Governor wants newspapers' help on debate over ANWR

Murkowski says owners outside state could exercise influence

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2006

Gov. Frank Murkowski says he wants the help of Alaska newspaper publishers to explain to readers outside of the state the benefits of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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Given that media groups owned by companies based outside of the state have an interest in the affairs of Alaska, they should consider the merits of their news content, he said Thursday.

"I'm going to challenge a portion of our media because a significant portion of our media is owned outside of Alaska," he said. "They have significant influence with their newspapers outside of Alaska."

The governor said the message he wants Americans in the Lower 48 states to hear is that Alaska can be a domestic source of oil while the nation considers weaning itself off of foreign suppliers; opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling would meet that need.

Morris Communications, the parent company of the Juneau Empire, can influence readers in Georgia, where the firm is based, he said. One of Georgia's two senators does not support ANWR drilling, the governor said.

Murkowski said he plans to contact the owners of the media outlets and ask for their assistance.

"I'm not suggesting they slant the news," Murkowski said. He wants the media to advocate what is "good" for the communities and the state they represent.

Bob Steele, senior ethics professor at the Poynter Institute, a think tank for journalism in St. Petersburg, Fla., said Murkowski is not the first politician to try to influence newspaper owners to buy into his arguments, although others are usually less overt.

"I certainly hope that he's not arguing the news coverage move into the advocacy of a particular position rather than independent, fair and accurate coverage on this important public policy matter," Steele said.

Robert Hale, publisher of the Juneau Empire, said he doubts newspapers in Alaska will get on board with the governor's plan - or sway members of Congress in other states.

"I don't see them serving an advocacy role for the governor's agenda," Hale said.

Alaska newspapers have supported a number of the governor's initiatives in the past, but they also reserve the right to be critical of the administration, Hale added.

"It seems like anytime there is criticism, then it's just a blanket statement that we are dead set against them," Hale said. "And that's nonsense."

Marilyn Romano, publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, said the newspaper is one of the biggest advocates for opening ANWR. But Romano said it's not the newspaper's stance to dictate the editorial policy of affiliated newspapers.

"Dean Singleton - who owns the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - it is his belief that each newspaper in each individual market should be run independently of any other newspaper," Romano said.

The News-Miner and the Kodiak Daily Mirror are owned by a family trust, and two of those owners sit on the board of the Denver-based MediaNews Group. Larger papers in the MediaNews chain include the Denver Post, the Detroit News and The Salt Lake Tribune.

The Anchorage Daily News is owned by McClatchy, a media company that recently announced it is buying Knight Ridder, the nation's second-largest newspaper chain.

Since the beginning of this year's legislative session, the governor has said Alaska's image in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere has been "distorted," and that the state is regarded as having a "take-take" attitude. The labeling of bridge proposed projects in Anchorage and Ketchikan as "bridges to nowhere" is also a sore point for the administration.

Murkowski is requesting $150,000 for a study that would help the state form a national public relations campaign to influence opinions outside of Alaska.

The governor's comments follow a Wednesday speech by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in which he said most Alaska publishers are poor advocates for the state.

Stevens said former publishers such as Bill Snedden of the News-Miner and Bob Atwood of the Anchorage Times were instrumental in Alaska's fight for statehood.

"Unfortunately, other than in Ketchikan, there are no publishers like Snedden and Atwood willing to be advocates, not critics," Stevens said.

Ketchikan Daily News publisher Lew Williams III said reporters from the Lower 48 states repeatedly write inaccurate stories, on topics such as the timber industry or the bridge projects.

"When they come up here to report on it, their story is pretty much already made up in their mind before they come into town," Williams said.

Newspapers used to have stronger proponents of state projects, he added.

"It's sort of sad to see how ... newspapers from (the Empire) to the Anchorage Daily News blast everything," Williams said.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, also a former managing editor of the Juneau Empire, said it's difficult to represent a view of Alaska when there may be 650,000 different opinions, or one for every resident.

It ought to concern Alaskans when people begin looking at the state in ways that can be harmful, Elton said. But waging a media campaign against people with a "distorted" opinion of Alaska is not the best way to go.

"You want to speak to issues in a way that bring people together, rather than speak in a way that pushes people apart," Elton said.

• The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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