My TEDx Talk“I learned that journalism needs to be people focused. Too often… reporters treat statements from corporations as holding more weight than those of directly affected people.” In August I opened an email from TEDxProvidence Curator Michael Gazdacko: “I hope this message finds you well. I’m honored to invite you to speak at TEDxProvidence, an independently organized TED event happening in
Published on October 23, 2019
By Steve Ahlquist
“I learned that journalism needs to be people focused. Too often… reporters treat statements from corporations as holding more weight than those of directly affected people.”
In August I opened an email from TEDxProvidence Curator Michael Gazdacko:
“I hope this message finds you well. I’m honored to invite you to speak at TEDxProvidence, an independently organized TED event happening in October 2019, and will be held at the VETS Auditorium. I am a huge fan of the work you do – and would be so excited if you would join us…”
The email then went on to explain some of what would be expected of me if I said yes.
I stared at the email like a deer in the headlights. The prospect of being alone on a stage, delivering my thoughts to hundreds of people, and hundreds more on video thereafter, was both thrilling and terrifying.
Of course I said yes.
I wrote my piece over the course of an afternoon, and then spent weeks and months honing it. I spent every available moment in the weeks prior to my talk practicing, walking the streets of my neighborhood, repeating the speech over and over, committing the ten minutes or so to memory. My poor wife Katherine was my audience for dozens of rehearsals, and without her help and support I doubt I could have memorized it all. My family is the source of my strength.
I had never done anything remotely like this. I don’t mind public speaking, I actually enjoy it, but TEDx is public speaking without a net. You don’t have notes, teleprompter, or an audience you can bounce questions off of. It’s just you and the audience, and the ten minutes of prepared words you’ve memorized, with slides.
Since doing the TEDx, I’ve thought of countless ways to make the process easier. But that’s all hindsight.
On the day of the talk I was pacing the green room, doing last minute rehearsals in a closet. I spoke with fellow TEDx Talkers, like my friend Dr Megan Ranney, an expert on gun violence, who made doing a TEDx Talk look easy, but was, I think, as nervous as I was about getting it right.
I had planned my look for the presentation, which included a suit coat, but Michael Gazdacko’s last minute piece of advice was to dress the way I’m seen in the world, so I ultimately decided to step out in my tee shirt and hoodie, carrying my camera bag and a tripod.
“Is that the way you’re going out?” I was asked by someone back stage.
“Yeah,” I said, “It’s a ceremonial tripod.”
Then, in a flash, I was on stage, and it was over.
It was a pretty amazing experience. I was nervous, and flubbed a few lines, lost my way once or twice, but TEDx edits out the flubs, making me look far more accomplished than I am. I missed a line or two as well. Nothing major though, the piece still makes sense. If you’re really interested, I made the complete text of my speech available below.
So, would I do this again?
Despite the amount of time it took to memorize and rehearse my TEDx Talk, time taken away from my job as a journalist, I think the answer is yes. Not right away of course, I’m still recovering, but give me a few months and I’d be keen to give it another shot.
Lastly, I’d like to thank the people of Burrillville, who gave me a crash course in journalism, allowing me to think deeply about the philosophy of what I do. These thoughts about the role of journalism are not final. They are not carved in stone. They are evolving, and I still think about these issues and ideas every day.
Here’s the complete text of my TEDx Talk, including a line or two I may have missed saying:
About four years ago, Governor Gina Raimondo announced that Invenergy, a Chicago based corporation, was going to build a new $1B fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant in the northwest corner of our state, in Burrillville. Back then I was working as a reporter for RI Future, a progressive news blog and It seemed to me that building a new fossil fuel power plant, in this era of climate change, was a bad idea.
I thought it might be interesting to write about the process of approving such a project and since Invenergy had requested an expedited hearing schedule and wanted shovels in the ground in about six months, I figured the story would resolve quickly and predictably.
That didn’t happen.
Over the next four years, I wrote hundreds of stories on Invenergy, covering every aspect of the case, chasing the story from Burrillville, to Johnston, to Providence, Charlestown, Woonsocket, Warwick, Fall River and more. During that time I would leave RI Future and strike out on my own with UpriseRI. Today, over four years later I’m still working on some parts of the story.
In Rhode Island, the decision to build or not build a power plant falls to the Energy Facilities Siting Board, the EFSB, which is a creature of state statute. Created in 1986, the EFSB was formed to bypass community involvement in the decision making process. With the creation of the EFSB, local municipalities could no longer prevent unwanted infrastructure from being built in their communities. With the power to overrule all zoning and building codes, the EFSB was able to overrule local legislatures and the will of the people.
Since 1986, no power plant proposal brought before the EFSB had been voted down and no power plant took more than a year or so to be approved. And the first power plant approved by the newly formed EFSB was the Ocean State Power Plant, built in Burrillville, Rhode Island.
