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Wind farm stories cause storm on Cape

To editor Cliff Schechtman, the Cape Cod Times is doing a laudable job of covering a heated controversy -- the plan to develop the nation's first offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound -- in the face of relentless pressure.

"This is a $700 million project," he said. "Both sides use all sorts of tactics to intimidate. We're probing both sides. It's fair and impartial." To Mark Rodgers, communications director for wind-farm developer Cape Wind Associates, the Times's fierce editorial page opposition to the project has spilled over into its news coverage.

"Unfortunately, it appears to us that the Cape Cod Times's extremely negative editorial position on Cape Wind does impact the decisions made by their news editors," said Rodgers, alleging several "instances in the past few months where the Cape Cod Times's firewall between news and editorial has become porous."

The relationship between Cape Wind and the Times, the dominant media outlet on the Cape with a circulation of about 51,000, has often been rocky, given the Times's relentless editorial page crusading against the project. Schechtman, who is the paper's top news editor and also sits on the editorial board (the dual role is common at smaller and midsize papers), has said the paper opposes "the notion that a private corporation can profit from a pristine public resource." Cape Wind president Jim Gordon has called the paper's editorials "hostile tinged with fearmongering."

The latest battleground is a wide-ranging poll commissioned by the Cape Cod Times and WCAI-FM radio that included a question about the wind project. Cape Wind says the way the paper reported the results has been misleading and unfair; the Times editor defends it as responsible and accurate. While the dispute may center on a poll, the issue is whether the local paper of record is playing fair on the region's most divisive issue.

The March 4 story about the poll -- it ran as the lead article on Page 1 and was headlined "Poll: Slim majority opposes wind farm" -- reported that a survey of 588 people found that 55.1 percent of the respondents opposed the project and 44.9 percent favored it. A pie chart was used to illustrate that breakdown, and those numbers and the chart have been repeated in subsequent Times stories. What the Times did not report was that of the 588 respondents, 118 -- about 20 percent -- did not respond to the question.

Victor DeSantis, the pollster at the Institute for Regional Development at Bridgewater State College who conducted the poll, did include the number of people who actually answered the question in his data. But he said he does not know how many of the 118 nonrespondents were undecided on the wind-farm issue and how many might have declined to answer for other reasons.

Rodgers said Cape Wind officials were "shocked" that the paper did not report that 20 percent of those surveys did not answer the question. "The number one takeaway people have [after reading the Times] is that a majority of people on the Cape and Islands opposed the Cape Wind project," he said. "And the reality is that is not what the survey found. The survey found that a majority that had an opinion [opposed it] but 20 percent had no opinion."

Jack Coleman, the Times staffer who helped write the poll story, said he was trying to find the number of nonrespondents when he had to stop working on it because another assignment intervened. "I didn't have a chance to finish it the way I wanted to," he said.

When Coleman learned the following week about the large number of nonrespondents, he concluded that the paper needed to set the record straight. "I was flabbergasted. It was a sizeable portion," he said. "I talked to Cliff [Schechtman] about it, and I said I think we need to revisit it. He said he didn't think it was necessary. . . . It's not the way I'd prefer to go. But it's not my call."

That view is seconded by several pollsters contacted by the Globe who said the Times should have reported the number of those surveyed who did not answer.

"If it were our poll, we would be very upset if it were used in a way that did not make it clear that there were that many nonrespondents," said Francis J. Connolly, senior analyst for the Kiley and Co. public opinion research firm.

"You can't leave 20 percent of the sample out," said John Gorman, president of Opinion Dynamics. "This is not a footnote. This is a lot of people and it changes the meaning of the story."

Schechtman said: "Would I have liked now in retrospect to have a category of `no opinion?' Yes." But he asserted that 470 respondents is "still a good number [and] meets all the standards for this type of poll." He noted that the wind farm issue was one in a series of poll questions the Times reported on without mentioning nonrespondents. But that wind farm issue did produce an unusually large number of people who did not answer.

WCAI, a local National Public Radio outlet, also reported on the DeSantis poll that it co-commissioned. "We still stand behind the poll," said broadcast and news director Steve Young, who alludes to the passions ignited by the wind farm debate. "This is a small area and a large issue, and tempers flare."

The disputed poll story was not the only recent flashpoint between Cape Wind and the Cape Cod Times.

A March 16 story in the Times -- headlined "Study: Wind farm doesn't add up" and published across the top of Page 1 -- detailed the findings of the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University concluding that the economic costs of the wind farm outweigh the benefits. It is the second study critical of the project released by the Institute, and both were funded by opponents of the project.

The findings led to a lengthy rebuttal from Cape Wind and a counter-rebuttal issued by the institute. Despite institute efforts to pitch the study to news outlets, it did not get wide media attention. Rodgers -- citing the funding source and what he considers other weaknesses in the study -- assails the Times for giving the study such prominent play.

"That is again a judgment call made by the news editors," he said.

Institute executive director David Tuerck said his organization had "complete control of the study's results." And both Schechtman and reporter John Leaning defend the paper, saying it ran a story that offered important and groundbreaking economic insights into the project while clearly disclosing the funding source.

In an interview with the Globe, Schechtman expressed frustration with Cape Wind's efforts to use other media to publicize its disputes with his paper. "I just have a problem having to be on the defensive with our coverage that I consider to be excellent," he said. "And we're being pressured. And you're being used."

He cited Times stories that have angered opponents of the wind farm. And he noted the paper's aggressive coverage of John Donelan, a former employee of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the main wind farm opposition group, who sent out a fictitious press release trying to malign Cape Wind.

But unlike two Cape weeklies -- The Cape Codder and The Barnstable Patriot -- the Times has not had a reporter visit wind-farm projects overseas. Schechtman says Times editors believe those projects weren't "akin to what would be here." (The paper's website, however, displays a picture of a turbine from a wind farm in Denmark as an example of how the Cape development "might look.") He did say a Times reporter had applied for a grant for such a project and that the paper has had "conversations" about sending a staffer overseas.

When it comes to covering the wind farm story, Schechtman says, "we are ground zero here. They care what we say." And the two sides offer very different reviews of what the Times is saying.

Ernie Corrigan, spokesman for the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, said the Times "has done a very good job of trying to referee the two sides. This is like a political campaign."

But Rodgers is troubled by the editor's influence over both the editorial and news pages. "As senior news editor, Cliff Schechtman makes the final decisions," he said. "He also actively participates in the paper's editorial policy on Cape Wind."

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