fell victim to the traditional journalistic model – that sacrifices integrity to the advertising revenues. Even the appearance or perception of corporate influence on a journalistic entity can taint their credibility.

I understand the need for revenues and the ability to separate panel policy fora from news coverage, but it should not be difficult to find diverse and credible alternative viewpoints to serve on policy panels.

I hope my friends at NJ Spotlight can understand this principled stance.

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  1. scott olson
    December 1st, 2011 at 19:52 | #1

    “Even the appearance or perception of corporate influence on a journalistic entity can taint their credibility.”

    I like that. SO true.

  2. December 1st, 2011 at 20:00 | #2

    @scott olson
    stolen words!

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