Over the first six months of the Invenergy process, a movement formed in the town to oppose the power plant. At public meetings, people would speak out about how the power plant would alter Burrillville. This was not simply a NIMBY issue Not In My Back Yard, the people of Burrillville had an environmental perspective, and saw themselves as caretakers of the water, air and land.
The power plant was proposed to be located on a patch of near pristine wilderness that served as a vital “pinch point” for wildlife moving up and down the east coast of the United States. Endangered and threatened species were at risk. Later in the case, an expert speaking on behalf of the environmental group The Nature Conservancy called the area the “best example left of this kind of habitat between Boston and Washington DC.”
The activism against the power plant was little noted in the mainstream press.
Several politicians, union members and policy wonks familiar with Rhode Island politics told me that my focus on the Invenergy story was a waste of time. It was, they said, a “done deal.”
If the power plant was indeed a done deal, then I wanted to show the effect on the community when a large corporation decides to ignore the will of the people.
I got to know the people of Burrillville, and they got to know me. The people of Burrillville had a hard time attracting the attention of the so-called “real media” in our state, the TV stations and the Providence Journal, but they had me. I would show up and video record the entirety of long meetings – some stretching over multiple nights and lasting until near midnight. Then I would make the 40 minute drive back to Providence, where I would spend hours processing video and pictures.
I didn’t miss many meetings. I recorded all the public comments made by the people of Burrillville, and to my surprise, the people of Burrillville were using my videos to learn how to become better speakers themselves. Over time I saw people uncomfortable with public speaking becoming polished and confident. Much better speakers in fact, than I am.
Through their advocacy and hard work, the people of Burrillville delayed the proceedings. When Invenergy wanted to secure water from a tainted well, the people of Burrillville forced the water district in charge of the well to cancel their agreement. The people of Burrillville did the same thing in Woonsocket, successfully petitioning the Woonsocket City Council to not do business with Invenergy.
These delays, and others of Invenergy’s own making, dragged the EFSB hearings out for four years. Over that four years, as renewable energy sources like solar and wind came on line throughout New England, it became more and more obvious that Invenergy’s power plant was not needed.
Over those years, every single environmental group in Rhode Island, and most of the legislatures of the cities and towns of Rhode Island, came out against the power plant. Governor Gina Raimondo changed her position, at least publicly, from support to neutrality, as did Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a climate champion who supported the power plant early on.
Then, this year, on a day I will never forget, and for the first time ever, the Energy Facilities Siting Board rejected a power plant application.
Invenergy had lost.
The people of Burrillville had won.
The done deal wasn’t done after all.
So what did I learn, as a journalist? Well, first I learned more about power companies and energy markets than I ever imagined. Some stories I wrote were so complicated they required glossaries to accompany my reporting.
But more importantly, I learned that journalism needs to be people focused. Too often, when writing about something like Invenergy, reporters treat statements from corporations as holding more weight than those of directly affected people.
I learned that when we hand over important decisions to non-elected boards like the EFSB, we are bypassing democracy. The EFSB, despite making the right decision in this case, had never before turned down a power plant.
If we don’t like the decisions made by the EFSB, or any number of other non-elected boards who do we hold accountable when next we go to the voting booth?
I learned that Climate Change, despite being critically important, has no bearing when it comes to approving a power plant. The EFSB, when deciding to approve a power plant, decides based on three criteria. They decide whether the plant is needed, whether it will be good for ratepayers, and whether it will hurt the local environment in ways that can not be remediated.
It doesn’t matter that fracked gas is destroying the local environments of Pennsylvania and states west of Rhode Island. The fact that burning fossil fuels is accelerating climate change does not matter. Only the three factors I listed, need, ratepayer savings and local environmental impacts are considered.
Lastly, and this is the most important journalistic lesson I learned: Truth is more important than balance.
Too many journalists believe that balance is the objective in reporting. The job is seen as merely collecting the opinions of people on either side of a debate and then casting a government agency like the EFSB as the referee.
Important issues become contests, all news becomes sports coverage.
The truth, however, is not in the balance. The truth is that new fossil fuel power plants are not needed, that climate change is on track to kill the planet and destroy civilization, that money bends the will of politicians, and that some people, in the service of profit, will lie to get their opinions in the press. Just look at the Providence Journal, publishing opeds by climate change deniers on their editorial page and full page ads from Invenergy elsewhere. In what way does that serve the truth, or even balance?
Journalists need to serve the people, and the truth. Too often, corporate media serves profit, advertisers, and the moneyed elite.
To the extent that my work assisted the people of Burrillville in defeating Invenergy’s proposed $1B fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant, it was because I relentlessly published the truth, like a drumbeat, and called out the corporate bullshit.
This is the place I occupy in the journalistic ecosystem of Rhode Island, and one I hope to occupy for many years to come.
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