It’s Deregulation, Stupid


What unseen beast might have caused New York City to go black on August 14? Lightning, fire, Canada, Con Ed? The empty finger-pointing in the days following the blackout gave journalists plenty to write about, with some taking it less seriously than others. “Experts know zip over zap,” declared a Daily News headline. Joel Achenbach floated elegant grid theories in The Washington Post‘s Style section, wondering if “perhaps there is an extremely fried squirrel somewhere, sizzling in the weeds beneath a shorted-out transformer.”

The blackout was not funny for New Yorkers, who have been hit with a billion-dollar price tag. But it did produce one amusing media spectacle, that of the Republicans caught with their pants down. Bush’s energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, first had no comment and then spoke out of both sides of his mouth. Bush was in California, and it took him four hours to get out the reassuring statement, “We don’t know yet what went wrong but we will.” Governor Pataki began charging around New York State and demanding answers from the feds. Bringing up the rear guard, the New York Post accused anyone who blamed the blackout on deregulation of engaging in “demagoguery.”

Although many Republicans deny it, some journalists have already decided that deregulation is the root cause of the blackout. It’s convenient for Bush to say now that the interstate power grid “needs to be modernized,” but where is the evidence that that will happen in a free market dominated by private energy companies?

The Republicans’ embarrassed silence allowed Democrats to seize control of the narrative. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, an energy secretary under Clinton, landed on the front page of The New York Times on August 15 with the now famous quote, “We are a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid.” He not only got the Iraqis laughing (they have been without electricity for months), but also provided a spark for ensuing news coverage.

On August 16, the Times ran a story by David Firestone and Andrew C. Revkin that’s worth reading if you missed it. Among the causes of last week’s blackout, they reported, is an unregulated energy market in which private companies have no incentives to build transmitters, and industry monitors have no power to enforce reliability rules. Then there are the groups who oppose construction of new transmitters. (Tom DeLay went on Fox News Sunday to denounce these “BANANA extremist environmentalists,” i.e., people who would “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.”)

The Times launched a mini-crusade over the weekend, publishing two anti-deregulation op-eds on Saturday (one by Richardson and one by The American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner). The lead editorial that day said the most important question after figuring out the technical cause of the blackout is deciding if it’s time for the government to step in. A Week in Review piece offered raw numbers to back up the deregulation indictment. Newsday also probed the cause of the blackout, including Tom McGinty’s August 16 investigation, which ran under the deceptive headline “Whatever It Was, It Was Big.”

Maybe it’s not news that the Times and Newsday take a dim view of deregulation. More surprising was an op-ed in the August 16 New York Post, in which the Post‘s state editor, Fredric U. Dicker, ripped Pataki, explaining that the state legislature has known about the vulnerability of the power grid for years. Dicker called on the governor to go back to Albany and focus on the “critical question” of “upgrading New York’s transmission lines in the age of utility deregulation.”

The Pataki critique grows louder day by day. On August 17, The New York Times‘ James C. McKinley Jr. reported that the blackout has revived an old debate in Albany. As it turns out, Pataki personally introduced deregulation of the state energy industry in 1996—a move that critics say has resulted in an antiquated and overtaxed transmission system.

Meanwhile city health agencies continue to say more tests must be done before they can determine whether most city beaches are safe. Ever notice how the people with the most info sometimes act like they have don’t have any answers?

French Connection

Around 4:30 p.m. on August 14, as New York Times editors were scrambling to organize their blackout coverage, the lights must have been already out in the newsroom of the International Herald Tribune—because the August 15 print edition of the IHT made no mention of the blackout at all. The omission was striking, given that the New York Times Company recently acquired full ownership of the Paris-based IHT and supplies much of the international paper’s news coverage, which is in turn read by travelers around the world.

How did they miss the story? Chalk it up to bad timing—Paris is six hours ahead of us, which means the IHT‘s evening deadline arrives at 4:45 p.m. New York time. The blackout was reported on the wires and CNN by about 4:30. Around the same time, the IHT‘s Washington-based U.S. correspondent, Brian Knowlton, filed a short piece, but editors decided not to use it. Knowlton declined to comment.

“It was a decision we made reluctantly,” said a source in the Paris newsroom. “We had five grafs, and we didn’t know if it would all be over in 15 minutes. If it had happened half an hour earlier, we would have led with it.”

A Times spokesperson attributed the omission to “deadline limitations,” pointing out that several blackout stories appeared on the IHT website on August 15. The print edition has been catching up ever since.

‘News’ Kicks It

The New York Daily News has finally given the New York Post a black eye. The News printed more than 1 million copies of its August 15 special blackout edition, while the Post printed only 250,000 that day, less than half its usual run. Why? Because the Post is printed in the Bronx, while the News prints in Jersey City. The News‘ victory is ironic, because the Post likes to brag that its Bronx press delivers superior color photos.

But when the lights went out, substance triumphed over style. Though both papers had backup generators for their newsrooms, Post computers began running out of juice soon after the Bronx printer went down. The Post borrowed the Bergen Record‘s printer, but the next day’s edition was thin, with only five pages of blackout coverage.

Meanwhile, News staffers were in high gear, producing 27 pages of blackout news for Friday’s edition. Extra fuel for the generators made it possible to finish the job. On August 17, a News sidebar whacked the Post and repeated praise for its Friday paper. “It was a terrific edition by a terrific staff,” said executive editor Michael Goodwin.

At the Voice, we have no backup generators. Our Cooper Square offices remained dark until about 9 p.m. Friday, when the Lower East Side was the last neighborhood in the city to get its power back. The Voice e-mail system and Internet connection were down until noon on Monday—which meant the editors and staff scrambled in our own way to get this issue out.