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Anatomy of Bias: How Vermont media pimps for the F-35 bomber

Development of the F-35 fighter-bomber began in 2001 and has grown into the most expensive military weapons program in history, so it probably wouldn’t be surprising if a local TV affiliate of a network owned by a major defense contractor ran a week-long series called “Investigating the F-35” that was less news than a 20-minute infomercial for the military product.

That’s what WPTZ Burlington did during the second week of November, showing reporter David Schneider taking a trip to Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base to listen to F-35 testing there, but not doing much investigating.   In fact he mostly avoided the hard questions about the F-35 that have contributed to increasing resistance to basing it in the middle of Vermont’s only metropolitan area.

The reports gave little idea of the depth and complexity of objections to having a nuclear-capable offensive weapon based in Burlington, and omits any reference to the deceptive and coercive tactics of the F-35’s supporters, who include most of Vermont’s political leadership whose argument so far is job-promising and flag-waving.  Extendedcritiques of this series appear on the “F-35 in South Burlington” website started in September 2010.

WPTV Listen to F-35s in Florida

In Part 1 of the WPTZ series, the reporter accepts at face value the reasons a couple of Marine Corps colonels think the F-35 is terrific, without even hinting on the problems that have put the project a decade behind schedule and about 100% over budget as its costs rise toward $400 billion with no clear end in sight.   Instead, the report characterizes the F-35 as a “model of modern engineering,” even though one of the colonels notes that “this system is in its immaturity.”

In Part 2, the reporter observes and carries out sound tests that he emphasizes are not scientific.  He discovers that F-16s using after-burners make more noise than F-35s without after-burners, pretty much settling a question that wasn’t raised.  But he ended the segment with no follow-up for a colonel’s provocative comment that: “I think you’ll find that we will operate the airplane to be the best neighbors as we can be, but we need some time to figure out what that is as well.”

Burlington’s nearest neighbors to the proposed F-35 base are largely of the opinion that the best neighbor the F-35 could be would be to be someone else’s neighbor, but Schneider didn’t get to that question anywhere in the five reports.

In Part 3, the reporter spends still more time describing various noise levels, but manages to avoid mentioning that the Air Force’s own environmental impact statement states unequivocally that the FF-35 will make about twice as much peak noise as the F-16s currently based in Burlington.  He does get a colonel to comment about the community that “We are their Guard, and we want to be good neighbors.”

The reporter does not ask the colonel how wanting to be a good neighbor squares with the Air Force estimate that as many as 3,000 homes in Winooski and South Burlington will be rendered uninhabitable, and thus unsalable on the open market.

Fact-Checking Can Be So Time-Consuming

In Part 4, the reporter talks to a Winooski resident who expects to have to move.  But when she tells him the Air Force environmental impact statement is flawed because it’s based on date from the 2000 censes instead of the 2010 census, he doesn’t bother to check this easily verifiable assertion.  (A letter from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force last July says: “I want to assure you that Burlington… was scored correctly in 2009[emphasis added].  The Air Force has refused to make this scoring public.)

Schneider also refers to “a petition that garnered more than 10,700 signatures,” but he leaves hanging the “question how many of those people who signed the petition actually live in the affected areas.”  He does not mention the deceptive nature of this “petition,” which shows clearly on camera.  He does talk to a real estate agent with a clear conflict of interest to the effect that home values won’t suffer, but he leave out the factor that sustains home values in the uninhabitable zones – that the Federal Aviation Administration has a program to buy these homes eventually.

Nor did the reporter connect this circumstance with his interview with UVM professor Arthur Woolf’s observation about the consequences of an F-35 base in Burlington: “Almost always the case is that when there’s costs, the costs are impacted on a relatively small number of people and the benefits are widely diffused.”  There was no follow-up question about whether this was a justified transfer of wealth, or a form of class warfare, or was motivated by the immigrant communities it would displace.

Valparaiso, Florida, Suffers Its F-35s Painfully

In Part 5, the report goes back to Valparaiso, Florida, where the F-35 base at Eglin threatened to destroy about a third of the city’s residential area.  After significant popular resistance, the Air Force agreed to mitigating its impact by changing some flight paths, but tensions remain high enough that the mayor was too uneasy to go on camera.

The fight over f-35 basing in Florida was divisive, especially pitting those most directly impacted against people living father away would wouldn’t hear much noise but wanted the presumed economic benefit as in Burlington, although the comparison was not mentioned.  Valparaiso has only a handful of test F-35s flying there now, but unlike Burlington, the Air Force plans a full complement of as many as 59.

The series of reports ended with the news anchors and reporter offering some light fear-mongering, noting that if the National Guard were to leave, then the City of Burlington would have to pick up the costs of fire fighting to the tune of $2.5 million per year plus “millions in start-up costs.”  Capping the moment with a nice Fox News touch, the female anchor said, “Wow!”

Deceptive Petition from Chamber of Commerce

The suggestion that, if there’s no F-35 base in Burlington, then the Vermont Air National Guard (VTANG) may be shut down completely is an extortionate threat that was floated by Gen. Michael Dubie last spring and by others since.  But the Air Force has not said anything officially about the future of VTANG and the speculation keeps being reported as a realistic possibility.

The petition mentioned above, with the 10,700 supposed signatures, used the same threat in a manner designed to mislead possible signers.  Drafted by the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation (GBIC) and distributed with the help of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce (LCCC), the petition was placed at gas stations, convenience stores, and similar locations across northwest Vermont.

The goal of the petition was modest enough, asking the city council of Burlington to “abandon” its public vote in opposition to basing F-35s in South Burlington.  But the casual reader would never know that from the petition’s headline: “SAVE THE GUARD” in large letters, or the slightly smaller subhead “Petition in Support of the F-35 at the Vermont Air National Guard.”

Media Taken in by Petition Con

The petition itself is two pages of single-spaced text full of expressed beliefs, unsupported predictions, and assertions of fact without sources for independent verification.  Its promoters presented it at a press conference on October 25, claiming that it had 10,471 signatures, without saying how they were counted, sorted for residency, or check for duplication.   There was no need, as Vermont media reported the petition uncritically, as presented:

  • Vermont Public Radio’s (VPR) Kirk Carapezza posted online headline: “Vt. Business Leaders Collect 11,000 Signatures to Support F35 [sic] Basing” over a story that that not only accepted the deceptive premise that the F-35 and VTANG are interchangeable, but also repeated unsupported attacks on critics of the F-35 whose critiques have yet to be refuted.
  • WPTZ similarly touted: “Vt. Business leaders show support for F-35s – 11,000 signatures gathered.”  WPTZ goes on to describe the actual substance of the petition as a Vermont Public Radio report.
  • Seven Days’ Andy Bromage had a story headed: “Business Leaders Accuse F-35 Opponents of “Fear Mongering,” Deliver 10,000 Petitions [sic] in support of Fighter Plane.”  Most of his article repeats the unsupported assertions of the promoters at face value.  Only in the final paragraphs does he note that the opponents have “credibility,” without giving any of them a chance to speak, never mind put the “fear mongering” label where it belongs.
  • The Burlington Free Press story by Lynn Monty was headed “F-35 support petition thousands strong” and offered only the opinions of the petition supporters, including the easily checked false assertion that the Air Force impact study was “a boiler plate document that was not specific to our area.”

Several reports attributed opinions to opponents that were, in fact, findings by the Air Force in its impact report.

None of the media identified their inherent conflicts of interest, since the sponsors of the petition also represented advertisers or, as with VPR, the advertisers called “underwriters.”

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