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Prior Restraint

Revealing the true story on smart grid development.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2008

I’ve worked hard over my career to maintain good relationships with public relations people. It’s not always easy. Too often PR people push me to publish things that might be important to their clients, but just don’t fit into the magazine’s mission or serve its readers. But what’s worse is when PR people try to keep an important story out of the magazine.

That happened this month. When the lawyers at a major Midwestern utility company found out about a story we were running (“Demonstrating the Smart Grid ”), the utility’s PR representative asked us—with consequences implied if we refused—to remove the parts that discussed the company’s pilot projects.

At first my journalist’s hackles went up and I was inclined to ignore the … er, request. As the journal of record for the U.S. utility industry, Fortnightly has a duty to report the facts, thoroughly and in good faith, without fear or favor. I take that duty seriously. But on a few occasions over my 20-year career I’ve omitted certain text because a source wanted it that way. In each case there was a greater good at stake—sometimes a long-term relationship that deserved consideration—and I gritted my teeth and accepted the compromise.

This was one of those times, and I’m happy to say the downside was relatively minor. Namely, the story doesn’t identify the company that undertook this particular project. At the same time, the episode yielded an upside—insight into what’s happening in a smart grid related rate case in one of the country’s largest deregulated states.

Smart Grid Rider

When I learned why the company’s lawyers wanted me to kill this innocuous and complimentary article, I realized behind their reasons was hiding an even more important story.

In this case, consumer advocates are challenging the utility’s smart grid investment plans. The utility representative told me advocates were arguing the company’s grid is already as smart as it needs to be to deliver reliable service—particularly given the kinds of incremental advancements described in our story—and the facts reported in the story could be used against the company in litigation involving a billion-dollar rate case.

After considering the pros and cons of acceding to the company’s wishes, I agreed not to publish the company’s name—largely because it didn’t make a big difference in the story, but more importantly it introduced an interesting angle that wasn’t there otherwise. Also the company agreed to make its executives available for on-the-record interviews for future coverage on this subject—namely, the challenges of getting smart grid investments into the rate base. So ultimately readers would gain more insight than if we just ran the story as it was. That’s the kind of compromise I can accept.

What I learned later, however, suggested maybe I shouldn’t have made that compromise. It seems the utility wasn’t entirely honest with me.

First, the primary consumer advocacy organization in the state hasn’t filed any lawsuit in

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