Fly in the Power Plant  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 2002

Fly in the Power Plant   

Fox flyover story raises eyebrows on multiple fronts

By Doug Brown
Doug Brown is a writer in Baltimore.     


Did Fox News Channel trample journalistic standards when it let its reporter Douglas Kennedy cobble together a piece about safety issues at a nuclear power plant that Kennedy's older brother, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is actively trying to shut down?

That's what a national pilots association and an energy corporation charge. But Fox and the Kennedy brothers--children of slain presidential hopeful Sen. Robert F. Kennedy--dismiss the accusations.

The controversy stems from an April three-part series Kennedy reported called "Nuclear Neglect" in which, to demonstrate alleged lax security around nuclear power plants, he and other Fox News staffers rented a plane and buzzed the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, located 33 miles north of New York City.

The report told viewers that the aircraft crossed over the plant three times, for 20 minutes, according to a transcript on the Fox News Web site, www.foxnews.com. The story reported that the power plant never did anything about the plane--it never contacted the pilot and asked him what he was doing, and it never alerted authorities.

Critics of the story say that by doing nothing, the plant was acting precisely as it should have. According to Federal Aviation Administration rules, small aircraft are permitted to fly over nuclear power plants, provided they remain at an altitude of at least 2,000 feet. The plane the Fox team rented never dipped below 2,000 feet.

Douglas Kennedy says the point of the story was to show people how easy it is to rent a plane and fly it over a nuclear power plant. But the company that owns the plant and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association say that by leaving out details--for example, that the plane was cleared beforehand by air traffic controllers and was tracked by radar--the report was purposely misleading and sensationalistic.

Arthur Wiese, vice president of corporate communications for Entergy Corp., which owns Indian Point, referred to the report as a "stunt" that used ominous language and frightening imagery to unfairly suggest that Indian Point is ripe for a terrorist attack. The report sparked numerous complaints from New York politicians.

"I write to express my grave concern over the report in today's press that a Fox reporter spent 20 minutes flying over the Indian Point nuclear plant in Westchester," Sen. Hillary Clinton wrote in a letter to FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Meserve, in which she demanded an explanation. "According to the article, no attempt was made to stop or inquire about the flight."

In a letter to Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, AOPA President Phil Boyer pointed out that the federal government maintained constant radar vigilance on the aircraft and remained in communication with the pilot. "Should anyone have been concerned about this aircraft passing the Indian Point power plant? Of course not," he wrote.

Douglas Kennedy says the report was straightforward and truthful. "We simply told the facts of what we did," he says. "We didn't draw any conclusions. Much of the alarm has come from other people watching the piece and expressing alarm about it. We didn't use sensationalistic or alarming language. We were simply telling the facts."

But Wiese says that besides being tabloidesque, the report was journalistically unsound.

"It's an unconscionable breach of journalistic ethics for a blood relative of one of the prime people in this debate to be assigned to cover it," he says. "And then for Fox to not identify the connection between the two Kennedy brothers is outrageous."

Robert Kennedy is vice president of Riverkeeper, an environmental organization dedicated to the Hudson River. Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he and others began calling for Indian Point to be shut down for fear that terrorists would strike the plant. The issue--at least into May--was featured prominently on the organization's Web site, www.riverkeeper.org.

Douglas Kennedy says his brother had "nothing to do with the piece." "It's ridiculous to think that anybody from the Fox News Channel talks to my brother Bobby about stories," he says. "I have 10 brothers and sisters. They are involved in all parts of the world and all parts of society. If I couldn't cover something that is of interest to a member of my family, I couldn't do anything in the world at all."

But Robert Kennedy says he had been in contact with his brother Douglas about the piece while Douglas started working on it. "I can tell you this," he says. "Douglas called me and said that he's been assigned to do a piece on Indian Point. And he asked me for people to talk to about it.... Many reporters use me as a source all the time because I have expertise in that area."

He adds: "I don't see the conflict."

Av Westin, a former ABC news executive and now a Freedom Forum fellow, didn't find anything wrong with Douglas Kennedy using his brother Robert Kennedy as a source. Sometimes, he says, good story ideas and contacts come from family and friends, and reporters should not shrink from getting information from them. But as for the content of the report, Douglas Kennedy, he says, "is a victim of the hyperbole that has now surrounded both story selection and story execution on television news."

Television news since September 11, Westin says, has been flooded with stories in which reporters do something, like get past security guards at an airport while carrying a weapon, and then broadcast the incident with little context. The Indian Point story, he says, though not great journalism, is becoming conventional.

"The ethics of the business have been so affected by the desire to do hot stories, and the ethics have been so affected by the ability to put reporters in places with equipment that previously would have been impossible to do," he says.

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