Josh Fox and Gasland: Does The Media Prefer Smoke?

Earlier this week, when documentary film maker Josh Fox was escorted out of House chambers, it was the perfect marriage of drama and optics. And, like most instances of Hollywood visiting D.C., the facts become something closer to art; everybody sees something different in the end product. Watching the director cuffed in chambers provokes instant reactions in many, yet the details were quotidian, rather than dramatic. Fox did not secure credentials to shoot the meeting, but he showed up with cameras anyway and when he refused to leave, the bracelets came out.

Part of the furor behind this event was due to the fact that the media has largely embraced Josh Fox as an unassailable voice of reason in the growing natural gas debate. His film Gasland is largely responsible for the terms “fracturing”, and “fracking” entering the public vernacular, and he has been an outspoken voice against the drilling practices of energy companies. What is revealing, however, is the lack of journalistic curiosity that has taken place concerning Fox and his film. It appears that since the movie is so beloved — Gasland is, after all, an Academy Award-nominated documentary -– most of those in the media have felt no need to look upon things objectively.

And yet, there are many reasons to do so. As the nation grapples with an ongoing energy challenge, the natural gas sector has become a booming faction. You would think that with the controversy and the import, journalists would be eager to delve into the matter. Instead there seems to be just as much effort made to defend Fox and to cast his critics in the light of being industry sycophants. This is surprising because, just approaching this issue from the standpoint of critical cinematic analysis, you get hit with many inconsistencies that are cause for looking deeper into the matter.

That sober presentation of fact in Gasland runs into trouble with just a prosaic detail. Fox places himself central in the story by stating his family home resides in one featured area of natural gas drilling. Other residents have challenged his claim of being a local of the Pennsylvania area, describing the home as a summer residence for his family. Fox does in fact live, and conducts business, in New York City. When asked to explain this detail he cagily explains, “Milanville (PA) is the only consistent home I’ve had my whole life.” He also obliquely describes his familial property as “the centering point of my life.” This differs somewhat from “primary residence,” and it is an example of how many facts in his film carry a curious interpretational definition.

It was one year ago that Gasland was heady in its awards campaign for the 2011 Oscar ceremony when much controversy regarding the documentary was bandied about. The New York Times was one of the few outlets to actually hold up the prismatic allegations of both sides to scrutiny, albeit tucked away deep in the BUSINESS section with an Energy & Environment column. In it, they analyze many of the contentions made in the film and you need not delve deep into arcane industry terminology to see obfuscations and errors. These seem broad enough to at least cast the film in a questionable light.

One example of his factual problems is when Fox describes “fracking fluid.” The film describes it as, “a mix of 596 chemicals,” and Fox describes those chemicals as being “proprietary,” meaning the companies do not need to disclose them to the EPA. What actually is taking place here is that 596 is the number of chemicals that can be used in the process, but the number employed in fracking is generally around a dozen, and they comprise only a small fraction of “fracking fluid” – 98% of it is water and sand. He is also wrong about the proprietary aspect. The chemicals used are all revealed, it is the composition formula that is held in check. Compare it to a bottle of, say, bar-b-que sauce, where the ingredients are listed on the label but the recipe is the trade secret.

In another passage of the film Fox blames a massive fish kill in a Washington County, Pa., creek to natural gas drilling. However, an EPA report concerning that event found the cause to be an area coal mine had illegal runoff, leading to a toxic algae bloom. That report was released in 2009, predating the film. Fox should have been aware of this. Regarding another environmental concern, Gasland reported that gas fields in the Wyoming area, “are directly in the path of the thousand-year-old migration corridor of pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and sage grouse. And yeah, each of these species is endangered and has suffered a significant decline of their populations since 2005.” The problem? For starters, the pronghorn and the mule deer were not endangered, as Fox claimed. This may be considered a relatively minor, but not less glaring, piece of erroneous hysteria. In many of the drilling areas, the populations of the deer and antelope actually increased from 2005, when the film said drilling began and caused declines. So how did Fox miss that? There is also the detail regarding the grouse: it is not a migratory species, so that contention is also flawed. The Times piece cites that while its numbers are decreasing, factors such as urban development and area wind turbines are also to blame.

So then what of the movie’s signature scene? Josh Fox is seen in the kitchen of some Colorado residents and he manages to create a fireball and a sustained flame from the water coming out of a kitchen sink tap. It is a riveting piece of video. He uses a lighter and the running WATER ignites. Hard to dispute that kind of visual. And yet, another documentary film maker has done exactly that. Phelim McAleer is possibly the cinematic antithesis of Josh Fox. McAleer has produced a pair of films exploring what he sees as flaws in the environmental movements. During a question and answer session regarding Gasland, McAleer asked Fox about the fact that the state of Colorado conducted studies finding alarming amounts of gas naturally occurring in the water supply, as far back as 1976. This was predating the practice of fracking by decades. When asked by McAleer why this was not featured in the film, Fox declared that it was not relevant to the narrative. Then Fox himself volunteered that there were news reports of people igniting their tap water as far back as 1936. So why would that kind of revelation not spark a little interest in journalistic circles?

Now, as a film maker, Fox is responsible for, and ultimately granted that right with declaring what does and does not show up in a title of his making. What is at issue however is the light amount of investigation behind many of his claims in the movie. With just some of the discrepancies listed above it would seem to warrant further exploration of the issue, either to ferret out the truth or to dispel the criticisms. Instead of his veracity being called into question Fox has mostly been held up as a paragon of the righteous getting the truth out to the public. The drilling issue is one that demands questions into its practice, but there is also a responsibility to show curiosity into those on the other side of the issue as well.

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