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Snowbowl Redux: The Question of Balance

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michaelwolcott | May 20, 2009 10:49 AM

Every journalist is biased. Scribes-for-hire have opinions, just like anybody else. However most readers expect some approximation of fairness and balance. The reporter’s job is to lock his personal views in a cage until press time.

This professional obligation was very much on my mind last winter when I wrote “The Snow War,” a summary of the bitter controversy and legal wrangling that surround Arizona Snowbowl’s plan to make artificial snow from reclaimed sewage effluent on the San Francisco Peaks—which are held sacred by 13 southwestern tribes.

Snowbowl operates on Coconino National Forest, which approved the plan to make snow with Flagstaff’s treated sewage water. Native Americans say this would desecrate their holy mountain. Environmentalists argue that micro-pollutants in the water could harm human health and the mountain ecosystem. The U.S. Supreme Court must now decide whether to hear the lawsuit that seeks to block snowmaking, Navajo Nation vs. the U.S. Forest Service. If the high court chooses not to, then Snowbowl wins.

My biases on the issue are well-documented. (See “Religion loses to recreation in Arizona”). I have testified against snowmaking at public hearings, filed objections on EIS documents, given media interviews, and stood on Snowbowl Road with other protesters, holding a sign that said "No to Yellow Snow.” Still, I intended to tell this story fairly.

Did I succeed? Well, that depends on who you talk to.

Shortly after the story appeared in February, I received an email from Snowbowl’s general manager, J.R. Murray, who thanked me for portraying the issue “with facts instead of emotion.” While every writer hopes for compliments, that one worried me: it’s a truism that good journalism should make both sides mad.

The next letter was from a furious anti-Snowbowl activist. She complained that I had slanted the story heavily in Snowbowl’s favor, and suggested that I had been paid off. If we met face-to-face, she said, I could anticipate being spit upon.

“Now I know who you really are,” the woman wrote, with astonishing certainty. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Then I talked to a couple of strangers in the post office, who said they didn’t side with either camp, and thought that “The Snow War” was an even-handed treatment of a contentious issue.

I had certainly tried to play it down the middle. Because I disagree with J.R. Murray so strongly, I led with his side of the story. I then extensively quoted the opposition’s most visible spokesperson, Navajo artist and activist Klee Benally. Each articulated his points with certainty; each believed he was right.

If the piece had begun with Klee Benally’s side of the story, would I have gotten an angry letter from a Snowbowl supporter? Would an anti-snowmaking activist have called to thank me for telling the story with facts, not emotion? Hard to say.

But clearly my own bias had been successfully erased. Nobody who read "The Snow War" thought that I was fighting to stop Snowbowl from making snow. When I tackle that job again, I'll show up for work on the op-ed page.

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