In many ways, CleanSkies.tv, an online outfit offering “energy and environmental news, information, discussion, and commentary,” resembles other TV news operations. It has offices in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Oklahoma City, a multimillion-dollar budget, and twenty-five journalists on staff, some of them big-name television personalities. Clean Skies Sunday, for instance, is hosted by former CBS Morning News anchor Susan McGinnis and airs on WJLA-7, Washington’s ABC affiliate. But behind the journalistic veneer lies a tangle of energy interests that are not readily apparent to viewers or clearly acknowledged on the network’s Web site. CleanSkies’s parent group, the American Clean Skies Foundation, is funded by Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the nation’s largest independent producer of natural gas (a fossil fuel that is responsible for 20 percent of all U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions). Chesapeake’s founder, Aubrey McClendon, chairs the foundation board. The network itself is operated by Branded News, a subsidiary of Ackerman McQueen, an Oklahoma advertising agency that counts Chesapeake among its clients.
What’s more, CleanSkies has signed up a handful of “peer-group partners” to advise it on select programming, including Honda USA, Natural Gas Vehicles for America, and Clean Energy Fuels, another natural-gas provider.
Network officials argue that these ties don’t influence their news coverage, which they say is “insulated from potential outside influence” by an oversight committee, headed by Burl Osborne, a former editor and publisher of The Dallas Morning News and chairman of the Associated Press board. “We have a group of journalists with significant pedigrees,” says Kelley Rickenbaker, the general manager of CleanSkies. “The reason those people came to work for us is that we were able to guarantee their editorial independence.”
But CleanSkies’s programming is suffused with plugs for natural gas. Sometimes the advocacy is subtle: for example, the network makes frequent mention of a Clean Skies Foundation report that suggests the U.S. has enough natural gas to last a hundred years, and of T. Boone Pickens’s energy plan, which calls for a large fleet of natural-gas vehicles. In other instances, the plugs are overt, as is often the case with the show Energy Matters, hosted by Denise Bode, a former petroleum lobbyist and the founding CEO of the Clean Skies Foundation (she stepped down December 31). During an August episode, Bode spelled out her goal for the network: “I want to have natural gas more on the lips of people who are making decisions, whether it be the soccer moms or presidential candidates.”
More recently, Energy Matters featured a fawning tribute to retiring New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, who was described as a “man of great principle” and a champion of “clean energy.” In fact, Domenici’s legislative record is anything but green. Until 2005, he was one of Congress’s staunchest global-warming deniers. He has opposed increased funding for renewable energy and backed measures to shield makers of MTBE, a gasoline additive that pollutes drinking water, from lawsuits. Meanwhile, he has pushed tax breaks for oil and gas producers and fought to open offshore areas to drilling—a priority for the natural-gas industry. “People are making a big mistake when they say ‘don’t drill,’ ” Domenici suggested in the CleanSkies segment.
“Right. Yes,” Bode replied. “Part of the answer I think . . . is raising people’s awareness that there are vast new supplies of natural gas coming onshore.”
This type of overt shilling airs alongside original Sierra Club programming, in-depth interviews with energy experts, and saturation coverage of political events. Last August, former CNN anchor Joie Chen reported live for CleanSkies from the Democratic National Convention—along with Bode and Jim Martin, the head of public relations for the Clean Skies Foundation. When the cameras weren’t rolling, Bode was hobnobbing with lawmakers in her role as an advocate for natural gas.
Faced with growing opposition to its drilling in Fort Worth’s urban Barnett Shale area, Chesapeake had planned to roll out a second online operation, Shale.tv, staffed by veteran Dallas TV anchor Tracy Rowlett and former NBC Dateline producer Olive Talley. It pulled the plug after the Wall Street meltdown, but it hasn’t ruled out future news ventures. “The company will keep the option on the table for future consideration,” says Chesapeake spokesman Brent Gooden.