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Mixing gas & ink: reporting on Arkla-Arkoma becomes an issue in the most difficult assignment to cover since Grand Gulf.

Mixing Gas & Ink

Reporting On Arkla-Arkoma Becomes An Issue In The Most Difficult Assignment To Cover Since Grand Gulf

Controversy over Arkla Inc.'s sale of gas leases to Arkoma Production Inc., and the utility's buyback of proven reserves from the production company - one of the most widely reported and complicated Arkansas business deals in recent years - has spilled into yet another area of interest.

Business intrigue, personal relationships, political charges and effects on natural gas rates aside, media coverage of the whole mess has become an issue.

John Brummett of the Arkansas Gazette stirred things up royally in a column May 10 asserting that the Arkansas Democrat is decidedly favorable to Sheffield Nelson, former Arkla chairman and currently a Republican candidate for governor.

Brummett states that Tony Moser, an Arkansas Democrat reporter, has gotten too close to Nelson to be effective in his coverage of the Arkla-Arkoma deal. Brummett notes that John Robert Starr, Democrat managing editor, agreed that Moser was too close to Nelson.

Following Brummett's diatribe, Starr wrote a column elaborating on his statement to Brummett about Moser's relationship with Nelson. Starr didn't deny making the statement, nor did he defend Moser. Rather, he indicted the journalism profession by saying, "Most reporters get too close to the people they cover." (Starr also went on to criticize Brummett for traditionally being too close to the people he covers.)

Brummett was so provocative his boss, Keith Moyer, the Gazette editor, received a letter from Nelson. Rather than a communication for the Forum page, it was marked "PERSONAL -- NOT FOR PUBLICATION," and carried a notation that Brummett, Starr and Walter E. Hussman Jr., Democrat publisher, also received copies.

Moser gave Arkansas Business a copy of the letter.

Nelson writes that Brummett published "a grossly inaccurate accusation.... I know of nothing that would indicate that Tony Moser, the Democrat reporter Mr. Brummett attacked as being 'too close' to me, has any bias whatsoever in my favor. Quite the contrary, he has covered the Arkla-Arkoma investigation far more aggressively than any other reporter in Arkansas."

The candidate notes that the Democrat, not the Gazette, hired consultants who reviewed the deal and were "highly critical" of him.

Nelson says Moser's work has been more critical of him than any other reporting, especially in two instances. Besides Arkla-Arkoma, Nelson mentioned Moser's coverage in 1980 of Nelson's role in recruiting a basketball player for the University of Arkansas and a subsequent NCAA investigation.

A Friend Of Moser

"I will say that I do know Tony well, simply by the fact he has been covering me for a long time," Nelson writes. "We have a friendly relationship in the way that public figures and reporters frequently do, and as I do with some of your writers, but nothing more or less. There is certainly no bias in what Tony writes for the Democrat."

In a postscript, Nelson writes that a poll, done for him, indicated the Democrat "had done more damage to my campaign and me than the Gazette."

Moser becomes very agitated when discussing criticism of him.

Asked about why he has taken the tack he has in writing about Arkla-Arkoma, he says, "I didn't take a tack. The tack I took was to practice good journalism."

He says, "I am taking the tack of spending countless hours - literally weeks - reading incredibly arcane gas industry documents from five different states.

"I'm taking the tack of trying to distill truth for our readers in 25-and 30-inch stories that must be culled from stacks of papers that would reach far above the ceiling of the newsroom. If anyone does not think that is the proper tack I welcome their advice."

What The Facts Show

Moser says the facts show the deal was risky for Jerry Jones' Arkoma, but proved financially lucrative for him as well as a wise move for Arkla.

Journalists have "anti-wealth and pro-scandal bias," he says. "All too often, when a reporter senses the facts are eroding his scandal, he will practice damage control to save his scandal rather than simply allowing the facts to speak for themselves."

He says, "If I have to be accused of bias because I prefer facts over fantasy, so be it." But he does say, "I'm so sick of this story, I wish I were not on it anymore."

While Moser, after his voluminous research, appears to have reached conclusions about the matter, Brummett says neither he nor other Gazette editors, to his knowledge, have reached any conclusions about it and are still trying to sort out the facts from the entanglements presented in the case.

In a column Starr asserts that his paper's coverage appears to be pro-Nelson and the Gazette's appears to be anti-Nelson because of the exclusive sources used at each publication.

"I'm sure he knows more about where he's getting his news than from where we're getting ours," Brummett says.

While choosing not to criticize either paper, Thomas A. Mars, a Springdale attorney seeking to prove ratepayers were wronged by the deal, says people need to read everything they can to get a good picture of the case.

"Two hundred fifty pages of depositions cannot be reported completely and accurately in less than 250 pages," Mars says. "Out of necessity, some things are going to be omitted."

PHOTO : MEDIA CRITIC: Sheffield Nelson defends the Arkansas Democrat, denying if favors him in its coverage of Arkla-Arkoma.
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Title Annotation:Arkla Inc. sale of gas leases to Arkoma Production Inc., buyback of proven reserves under investigation by Arkansas Public Service Commission; newspaper coverage of business dealings questioned
Author:Kern, David F.
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 21, 1990
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