AmerenUE tries Taum Sauk ‘documentary’ to sway public opinion

The following is reprinted, with permission, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch which can be found at stltoday.com:
AmerenUE tries Taum Sauk ‘documentary’ to sway public opinion


Airing in primetime tonight on KSDK (Channel 5) is a half-hour show on a controversial topic: the Taum Sauk reservoir disaster. A perfect subject for a news show.

The program, debuting at 7:30 p.m., looks and feels like a TV news show. Karen Foss, the former longtime KSDK news anchor, hosts it. Experts are interviewed. So are executives and state officials. They discuss in a seemingly frank manner the environmental catastrophe and rebuilding efforts that followed the December 2005 breach at AmerenUE’s massive reservoir, when 1.3 billion gallons of water crashed through Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park.

“Get the full story on what happened,” proclaim the print and online ads touting the show.

But the “full story” is actually a polished infomercial. The segment was produced by AmerenUE, Missouri’s largest electrical utility, which is still embroiled in legal battles over the collapse. AmerenUE bought the prime airtime from KSDK for an undisclosed price. An industry source said it was likely at least $100,000. And Foss — she left KSDK to work for AmerenUE earlier this year as vice president of public relations.

“It is like an ad, but it looks like a documentary,” AmerenUE spokesperson Susan Gallagher explained. “We were very honest about what happened.”

Others have their doubts. Can a company with so much at stake be trusted to give an accurate portrayal of the issues?

Media experts say AmerenUE likely settled on a “documentary-style” show because it would appear more credible. It is the same reason advertisers sometimes try to make their newspaper ads look like news articles, or radio spots sound like news reports. “They want their message to be accepted in the realm of fact,” said Lee Wilkins, a radio and television journalism professor at University of Missouri-Columbia.

But then the line between news and public relations can be blurred.

“What is the viewer to think?” asked Roy Malone of the St. Louis Journalism Review and a former Post-Dispatch reporter. “Am I getting an unvarnished, journalistic look at the issues here? With Karen, they may think they are. She is so well-respected and has such credibility.

“And ‘Get the full story?'” Malone added. “That’s crazy.”

Few people outside AmerenUE have previewed the show, called “A New Beginning: Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park.” A copy supplied by AmerenUE to the Post-Dispatch shows a 28-minute program that, as the title suggests, focuses on the rebuilding efforts at the state park, not the breach at the hydroelectric plant’s dam about 90 miles of St. Louis. Foss plays tour guide and narrator. She starts off acknowledging the utility was at fault for the collapse. Tom Voss, AmerenUE president, admits to “lots of soul-searching” about what went wrong. Dan Cole, a company vice president, says bluntly, “This was our fault.”

But Foss doesn’t discuss the gritty details of what caused the collapse.

“On December 14th, something went tragically wrong with the systems that were supposed to shut down the pumps,” Foss says. “The main shutoff system did not work because the supports that held it in place had failed. And the backup system had inadvertently been installed too high to be triggered.”

But a state investigation found there was nothing inadvertent about the accident. A report by the Missouri Highway Patrol described an aging, leaky reservoir that failed because of poor monitoring equipment and managers sluggish in fixing it. A state dam inspector has told reporters he believes someone “jacked with evidence” — hindering the state’s investigation — by removing the key probe after the collapse.

The show also never explicitly details the regulatory fines assessed against AmerenUE. Last October, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission settled with Ameren for $15 million — including $10 million in civil fines — for the utility’s errors at the Taum Sauk plant. The state attorney general has filed a civil lawsuit against Ameren over the breach. That is still in court. The state Public Service Commission still is compiling an audit report, which might include its own sanctions.

In an interview Tuesday, Foss said there was “no attempt to sugarcoat” the incident, but, “The point of this is the cleanup work.”

The park, which still looks barren from the 2005 deluge, is closed again until next year for more repair. For two months this summer, a limited portion of the park — the swimming area — was reopened.

Foss said AmerenUE wanted to use the TV show to spread the word that the utility is rehabilitating the state park and that the park had briefly reopened this summer. “The general impression was that we had just walked away and left
this disastrous mess,” Foss said.

Foss added: “I feel this piece stands as a piece of journalism.”

The TV show makes this much clear: AmerenUE says it has spent $40 million so far to clean debris and stabilize damaged areas in the state park and surrounding areas.

It is not unusual for KSDK to sell blocks of airtime to advertisers, said station program manager Rebecca Rahm. Other companies, such as the Myrtle Hillard Davis Comprehensive Health Centers, have aired “special presentations” in primetime. Such presentations are preceded by a disclaimer noting that they are paid programming.

As for criticism that viewers might be confused, “If it blurred the line, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Rahm said.

One of the few state officials to preview the show was Doyle Childers, director of the state Department of Natural Resources. He was asked for his opinion on a rough cut several months ago. Childers said he asked for several changes, including making it clear that the cleanup work was ordered by state regulators, not done simply with the utility’s good will.

Childers also questioned AmerenUE’s claim that the cleanup has cost $40 million.

“That may be an inflated figure,” Childers said, adding that he thought AmerenUE has done a lot of work, yet a lot remains.

Only at the end of AmerenUE’s show does the format change from documentary into something resembling a corporate advertisement. Voss, the utility’s president, looks directly into the camera and thanks people for watching “this documentary.”

He says AmerenUE deeply regrets what happened at Taum Sauk and says the utility has learned many lessons.

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